If you follow my site you will know that one of the principles I abide by- and this relates very much to film- is to not cloud the vision of a work by ideology, or presenting some kind of political or religious message say. Vision and ideology are two very different things, and it is important to understand this because the reason some films are on this list, and others are not, come down to this distinction. With war films, in particular, it is very common to find propaganda in the form of patriotism- be it in Triumph of the Will or almost any Hollywood war movie- or stereotypical characters. If only directors would learn not to merely use characters like generals do their soldiers. Instead of having them perform a specific role in the plot, have them live and breathe- easier said than done. That is instead of having them react with fear or bravery or some other thing, give them an outlook on life as well as death. In Saving Private Ryan there is only an assortment of simplistic elements; Spielberg has no real vision and no real characters. Americans love heroes, be they super or otherwise, and this is exactly what this flick is- a typical hero flick. Characters need to be something more than marionettes and Saving Private Ryan simply does not understand this. Yes, there are moments which work, where for example there is some comedy preceding an intense action sequence, but this is not exactly great, because while there is a general understanding that people would try to alleviate tension through light-hearted chit-chat, there are no moments that give you an insight to any of the characters as individual human beings. This is the most common trait in both Spielberg’s films, but more relevantly war films, because, among other reasons, there is a tendency for the forces on both sides of the conflict to merge into either of two monoliths bashing heads against one another. Then there is The Thin Red Line, which perhaps is the only non-satirical American war film that avoids all these issues, and which actually had a vision. It is technically 2 films because there is the earlier 1964 version by Andrew Marton (an excellent to near-great film, which shows off Kier Dullea’s significant acting talent) and the Terrence Malick version, which I will be focusing on here. This is a truly great film and I would even go as far as to say that it is a perfect film.

To illustrate The Thin Red Line‘s depth, I will segue into a brief comparison. Speaking of monoliths and Kier Dullea, the film that I honestly think is the most similar in terms of viewing experience to it is actually Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey. We have here 2 prime examples of cinematic poesy, albeit different styles of such. While 2001 leaves much unsaid and uses symbolism to create the Mobius loop of meaning that ties its moments together, The Thin Red Line uses voice over. It may take some time to notice that there is actually a polyphony in the VOs given their similar cadence and propensity to blend into each other, though this was intended by Malick because it conveys the effect of each speaker being permutations of the same mind. This is an important nuance, and yet there are so many nuances of this film which can be explored relating to not what is said, but how it is said. For example, for most of the film, we do not see the Japanese army, only experience their fire, and you must suffer along with the American troops as they combat a faceless enemy. Yet when the Americans storm the Japanese around two thirds in, we see the tables turn, and it is those we were previously rooting for who now seem terrifying. There is one moment in which a Japanese soldier is talking to his American counterpart in his native tongue, and there are no subtitles. Because it is not the words but what they ‘mean‘ if you will, which is relevant.  We get drawn in, listening despite the [presumed] language barrier.

We are introduced to the flaws in each side of the battle, and something which The Thin Red Line demonstrates over and over is the weaknesses of the characters. Character flaws are one thing we often hear we should take into consideration when writing. The simplistic reason for this is usually to avoid 1-dimensional Mary Sues (or Gary Stews). We need to leave room for an arc, to allow the character to change for the better by the end of the story. But Malick (since he also wrote the screenplay) installs these perceived weaknesses for a different reason, which is to in fact question where the thin line is between flaw and virtue. In one case Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), orders his troops to take a ridge despite the danger and the enemy control over the position. When Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) refuses to carry out the order we are led to believe this is about showing the error of the glory-seeking Colonel. Indeed there is a candlelit scene in which Staros prays that he will never betray his troops, and it is his mission to preserve as many of them as possible. Tall is reasonable and takes Staros’ refusal seriously, but it turns out that Tall was actually right, and the question later becomes: is the ever loyal captain taking the war seriously enough? And in the end, he takes the offer of a Silver Star and Purple Heart so that Tall can replace him with someone tougher fibred. It is clear the Colonel values bootlicking, as he himself has bootlicked his way to his own position- as evidence a subtly great scene involving him and John Travolta’s General Quintard. So we are led to constantly question good intentions in the face of realism in this way, such as is the case with Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who muses and dwells on his wife, whom he left behind to go to war, and his voice-overs about her are often very moving, adding a redemptive beauty to the quality of his life as a soldier. Here is one of his letters to her, read in the VO:

My Dear Wife,

You get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, filth, and noise. I want to stay changeless for you, I want to come back to you the man I was before. How do we get to those other shores, to those blue hills? Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it.

I was a prisoner, you set me free.

His wife’s reply:

Dear Jack,

I’ve met an air force captain. I’ve fallen in love with him. I want a divorce to marry him. I know you can say no but I’m asking you anyway, out of the memory of what we had together. Forgive me, it just got too lonely Jack. We’ll meet again someday. People who’ve been as close as we’ve been always meet again. I have no right to speak to you this way, the habits so strong.

Oh my friend of all these shining years, help me leave you.

One last example I will bring up is the idealism of our main narrator, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). He has seen another world outside of that of the war. In the opening scene, we see the tropical paradise of the island in which he resides, (in stark contrast to the clip directly prior of a Crocodile sinking into a swamp), and we want to believe in this beauty. Again, we want the happy ending as with Private Bell. And Witt Tells his ‘best friend,’ 1st Sergent Edward Welsh (Seann Penn) that he sees a spark in him, despite his lack of belief in such, or any world outside of the cruel one into which we are later introduced. The devastating turning point comes when Witt uses himself as a decoy to buy time for his fellow troops. He ends up surrounded on all sides, and one of the Japanese speaks to him- in words he cannot understand- and proceeds to shout his commands, but Witt does naught but stare on in disbelief in the face of death. He then raises his gun in a futile attempt to defend himself but is killed instantly. Upon Witt’s saying goodbye to this cruel world, we are again shown a brief clip from that other world, that haven of Witt’s now perished soul, before Welsh speaks to his buried corpse, in words he cannot hear- ‘where’s your spark now?’ This is a crushing moment, and it is followed by the final twisting of this Mobius loop of a film in the proceeding two voice-overs:

…only one thing a man can do, find something that’s his. Make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.

from Welsh, &

Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. 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. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

from Witt beyond the grave. The closing image is of a plant sprouting in the swamp ostensibly into which the crocodile sunk at the beginning. So there is always this interplay between the various dichotomies: loyalty and betrayal; beauty and cruelty; man and nature, which is an aspect I have not even touched upon yet. Nevertheless, the dichotomy which most war films focus upon, that between Us (or more often U.S.) & Them, is not utilized in The Thin Red Line to show their difference, but similarity. In addition to what has already been said on the matter, I will mention a scene where one of our ‘heroes’ accidentally blows his leg off with a grenade, and while what follows is one of the most competently executed death scenes in cinema as a result of this, it serves to illustrate the incompetence of those on both sides of the conflict.

A small homage to the 1964 version is when Private Doll (Dash Mihok) steals a pistol from an officer’s neglected holster, only to have this act of theft reward him later on in taking a bunker, and even saves his life. In the original, the role of the stolen pistol is much more significant, as it is what Kier Dullea’s Private Doll uses in his first encounter with the enemy, which establishes his journey into madness. The focus on different characters, and in some ways a different plot in the 1998 version is interesting, and though I am not sure which is more in line with the novel by James Jones that is their mutual source, I believe Malick makes better choices than Marton in this respect. Certainly, Malick demonstrates a better taste in music and the score by Hans Zimmer is among the most memorable and transcendent I have ever had the privilege of listening to. I guarantee whenever you hear it subsequently upon seeing The Thin Red Line for yourself, you will be hit hard by the feeling it will elicit, as it transports you back to the powerful moments I have described herein. Finally, there is the glorious cinematography, which puts the viewer alongside the soldiers, right in the thick of it. You, in fact, will feel like one of them most of the time. I wonder how much of this is due to the depth of field lens, which makes one feel much less as if they are watching a movie than actually inside the movie. This is yet another way this masterpiece has ‘depth’ so to speak.

Now, despite all of this, some critics did not seem to appreciate all that has been detailed here. One of the most common criticisms can be summed up as: why would soldiers think like this? Surely this is too poetic to be realistic. Unfortunately, the most famous of all critics, Roger Ebert himself was one of those people who lamented thus, and he ended up evaluating the film as good but not great (he thinks Saving Private Ryan is better for some ludicrous reason). A downright silly comment Ebert makes in his review is that Malick didn’t know what he was doing because he apparently couldn’t make up his mind about whether this was meant to be a realistic war move or not. Au Contraire, it is not Malick but Ebert who failed to get what The Thin Red Line was supposed to be about, as he misses the point entirely of what THE THIN RED LINE is! I do not mean what it symbolizes in the 1964 version- that between sanity and madness- but what it symbolizes in the 1998 version specifically- that between the animal and the human being. The dehumanization wrought by the circumstances and actions of our characters in the face of such is held up against the reflections and revelations of the internal mind of those characters. They become poets in a sense, which is perhaps the most richly human thing of all. This is, in other words, the Spark within us.

Rating: 10/10

Denis Villeneuve has had a very successful few years lately: Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Bladerunner 2049 (2017). Arrival is based on a short story, which I read before I first saw the movie, by Ted Chiang (Story of Your Life). I believe the short story is better than the film simply for having better character development, but then the film goes to the core theme more directly, so they both get the same rating.

When ETs arrive, most films believe the only follow up is all-out war- because apparently, aliens are as primitive as humans were until long ago when the first thing we’d do upon contact with a foreign race was to destroy them. Now, nations still exploit each other, but that is a much more long-term process. Why would aliens necessarily be malevolent, however? Well, most science fiction writers and filmmakers can’t see any reason why an alien race would make contact in the first place unless for recourses. Arrival gets over this by a neat circular solution, that ties the plot together: the ETs give humans their language, and in 3000 years the humans help the ETs. This is also original because it has nothing to do with technology. The language (due to some pseudoscience about linguistics) enables one to think outside of linear time. One of the most admirable things about the film is the manner in which every element is connected to the central theme. The aliens use nonlinear symbols that are disconnected from their speech, which is convenient because the humans need to learn it, and they can’t speak alien. Specifically one human, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) our protagonist. The experimental structure of the film is successful and allows the plot to work on two levels: on the level of science fiction adventure, which itself is better than the majority of sci-fi plots (the arrival), and also on the personal level (the life story). The structure of the film mixes the main plot with flash-forwards

The question of the film is really- if you could see the future, and you knew where your life choices would lead, would you still make them? In this position, our protagonist does make the right choices, as hard as they are. Now, it’s entirely circular, she sees the result of the choice she will make and this leads her to make those choices, just like in the sci-fi plot- she learns the language because she will learn the language in the future/she knows the solutions to problems because of information she receives in the future etc. Because of this, David Mamet in his Masterclass course was not wrong when he said that it skips over the most challenging aspect, how to communicate with the ETs. He wants to raise the bar in terms of pure entertainment factor, as a linear plot is less contrived than the circular- ends determine the means/effect before the cause- structure that we get. But if we had it his way, would this film be as psychologically interesting? I don’t think so. I do think the film works, but it must make a compromise, and, like our hero, makes the right choice to prioritize themes and symbolism, and ask forgiveness for the rather Christopher Nolanesque plot.

Rating: 7/10

Akira Kurosawa was one of the few directors whose average movie was better than the cream of most other filmmakers. His 1985 epic, Ran, is no exception to this. It is not Kurosawa’s best work, but pit it against anything by, say, a contemporary Hollywood director, and there is almost certainly no contest (particularly when one considers his biggest fan, George Lucas). And while Ran is often compared to Shakespeare’s King Lear, with which it no doubt shares many elements, Ran is actually based on the legendary tale of a real warlord- Kurosawa was only made aware of Lear midway through production- and is far more complex and well realized than the play. It is surely not, therefore, simply a retelling of Lear set in feudal Japan, as many critics like to claim. The plot is relatively straightforward, but rarely do elements ever seem contrived. Certain scenes and performances make you feel like you’re watching a Noh drama, but that’s about it. This is not a big deal for me, even if it is unrealistic; and apart from these small instances of style over substance, there is not a lot that I can criticise the film for.

The film was conceived as early as the 1970’s, but at the time was seen to be too great an undertaking, most notably for the sheer scale of its battle scenes. So, Kurosawa would practice his craft in Kagemusha (1980), before mastering it in Ran. With its beautiful colors- unlike anything else in Kurosawa’s production- coming mostly from the dazzling warrior costumes (each taking 3-4 months to make), Ran’s most picturesque and vivid scenes are also its most destructive and bleak. Indeed, the decision to begin the film full of movement and noise (both visual and auditory), and to end it with stillness, silence, and emptiness, was clearly a conscious one. It brings us full circle, in a film whose tonal diversity is almost bewildering. The cinematography, emulating the artistic style of a Japanese landscape painting, flattens the image. There is hardly the depth of field to effectively part-objects or people. This makes the frame feel somewhat close, and constricted, even despite the wide open spaces. This effect is amplified in the battle scenes to the highest degree. Yet, there is also the very tangible feeling of isolation throughout. These conflicting effects are created by the camera lens alone, and they serve the purpose of imbuing the film with much beauty, tension, and chaos (often simultaneously). Additionally- from the dense and chaotic imagery of great armies laying siege, to the fragile Hidetora, aimlessly wandering the plains- there is always a sense of the lens’s detachment. We, the audience, experience the viewing of Ran, not unlike that of viewing a nature documentary about wild animals, or insects. For we witness the human struggle from a god’s eye view. It is almost difficult for us to empathize with Ran’s characters as a result (though I will not comment on whether I think this was a mistake or not, as some claim).

Of all the characters, the two most well developed are Hidetora himself, and interestingly enough, his fool. The weakest characters- and elements- of the film are without a doubt Lady Kaede, and her pawn Jiro. [The scene in which Kaede threatens and seduces Jiro into becoming her pawn, being the most unrealistic and silly of any.] To create a single-minded villain (if you can call her a ‘villain’) is a difficult task, for single-mindedness runs the risk of translating as single-dimensionality- a risk not evaded in the case of Lady Kaede. While this (not to mention her portrayal by Mieko Harada) is the great downfall of Kaede’s character, the great downfall of Jiro’s character is his weak-mindedness. He has no wits about him and is easily manipulated, yet his own machinations are ill-conceived and transparent. The reason I consider this a flaw in the character of Jiro- as opposed to merely a ‘character flaw’- is because, had he not been so brainless, the schemes of Lady Kaede would have fallen flat, and Jiro would have become the villain: destroying his father early on, and winning power through his cunning, and not just out of sheer luck (a stray bullet of his general’s gun, to be exact). As it is, the story works fine, but for the fact that the characters are made to fit the plot, rather than the other way round. Nonetheless, this is very much a character-oriented story, and one with sufficient depth and insight into the human condition to upstage most theater productions. For that, it deserves praise. The dynamic between Hidetora and Kyaomi is fantastic, and even when bereft of his marbles, Hidetora feels like a perfectly realized human being- even if one living in a strange, and chthonian, hallucinatory world. Kyaomi is not a samurai and therefore bears no great obligation to Hidetora, yet remains the most loyal to, and the most candid with, the aged man of anyone- whether he is the most powerful warlord in the land or a senseless and senile old fool. Kyaomi is so often seen to complain about his circumstances, blaming Hidetora for his troubles, before comforting or protecting him. This is almost the sole glowing ember of humanity in Kurosawa’s chaotic world- one devoid of compassion, or meaning.

That last line may have rung a little strong, but this film does seem to be a sort of exaggerated emulation of Kurosawa’s life. At 75, Kurosawa was of a similar age as his protagonist, in the twilight of his career. He had fought all of his battles and won his reputation as the greatest filmmaker in the land, but then was rejected by the very country in which his movies had reigned supreme. He had become too western for the Japanese palate, and this, among other things, caused him to fall into depression. At one point he even attempted, though failed, suicide. This is actually eluded to in Ran when Hidetora is unable to commit seppuku- his sword without a blade; and as Kurosawa was losing his sight, so did Hidetora lose his mind. The legacy Kurosawa would leave behind was in the cinema of the west, but Hollywood gives little credit for the towering enterprises they build upon foreign foundations. Kurosawa struggled, and ultimately, never really succeeded in Hollywood, so late his career. Even with the help of prominent supporters, such as George Lucas, caught as he was between the western and Japanese stylistic traditions, Kurosawa failed to appease the mainstream.

This alloy of style was no surprise if one considers the sources from which Kurosawa drew- many being western, or Russian, that were not native. These included: Fritz Lang, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Dostoevsky, Gorky, John Ford and of course Shakespeare, among others. The influence of Shakespeare is sure to be found in Ran specifically- even if Kurosawa was not aware of King Lear when he first formulated it. The influence was a much later imbuement, but it is there. The film- 27th of the 30 he would complete- is effectively an amalgam of many things: of the legend of Sengoku era warlord Mori Motonari; of the story of King Lear; and of the life of its co-writer and director. Kurosawa always imparted onto his films the element of personal experience. Interestingly, Ran is rather more impersonal and distant with its protagonist than Lear is, which is a striking divergence; this is possibly a reflection of how Kurosawa saw himself in the world.

Rating: 8/10