In 1942, Private Witt is a U.S. Army absconder living peacefully with the locals of a small South Pacific island. Discovered by his commanding officer, Sergeant Welsh, Witt is forced to resume his active duty training for the Battle of Guadalcanal. As Witt and his unit land on the island, and the American troops mount an assault on entrenched Japanese positions, the story explores their various fates and attitudes towards life-or-death situations.
This magnificent adaptation of James Jones' third novel unfolds on Guadalcanal during World War II as American forces carry out a full frontal attack on a strongly held Japanese hilltop position. At the same time, maverick director Terrence Malick – making his first film in 20 years – uses some of his characters – Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Bell (Ben Chaplin) – to philosophise about the very nature of war, the warring elements within nature, and the notion – also expressed in John Steinbeck – that "maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of"...
Performances are excellent without exception
It's the combination of the visceral battle footage with the 'peaceful' scenes – the flashbacks to Bell's wife or to Witt's 'paradise' village – and the accompanying voice-overs which elevate the film to greatness. The battle scenes are at least the equal of Saving Private Ryan. The attack on the hill, an extraordinary, most detailed sequence, is one of the finest in any war film – the Stedicam takes the viewer into the battle with devastating effect. John Toll's camerawork is remarkable throughout.
Performances are excellent without exception, though it's a pity that Caviezel and Chaplin, the two 'introverted' characters, are of similar appearance, height, build, coloring – so that, when helmeted and streaked with mud, it's at times difficult to tell them apart. The use of guest stars is of questionable value – Travolta and Clooney (though they're both fine) are a bit distracting; on the other hand, Woody Harrelson's one scene carries tremendous impact. Nolte is superb as the professional soldier in conflict with his subordinate, Elias Koteas, a lawyer in civilian life, who refuses to obey his command to attack the enemy frontally. (Interestingly, the Koteas character, Greek in the film, was Jewish in the book).
Malick also humanises the enemy: he makes the Japanese both frightening and very human, when we see them praying, or hopelessly surrendering to defeat.They're as far from home as the Americans. Malick also uses the forces of nature very powerfully – the jungle itself – the long, tough grass through which the soldiers are forced to climb (that remarkable shot of a snake slithering alongside them). It's summed up by that eerie image of a giant croc which opens the film.
Margaret's Comments: Quite simply the best film I've seen in ages. Malick is a sublime filmmaker. His screenplay and his cinematic skills have created this elegiac epic depicting the devastating tragedy of war for our species. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Elias Kotea, Ben Chaplin and Nick Nolte are uniformly wonderful. The only sour note in the whole film is Travolta, who apart from being wrong in his brief scenes, is actually wearing a crooked moustache. At one point I thought how many more men do I have to see who are frightened, how many more do I have to see dying. But the accumulation of images makes them important particularly when contrasted with the images he introduces of nature at its most beautiful. The last image is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.
Rarely have I been so moved by a film, rarely have I been so grateful. At last a decent film made by a director who has something to say and knows how to do it.
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8.30pm, Friday 22 December (no catch-up at SBS On Demand)
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LISTEN: Ken Burns talks 'The Vietnam War'