In the space of a year, we suddenly have two ambitious World War II movies to conjure. Who’d have thought it? Back when Bob Dole was running for president, nobody gave a flip about WWII heroics. I recall seeing a highly partisan Democratic audience laughing at a TV comedian’s jokes about Dole’s withered arm, incurred in combat in Italy in 1943. They didn’t have to do that – Dole was so beatable I could have successfully run against him. But the audience yucked it up; they thought that floppy arm was really funny. Also Dole was old, as old as World War II; imagine that. Now the World War II generation is being treated to such veneration that even a chowderhead like Tom Brokaw is able to climb the best-seller list with a book about them: The Best Generation.
Much of this boomer sentiment ought probably to be laid at the door of Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan, after all, was instantly proclaimed the greatest war film ever lensed, and Spielberg let it be known that all those old pokey black-and-white rah-rah films about the war – embarrassments like The Sands of Iwo Jima – were naive, shamelessly patriotic, even propagandistic. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose backed him up. In Entertainment Weekly, Ambrose said, “In other war movies, when an American G.I. gets hit, the commanding officer can write home that he never knew what hit him, that he didn’t suffer. Well, it almost never happens that way.” So Spielberg is giving us the real war. Question: how does Spielberg know what the real war was like? A. By talking to historian Stephen E. Ambrose. Q: How does Ambrose know? A. By talking to veterans. (One of the film’s historical sources is Ambrose’s own oral history, D-Day.)
Spielberg’s model of artistry derives almost entirely from popular American genre cinema. Lately, in his tortuous High Serious Didactic Mode, he has taken up history as his particular specialty, in Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. Very easy history it is: the Holocaust was evil, Slavery was evil, and WWII, fought on fronts from Norway to Australia, from Russia to Okinawa, was won by Americans on Omaha Beach. It was won by citizen soldiers, teachers of English composition from Pennsylvania who used chewing gum to devise a mirror for seeing around rocks – American know-how and can-do backyard tinkering. Each of these films is preachy, moralistic, and slick – pop-cult history that plays sensationally at the box office and doubtless in private screenings in the Hamptons. Schindler’s List does have many great moments, all of them featuring Nazis, and above all when Ralph Fiennes is on screen. (He lost the Best Supporting Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.)
Everybody talks about Ryan’s stunning opening twenty minutes: the slaughter on Omaha Beach. But the film actually begins (and ends) with a full-screen image of the flag – stylized, silk-screen effect – and, much, much worse, with a WWII vet in a wind-breaker with his echt American Midwest family trailing behind, walking among the white crosses of the American cemetery in Normandy: Private Ryan as Senior Citizen. I have walked among those crosses, and the visit to that cemetery is always moving, but the family in the film looks as though they all rode in an RV from Iowa to Normandy. Later they’ll take the kids to EuroDisney. (There is a certain truth to this scene, however: the parking lots at the Memorial are always full of tourist buses, and the cemetery is always full of large Americans dressed in oversized leisure togs. But in Spielberg’s portrayal of Americans then or now, I didn’t sense any irony. Irony is not one of Spielberg’s modes – sincerity is. I wonder if he tears up as much as Bill Clinton. The past is teary, no doubt about it.)
When Citizen Ryan locates the cross he’s looking for, Spielberg cuts to a close-up of the old veteran’s face, his eyes, then dissolves to Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, where a Higgins boat full of men praying, puking, and planning, unloads its cargo to withering machine-gun fire, deep water, and a beach strewn with Rommel’s handiwork, steel obstacles and barbed wire. The hand-held cameras try to create what supposedly was, and probably is, the total chaos of such action, but I never felt I was watching anything except a recreation of a landing in a movie. A man who has had his arm shot off goes back to retrieve it (a moment much celebrated in reviews), but to me he was an extra losing a mechanical limb going back to retrieve it (Spielberg to Extra: “This is good: you lose your arm, and you go get it”). Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, however, was haunted by the mayhem: “Days after, I was having flashbacks.” Truly, for some, a war movie is hell.
I have one technical question about the opening cemetery sequence: the viewpoint character into whose eyes (and brain) we are introduced in the scene in the cemetery is Private Ryan – but Private Ryan (Matt Damon), as we learn later, was not at Omaha Beach. He was a paratrooper with the 101st that dropped into Normandy the night of the morning of the invasion. Private Ryan is somewhere else, and he has to be found. The viewpoint character in the Omaha Beach section, and the rest of the film, is Captain Miller (played well enough by Tom Hanks), who has a kind of plain, meat & potatoes World War II look, unlike several of the younger, Gen-X actors in the film. So what are we to make of Private Ryan’s memory of Omaha Beach, when he wasn’t there? (Friends tell me I’m being picky, but if there’s one thing a filmmaker should be careful of, it’s point-of-view.)
After the landing, praised by apparently everyone, the movie enters into a familiar pattern: the difficult patrol. (Norman Mailer first thought of calling The Naked and the Dead, “The Long Patrol.”) Patrol films take a small unit, a squad or a company, and subject them to the fear, death, heroism, and loathing induced by combat. A lot of male bonding usually occurs along the way. Spielberg’s film does all of this reasonably well, though there are a few bumpy moments, as when Ted Danson turns up, in a brief appearance as a Captain. These celebrity cameos seem to be irresistible to directors making war films. In the old days, for officers they used craggy lions of the cinema like John Wayne and Henry Fonda, and they usually threw in a few well-known comedians (Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, and Red Buttons have all appeared in dungarees – very unsettling) or young teen idols like Frankie Avalon or Paul Anka – also grating. (The Thin Red Line cameos John Travolta as an unconvincing general, George Clooney as an officer who makes a brief speech, and John Savage as a wild-eyed soldier – the role he has been playing since The Deer Hunter.)
But Spielberg’s most irritating passages are the scenes of Americana, back home in Apple Pie country. These include a sequence in a huge office where legions of women are typing up casualty reports, and a long scene in which General George C. Marshall (played by Harve Presnell, the father in Fargo – still wearing the same bad set of dentures) reads from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a Civil War mother who lost several sons. The General just happened to have the original lying around his office, it appears – and by the time he was through reading, so sonorously, that letter, I for one was reaching for a hanky. The letter is read aloud one other time in the film, making it twice too many. Spielberg loves the easy moral. We also witness a scene set in the place Private Ryan was raised: rural Iowa as imagined by Norman Rockwell. It must have been deeply pleasing to have Private Ryan grow up in the same vicinity as Superman. Although in Superman, as I recall, the pictorial hommages owed more to Andrew Wyeth than to Rockwell.
Spielberg’s America is a place I don’t want to visit. That rural paradise in the film, for example, blithely ignores the economic facts of the era the war brought to an end: the Great Depression. This is something that only great novels – like The Naked and the Dead – get right. (Now that I’ve brought it up, let’s all hope Spielberg never does The Depression.) Perhaps the greatest legacy of Spielberg is his gift to millions of American louts who don’t know when World War II took place, let alone the dates of Pearl Harbor, V.E. Day, or the dropping of the A-bomb (as for World War I, forget about it). For these citizens, he has frozen forever in their minds the idea that World War II was Omaha Beach. There were five landing beaches in all, but you only have to remember one – because that’s where the war was won, and it was won entirely by American soldiers, the grandfathers of yuppies. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of June 6, 1944, but the war was, after all, a world war, conducted on many fronts, with a body count of 50 million plus, and a whole bunch of Russians (20 million) bit it on the Eastern Front, and there were a lot of Americans who gave their lives in places perhaps as awful as Omaha Beach. For those who fought in the jungles and volcanic wastelands of the South Pacific, perhaps more awful. France, after all, had a thousand years of European settlement to render the land and cityscapes at least familiar. In the South Pacific, everything was strange and forbidding. There was a jungle and such creatures as it contained.
As Lincoln might say, it is both fitting and appropriate that The Thin Red Line gives us back that other war. Those who fought in the Pacific, like my father-in-law (fifty-two bombing missions, Silver Star), had almost no awareness at the time of the war going on in Europe. The war in the Pacific was plenty of war.
Unlike Spielberg’s film, Malick’s is based on a literary source, James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, itself based heavily upon the author’s experience in the 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army. Stationed in Hawaii in 1941, Jones was in the famous Schofield Barracks that morning in December when Japanese planes dived from the sky strafing the Army base. In January 1943, Jones landed on Guadalcanal with the 25th, sent there to relieve exhausted U.S. Marines. Later that month he suffered a head wound, an event that taught him that personal survival was entirely a matter of luck. Of his career as a soldier, Jones said with typical directness: “I went where I was told to go and did what I was supposed to do, but no more. I was scared shitless just about all of the time.”
Malick’s film gains from its grounding in an important novel. The film is difficult, ambiguous, thoughtful, disturbing, ironic, at times quite beautiful, and at times, when it departs from the novel to portray the Japanese in politically correct terms, irritating in its own right. But it never offers the easy nostalgia, the soothing nostrum of a nice little history lesson served up by syrupy Spielberg.
The film compresses the American combat experience on Guadalcanal – six months of fighting from August 1942 through February 1943 – into an indeterminate space of time. The fighting was prolonged and bloody. American casualties included 1,600 dead and 4,245 wounded; Japanese, nearly 15,000 dead (another 9,000 from disease) and l,000 taken prisoner. Malick chooses to concentrate the combat sequences on the daunting task of taking out some machine gun bunkers hidden in heavy grass on a ridge and later, on the overrunning of a Japanese camp, and a third sequence along a river. Such fighting occurred on Guadalcanal, as This Is Guadalcanal: The Original Combat Photography makes evident, but the main fighting was at night and in the terrifying form of Banzai attacks – all-out charges by Japanese soldiers that caused every American who ever witnessed them to think of the word “fanatical.” Historians today speak of Japanese bravery, but at the time the American view was more like astonishment.
Halfway through the film, Malick’s Japanese soldiers are faceless riflemen or machinegunners, but during the attack on the camp the Japanese suddenly begin to seem like the innocent Sioux in Little Big Man, overrun by powerful and relentless American forces. American soldiers exhibit some brutality toward the Japanese in the film, but there is little sense of the lengths to which each side actually went in a war without mercy. The Americans felt that the Japanese started the atrocity stuff, and stories of beheadings and ghastly mutilations of Americans circulated among the soldiers. They had big-picture history, too – the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March – to provide a context for Japanese ferocity encountered on island after island. E. B. Sledge, for example, in With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, recorded the following from his own observation: “In disbelief I stared at the face as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth.” Sledge’s book, which Paul Fussell calls “one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war,” is filled with details of barbaric behavior by the Japanese. But he also notes American barbarities, concluding: “The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.” It was a very nasty war, and Malick is wrong not to depict the Japanese more accurately. For corollary information on Japanese military practices, see Iris Chang’s recent book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust, which contains photographs of Chinese women with bayonets thrust into their genitalia.
Americans tended to collect parts of the dead, including gold teeth and enemy skulls. One such skull, “found on New Guinea” by an American sailor, was shipped to his girlfriend in Phoenix, Arizona. In a Life photograph in 1943, the pretty girl in the picture is gazing with rapt attention, a quiet smile on her lips, at the skull.
The absolute nastiness of ground combat in jungle conditions is something the film mostly misses. Heat, skin irritation, malaria, sores, torment from mosquitoes, diarrhea – all made life an ongoing misery, for Americans and Japanese alike. The film alludes several times to the need for water, but such physical lack is largely forgotten by the
audience in the excitement of action and danger. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is not attempted in the film, nor probably should it have been, because it could not be filmed without provoking grotesque laughter. The scene takes up four pages in the novel and is based on James Jones’ actual experience. The soldier Bead needs to relieve himself and makes his way to an isolated spot some distance away from the rest of the company. Squatting with his pants down, Bead is suddenly stumbled upon by a Japanese soldier. A terrible hand-to-hand fight to the death ensues, and Bead manages to kill the enemy. Bead is so embarrassed by his physical dirtiness, the shame of uncleanliness, that he never tells any of his buddies about the incident.
The jungle setting of the film is beautiful and at the same time disturbingly dangerous. My wife kept thinking of the opening lines of a biography of Jean Rhys, who grew up on a tropical island: “Nothing brings violence and death closer than an extreme abundance of life and beauty” (Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work). Malick uses the camera to depict the ant-like intrusion of man into a world of primordial rhythms, a lush, fulsome beauty which exists for nothing outside itself: the sea, the tall, waving grass that reminds us of the sea, the giant palm trees, the clear-flowing rivers, the beautiful, exotic animals and birds that look, unlike man, as though they belong in that place. The natives who live on the island appear to exist in a state of primitive grace, at peace with themselves and nature. In contrast are the Americans and the Japanese, who are t
ere to fight over control of an airfield and a thousand miles of Japanese expansionism radiating from Guadalcanal. It was the first big island battle of many to come – four years of it, one after another, each seemingly bloodier, costlier than the previous one, all leading to the expected invasion of the mother island itself, imperial Japan, scheduled for November, 1945. Everything that American forces experienced on these islands doomed them to believe that Japanese determination to defend their homeland would surpass, if possible, the fight-to-the-last-man attitude that marked their performance from 1942 to the summer of 1945, Guadalcanal to Okinawa.
All good combat films boil down to ground level explorations of terrain and terror. “Combat numbness” is Jones’ phrase for describing what takes hold of men under fire for protracted periods. The thousand-yard stare is a much observed phenomenon of men coming off the line. Malick manages to capture some of this among his young Americans, and even better, perhaps, is the role played by leadership in ordering, bullying, making men do what they least want to: putting themselves, as politicians never cease saying, “in harm’s way.” Nick Nolte is superb as an aging lieutenant colonel who sees the war as his big chance to prove himself, of capturing the dynamic of leadership, employing the whip of command to lash against the enormous lethargy of men who don’t want to move, who don’t want to die.
Some will find the film’s attempts at philosophical penetration too simplistic, pretentious, perhaps even at times jejeune. Through voice-over narration, the film literally asks more questions than I can recall seeing in any philosophical treatise. It also offers arresting insights into the nature of warfare, as when Sergeant Welsh (played compellingly by Sean Penn) realizes, “It’s about property” – an insight taken straight from the novel. But I was pleased to see an American film that did not divulge all of its meanings upon first viewing.
Don Graham is the author of No Name on the Bullet, a biography of Audie Murphy (1989). His most recent book is Giant Country: Essays on Texas. A novel, French Resistance, co-authored with his wife Betsy Berry, will be published by Boaz in spring 2000.