DVD Review Of The Thin Red Line (1964)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/12/11
Journeyman film director Andrew Marton’s 1964 film version of James Jones’ novel, The Thin Red Line, is quite different from the 1998 film version by Terrence Malick. And almost all of those ways are inferior, despite there being a number of important scenes that are the same in both films. Having said that, the 99 minute long, black and white film is still a pretty good film, despite its cheap B movie level special effects, and pretty rotten acting. There is none of the high-minded philosophy of the later version, but this version, like its successor, still does not closely follow the novel. The screenplay, adapted by Bernard Gordon, is dull, straightforward, and adds no depth to the characters. Almost al of them are stereotypes, with the best elevated to off the rack types. The film’s score, by Malcolm Arnold, is sub-B film level bad- a mish-mash of stock tapes that make even the most benign scenes seem melodramatic. The film was filmed in Spain, and is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but the cinematography, by Manuel Berenguer, takes no advantage of the scenery, even though it is different from that of Guadalcanal, the battle that the film chronicles. Many of the battle scenes seem the level of television shows of the era, like The Rat Patrol, and reuse the requisite stock footage from the real war, two decades earlier. That the grain of the film, nor the terrain of the surroundings, are ill-matched means little, for this film is not ashamed to be what it is- hard-fisted pulp melodrama.
Aside from that, however,, this film is also a standard bildungsroman, following the ascension into manhood of young Private Doll (Keir Dullea, in his last major role before 2001: A Space Odyssey), pf C Company; the prototypical angry young man. He has just left his sexy wife, Judy (Merlin Yordan), seen in a flashback featuring lingerie that, in that era would be considered almost scandalous onscreen, after eight days of marriage, and is tormented by the gruff, but determined Sergeant Welsh (Jack Warden). Both characters are off the rack, but only Warden brings a gleam of depth to his role. Dullea looks too often like a zombie or deer caught in headlights. There is an over the top scene where he becomes the first in his platoon to kil a Jap, with his bare hands. He wrestles with the Jap in a river, then shoots him and pounds his head relentlessly into the ground, as his face agonally contorts. This would be bad enough, but, in the aforementioned sex flashback, where Doll gets calls from the Japs, asking what his number is- to see if it’s up, we get an overlay of the scene where Doll’s head is furiously pumping, as he kills the Jap, with a scene of him laying over his wife. While the mix of sex and violence is interesting, it’s so absurd to see the frantic death scene with the sex scene, that one laughs instead of being moved. Naturally, Doll and Welsh battle each other as they battle the Jap, with Welsh goading the hotheaded Doll on.
Other characters are the egomaniacal Colonel Tall (James Philbrook) and the do-gooding Captain Stone (Ray Daley), who clash over the casual loss of casualties that the colonel seems content in having. Their conflict comes to a head in a battle over a mined mountain pass called The Bowling Alley. Doll and Welsh eventually help the soldiers be able to get past it, but Stone’s refusal to blunder in costs him his command, and he is sent stateside by Tall. The platoon eventually takes over a Japanese stronghold, under their new captain, and while celebrating, later that night, by having Doll’s buddy, Private Fife (Robert Kanter)- who seems to have a homosexual crush on Doll, play drag Geisha, some Japs, who were hiding under the huts, counterattack, and almost wipe out C Company. After their success, Welsh goads Doll when he finds Fife dead, and the two men pummel each other, until Colonel Tall arrives. Despite his orders that another company will take over from them, in their mission to capture a cave fortress stronghold in a cliff, known as the Dancing Elephant, the remnants of C Company insist on participating. Doll and Welsh each perform some heroics, and Doll is the first to get inside a cave to take the battle to the Japs. The Americans eventually win, but when Welsh and others confront Doll he goes insane and tried to shoot them, a she has degenerated into the insensate and callous killing machine he accused Welsh and the Japs of being. Eventually he recovers, but a Jap Doll thought he had killed, was only playing possum, and tries to shoot Doll. Instead, and this was easily seen coming, Welsh takes the bullet for him, and dies in Doll’s arms, just another hunk of meat, as Welsh had called so many other Japanese and American dead.
The film originally opened with Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, and thinking of those film son a double bill, both mixing sex with violence, makes one miss the era when two films could be seen for a single ticket. In fact, while Malick’s film never explicitly reveals what the film’s title means, Marton’s film wastes little time in explaining, via Captain Stone, that the phrase is from an old Midwest saying, ‘There's only a thin red line between sanity and madness.’ The DVD, by Simitar Entertainment, has some interesting extras, such as bios on Dullea and Warden, but also six clips from genuine World War Two documentaries- the most interesting being a clip on the rescue of an American who evaded capture for 31 months, after the Japanese originally invaded Guam. That soldier, named George Tweed, had his tale told in a 1962 film, starring Jeffrey Hunter, called No Man Is An Island. There is also the original theatrical trailer, and a series of clickable features that has important historical facts about the Battle of Guadalcanal. There is no audio commentary track.
Overall, the DVD package is a solid one, but the film is merely mediocre,
albeit with some good moments. It is best watched as a curio piece (especially
for fans of Dullea’s career), and a companion to the infinitely superior
Terrence Malick film of 1998. That film is one of the more sublime expressions
of cinema in American history. This film is a ‘flick.’ But flicks have their
place, and this one’s will be next to its cousin. Insert any ‘strange
bedfellows’ comment at your leisure.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]
Return to Bylines