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Erik Lundegaard: The thin line between pathos and posturing

  • Article by: Erik Lundegaard
  • August 17, 2007 - 5:45 PM

For my birthday this year a friend gave me a DVD of one of my favorite movies, Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," but after I removed the cellophane and opened the case, something other than the DVD popped out: a magnetic ribbon, curling upon itself, wrapped in plastic. One side was covered in stars and stripes. The other was yellow, with these words printed in dark, bold script: "Support Our Troops."

My first thought: "You're kidding."

My second thought: "Who distributed this?"

My third thought: "Have they seen this movie?"

Then I looked at the words again, so innocuous that everyone must agree with them, and wished I could agree with them. I wished the words meant what they said. But they don't. They mean something else.

Turns out the ribbons were part of a promotion between Fox Home Entertainment and the USO to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. They were packaged with what Fox, in a 2005 news release, calls "the finest war classics in its arsenal": movies that "weave patriotic tales of bravery and treachery in unforgettable battles."The Thin Red Line?" It certainly depicts bravery in unforgettable battles, but it's not exactly patriotic. Or unpatriotic, for that matter. It just is.

The brunt of the film -- Charlie Company fighting to take a ridge protected by Japanese machine-gun fire -- could be the set piece in almost any movie about World War II. There's the fire-breathing officer, Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), who cares more about pleasing his superiors than he does for the lives of his men. He's constantly in the face of Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), who disobeys a direct order to take the ridge by frontal assault. "I've lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years," he tells a furious Tall, "and I will not order them all to their deaths." We're with Staros here. We're with the men.

Then the Japanese shelling stops, making Tall's frontal assault possible and productive and Staros' flanking suggestion seemingly unnecessary. We wonder: Is Staros too softhearted? Is someone like Tall necessary?

Eventually Staros is relieved of duty and shipped stateside. His men tell him he got a raw deal, but he voices our doubts. "The tough part is not knowing if you're doing any good," he says.

"The Thin Red Line" is full of scenes like this: moments that dislocate us, but which clarify with their very unknowing. In most war movies, once the goal is reached, once the ridge is taken, it's celebratory and triumphant. Here it's accompanied by mopping up in the mud, the killing of defenseless and insane Japanese soldiers, and a voice-over from the little-seen but often-heard Pvt. Train (John Dee Smith): "What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of light and life. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known."

Victory over the Japanese may be the immediate goal, in other words, but it isn't the ultimate goal. What is truly being striven for, in the film and in life, is unity: away from the duality of nature -- two nations war, two men fight, a man struggles within himself -- and toward the wholeness, the oneness, of God.

"Maybe all men got one big soul who everybody's a part of," Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) thinks. "All faces of the same man."

Pvt. Train echoes this thought: "Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now."

•••

So. "Support Our Troops."

Has any phrase been so abused in recent years? What these words have been used to justify; how they've been mangled; how they've divided us.

"The Thin Red Line" encompasses the expansive clarity of poetry -- the sense that life is more complex and beautiful than we will ever know -- while a "Support Our Troops" ribbon is part of the reductive, one-sided clarity of politics. It's reminiscent of the sloganeering of Col. Tall and the public posturing of Capt. Staros' replacement, Capt. Bosche (George Clooney). When Bosche first addresses his troops, he is full of false, paternal camaraderie. Meanwhile we hear the weary, cynical thoughts of Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn). "Everything a lie," Welsh thinks, as Bosche blathers on. "They want you dead, or in their lie." These lines could be the epitaph for our decade.

My ribbon never made it out of its cellophane. It still sits on my desk. It makes me sad.

"We were a family," Pvt. Train thinks near the end of the film. "How did it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned against each other? Each standing in the other's light. How did we lose the good that was given us?"

Erik Lundegaard, an editor at Minnesota Law & Politics, writes about movies for MSNBC and The Huffington Post.

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