A beautiful, sumptuous travelogue released in 1998, the picture marked the end of Terrence Malick’s 20+ year absence from film and proved to be more “National Geographic” than James Jones. Ostensibly about an offensive during the Guadalcanal campaign, the film follows Privates Bell (Ben Chaplin) and Witt (Jim Caviezel) as they are deposited on a Pacific island to take an enemy air base deep inland. They are accompanied along the way by Private John Savage, Sergeants Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, Lieutenant John Cusack, Captains Elias Koteas and George Clooney, Colonel Nick Nolte, and General John Travolta. We are provided insight to only Koteas and Nolte (Koteas is a lawyer; Nolte is an angry military man who has been passed over). Everyone else is just there, without exposition.
Only Koteas and Cusack register, the former as a humanistic officer who cannot accept the slaughter of his men for a greater good and the latter as a brave underling who shows true leadership in a grave hour. Nolte is standard spit and scream (it is truly amazing how red he can make his face). Penn, Harrelson, Clooney, and Travolta are cardboard, and Reilly is given a short, hackneyed speech on how he has become hardened by the war. Savage in particular is really, really bad as a soldier who has cracked under the strain of combat. It’s hard to believe that Savage, so good in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was revived for such histrionics 20 years later.
The film is lush. At times, it is visually riveting, from the beauty of the ship cutting through the Pacific prior to disembarkation of its armed cargo (filmed directly down from the prow), to the stark image of a dismembered mine team, alone among the peacefully covered foliage (the first carnage the company witnesses) to the killing of two men by a Japanese sniper – they fall poignantly in the tall grass before the vista of a lush mountain.
The pretty pictures, however, can only distract you from the onerous dialogue for so long. Witt ruminates in voice-over about the nature of evil and violence, an exercise that is initially intriguing until it registers as so much pop philosophy (Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts” will come guiltily to mind). The inner thoughts of the characters are meant to be thought provoking but can essentially be boiled down to “Why is there so much madness in this world when there is so much beauty, here and elsewhere?” In particular, Bell’s voice-over goes on and on and on and on about his wife and the nature of love, and you begin to resent it.
Malick juxtaposes the violence and ugliness of war with the peace of a seemingly undisturbed Pacific paradise and Rockwellian flashbacks to a soldier’s beautiful wife, her smooth skin and her cotton dress. After Malick shows soldiers in crisis, and then a fruit bat, or a bird, or light streaming through the foliage, I was reminded of Peter Weir, who employs the same technique (he usually just cuts to a knowing aborigine).
Malick makes some fundamental errors that, I’m sure, seem niggling in the light of the ambition of the project. For example, Witt and Bell look alike and they kind of sound alike and when two men are running around in battle and doing voice overs, that becomes problematic. The cameo factor is also distracting because actors are trying to make their mark in the short time allotted. As such, Travolta is weird as an ambitious general, and Clooney shows up at the end for a few lines (since you still haven’t seen Clooney until the end of the picture, you fear he may be pivotal and you have that much longer until the end). Savage, as stated, is not only atrocious as a private who has freaked out (be spits, he exhibits facial tics, the whole nine yards), but he is much too old to have been a line soldier in WWII. Another gripe: Witt is chronically AWOL, and in the beginning of the film, he’s picked up by a Navy transport whilst he lives among pleasant, harmonious natives. His company is on the transport, and they go quite a long way to the island that serves as the setting for the film. Regardless, Witt manages to return to the natives for a visit by way of a long walk. A walk I calculate at about 320 miles.
Finally, even in a war picture, four long death scenes are too much.
In the end, you can’t call it a complete disaster, because it is so visually accomplished. But it is a narrative mess, overly long, overly self-important, and lackadaisical to the point of nap-inducing.