Bright Lights Film Journal

The Altered State of War: Heaven, Hell, and the Structure of the Combat Film

“The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”

Given just a little thought, the very notion of an anti-war film should seem peculiar. Is anyone for war? People advocate specific wars, for purposes honorably reasoned and not, but who promotes war itself? No one, as boldly as that, but historically there have been warrior cultures, promoting the gains of war, in riches and in psychic and material power, and many would argue that in modern societies there are war interests, segments of a society that materially benefit from war. The sense that a war is being driven by forces greater than any conflicting interests and violent animus between its participants helps motivate anti-war movements and inspires films aimed at particular wars. However, it is the sense that there are structural forces behind war itself that gives rise to the more general anti-war film. Both (pro) war films and anti-war films consistently present a thematic structure through which mass, organized human combat may be understood. While the terms by which these structures may be considered are the same, the structure of the anti-war film is best viewed as a comprehensive re-conception and development of the terms and the structure of the (pro) war film. It makes sense, then, to begin with the latter.

I believe there are two major types1 of (pro) war film, along with one minor hybrid of the two. The first type is the kind of film that patriotically celebrates the sacrifices and victories of a people’s current, recent, or historically or mythically significant war. In the past, a film of this type might have been graphic, but usually not, especially if the war were current or very recent. In such a case, it hardly served the purpose of the film’s makers to undermine national resolve by exposing war’s true ugliness. The John Wayne war film — almost a category of its own — is a perfect example of this type. Now, contemporary political consciousness and sensibilities as well as advancements in film technology have altered the graphic quality of such films, so in Saving Private Ryan we have a classic World War II era style war film transformed by contemporary, vividly realized violence and destruction.

The second major kind of (pro) war film is the type that seeks to honor, even celebrate, the values of what is portrayed as a noble warrior culture. Among contemporary films, Braveheart (right) and The Last Samurai are both examples of this type. (Of course, there are overlaps in these and other empirically determined types and genres this essay will discuss, and Braveheart certainly exhibits qualities of the first major type as well.) In Braveheart, many of the Scottish fighters may not start out as “warriors,” but by the film’s second half, a full-fledged warrior ethos has developed among them, including irreverent and black humor, bravado, and fearlessness in battle. By film’s end, our hero faces disembowelment with the vision of his dead, true love before him and the cry of “freedom” a defiant call above his pain. In The Last Samurai, too, fear of battle among the warriors is unknown — certainly not portrayed — death in battle a rite of honor, and combat, indeed, a way of life. The way of the sword — thrashing and slashing, slicing and dicing — is beautiful too.

The minor hybrid of these two types — remarkable when you think about it — is the war entertainment. Having evolved by the 1960s out of the patriotic war film, films such as The Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan’s Express, and The Dirty Dozen were, as standard Hollywood fair — and standard cultural artifacts — naturally patriotic, but their true intent was to entertain with action, derring-do, and close escapes that celebrated the fighting skills and courage of their heroes. Obviously, the major types are meant to entertain also, but one is hard pressed to find ideational intent in the war entertainment.

A cultural effect of the (pro) war film is to make war imaginable and conscionable. With the exception of the most pointedly jingoistic films, e.g., Wayne’s Vietnam War era The Green Berets, these films often do, indeed, attempt to convey some sense of the destructive intensity of warfare, but not to the point of making combat literally unimaginable. Among (pro) war films, arguably the greatest is Saving Private Ryan. Of course, what makes a film a great war film is subjectively determined, but a significant contributor for many is the vivid recreation of the combat experience — its frenzy, its confusion, its horrific human damage — to the point of virtual experience. Saving Private Ryan is almost unique among (pro) war films in seeking this quality, most especially in its opening landing beach sequence. As a matter of clear purpose, the virtual war experience has generally been sought by makers of anti-war films, with the intent that the re-creation of combat’s visceral cruelty serve, along with the film’s ideas, to further alienate viewers from the idea of war’s acceptability. It is, I believe, this dissonance in Saving Private Ryan — between hyper-realistic combat scenes and otherwise patriotic war film conventions — that is both Spielberg’s expressly pursued achievement and the cause of dissent from the film’s general acclaim.

Although there are multiple, overlapping genres of war film, among them the epic (The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, Midway), the historical/biographical (Patton, Schindler’s List), the individual “true story” (Sergeant York, Born on the Fourth of July), the cross-pollinating idea/human interest war film (Grand Illusion, In Harm’s Way, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter), most of which have at least some measure of combat in them, it is the pure combat film that is the quintessential war film. By pure combat film I mean a film — even if it strays from the war zone — the central purpose of which is to “tell the truth” about the nature of combat in war. This genre includes both (pro) war and anti-war films, and both types found their thematic structures on the truism that “war is hell.”

For the notion of hell to be meaningful, however, there must be the tension — intellectually, morally, emotionally, imaginatively — of a countervailing heaven. In the (pro) war film, heaven is home. Whatever religious gestures soldiers may make on the field of battle, they are secondary to the prime desire to be home again. However mundane or difficult its nature prior to the war, home in the (pro) war film is idealized, for its ice cream sodas, Friday night dances, ball games, waiting wives, and dreamed of loves. Hell in the (pro) war film is the fury and death of combat. Soldiers may pray to go to a religious heaven if they die, but the heaven they hope for and dream about is home. Except for the most sentimental of the patriotic films (the five brothers at the end of The Fighting Sullivans walking off into heaven together), once a soldier is dead there may be time for a burial, but the focus remains on the survivors’ dream of home.

The combat and the human interest war films both work off the tension between heaven and hell. In the (pro) war film, hell is significantly sonic in nature. Because in these films there is little desire to be visually graphic, the mad fury of combat, aside from falling bodies and commotion, is represented by heightened volume — of bullets flying by, the explosion of shells, tanks rolling, flame throwers shooting bursts of fire, the cries of the wounded, and the calls and shouts among soldiers amid the general din. In a film’s ultimate battle sequence, the volume reaches a longer lasting and more enveloping level. Typically, (pro) war films end with the cessation of combat, and its noise, and some gesture of homewardness. When, as they often do, they actually take a character or characters home, it is frequently to scenes of a contrastingly profound, almost heavenly peace and quiet, as at the close of Battle Cry. In these classic (pro) war films, the hell of war and the heaven of home are different worlds; more, they are dissimilar states of being, and the sonic change from the frenzied din of war to the calm of home is a return from an altered state of being. Of course, one cannot enter an altered state and emerge from it — journey back from hell — without being altered oneself, so in the (pro) war film, a surviving hero is changed, and while he may be scarred, he is usually changed for the better and made stronger. This is so in Battle Cry, and it is so in Saving Private Ryan, too. Private Ryan was already an honorable and loyal man who would not leave his buddies when the chance to end his war arrived, but he is told by the dying Capt. Miller to “earn this,” i.e. the sacrifice others made to save his life, and the film’s close gives us no reason to believe he has not.

The anti-war film expresses its themes around the same structural components of heaven, hell, and the altered state that is the experience of war. However, the anti-war film subverts the nature of heaven, represents hell from a radically different perspective, and presents the viewer with an altered state of war that is infinitely more horrifying and insuperable than the one we are typically shown in the (pro) war film. I will examine the anti-war film through a consideration of five films: Lewis Milestone’s seminal All Quiet on the Western Front, Sam Peckinpah’s little-known Cross of Iron, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (Redux), Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. First, though, it might be worthwhile to consider what the nomenclature “anti-war” has, empirically, actually described.

There is little reason to conclude that many, if any, “anti-war” films represent wholly pacifistic positions with regard to war. It is difficult for art to make such a definitive statement, and significant art is unlikely to try. In addition, one can only speculate, but it is quite likely that only a very small minority of those who value and enjoy anti-war films are themselves pacifists. The late David Dellinger and Bayard Rustin went to prison rather than serve in the military during World War II. One could argue that their choice, during that war, was the test of a true pacifist. In contrast, it is essential to note that even when an anti-war film is clearly situated in a specific conflict, its critique is rarely limited to that conflict alone. This is true of all the films under consideration, including the Vietnam War films, which are the most specific in nature. If even those films, about a highly controversial war, were indictments merely of that war, the result would be closer to policy analysis and strategic dissent than an anti-war statement. Documentary films are much better suited to that kind of specific review.

What we find, then, in the anti-war film is a film that is neither a coherent, morally absolute statement against all war under all circumstances regardless of what cruel and grisly necessity might seem to present itself, nor a mere political argument limited to the time and place of an individual war. Anti-war films, instead, tend to offer, in artistically divergent styles, similar analyses of the structure of war itself — the forces that drive it, the human components that are used and crushed by it, and its position in human society. In the light of this structure, it might be argued that there is nothing the anti-war film arises more precisely in opposition to — is anti to — than the patriotic war film, the underlying sentiment of which is that patriotic feeling and action can redeem one from the experience of war.

The structure and many of the conventions of the anti-war film, and of the war film in general, are already present in All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has two wide-vista, deep-focus shots through windows, one at the beginning of the film through Paul’s classroom window, of his town, and one later, through a house window, of the bustle of activity — and even a shelling — as Paul, amid a phalanx of troops, first arrives at the German staging area near the front. Only two such shots in the film, one of home, one of the war, and, significantly, the shot of home is of a parade of troops in a celebratory march to war. In heaven, then, is to be found the source of hell. Obviously, many (pro) war films show troops leaving home for war, but in (pro) war films, home is represented in polar opposition to war; it is not offered in mirrored duality with the world of war. Indeed, All Quiet on the Western Front and its descendents all affirm that home, rather than existing in antagonistic relationship to war, is the source of war, and soldiers, in return, are capable of coming to feel at home in the world of war.

In All Quiet, Paul and his friends experience many of the generically customary shocks of war and war films, including the rigors of basic training, but the first scene of horror — significantly, psychological horror — is that of the extended French shelling of Paul’s bunker. The men are unnerved, one soldier — in an act that will repeat itself to clich\xE9 over the decades in film — becoming so hysterical that he actually runs from the bunker out into the shelling. Though this scene will become a clich\xE9 primarily of the (pro) war film — as one of the few sops of that type to the demands of psychological truth — its appearance in this early anti-war classic heralds the different perspective from which anti-war films will increasingly present the hell of war. The (pro) war film is typically filmed in a style of objective realism, almost all of combat and its effects presented externally — what one might see if one could observe events from an eviscerated remove, with, say, a clear, but substantial strip of film between the action and the observer, so that even though one saw all the explosions, and the fires, and the bodies falling (though rarely coming apart or bleeding excessively), one would never, in fact, experience combat’s vital reality. This may be objective realism, but it is na\xEFve realism: realism without truth. All Quiet, in its limited fashion, attempts to present the psychological, interior reality of war in a way that later anti-war films will take to deeper levels.

The psychological experience of war is fundamental to the altered state that is war, and it is also the very nature of the altered state that participants in war assume. In anti-war films, including All Quiet, part of a soldier’s altered state is the alienation from the home world that the soldier in the (pro) war film wishes only to return to. When Paul arrives home on leave after his recovery from being wounded, he is shocked to learn his mother is ill — surprised to learn that the home world has proceeded without him and not remained unchanged. This makes apparent to Paul that he, indeed, has been in another world, and it has changed him. Says his mother disturbingly, “You’re a soldier now, but I don’t seem to know you.” While on his leave Paul recognizes that his teacher, his father, and his father’s friends — all the respected elders — do not understand the nature of the experience he has had, and that it is they who are driving the war. The world of war is not disconnected from the world of home: it is created out of it. A soldier doesn’t go to war; he brings the war with him. When Paul steps into his old room, he glances at the walls covered with mounted butterflies — the remnant of more innocent pursuits — and they seem strange to him. Home is now uncomfortable to him, and he chooses to cut short his leave and return to the front, to the world that now seems like home. Yet in the midst of battle, Paul will reach from the trenches for a butterfly — for the heaven that was lost to him — and exposing himself through that gesture, he will be killed for it.

The four remaining films under discussion all date from the mid nineteen seventies on, over forty-five years after All Quiet on the Western Front. While there were notable contributions to the type in between, such as Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the Second World War engendered over two decades of patriotic war films and its hybrid bastard, the war entertainment. It is the Vietnam War that lends renewed energy to the anti-war impulse and the anti-war film, and by this point in the development of the type, home — heaven — has all but disappeared from the scene. It appears only in The Thin Red Line, and there only in Pvt. Bell’s idealized reveries of his wife. Indeed, these reveries are quite heavenly — soundless beneath the voice over, softly lit and focused, gently animated at dream-like angles — and they are a lie, for Bell’s wife has, in fact, fallen in love with another man, and she will, in deceptively gentle language, commit one of the coldest, most selfishly unconscious acts possible, the sending of a “Dear John” letter to a soldier at war. Interestingly, this apparent clich\xE9 does not lead to what often happens in (pro) war films, the soldier’s loss of the will to survive and his death in battle. Bell survives as far as the film takes us. This is an example of what is a fundamental and desperate insight of the anti-war film — the solder’s ability to survive the loss of heaven and adapt to hell. And it is crucial to understand that the loss of the heaven of home is not simply in its departure — its current and future absence — but in its past absence, the soldier’s realization that home was not, even before the war, what he thought it was.

Just like Paul in All Quiet, the major figures of Apocalypse Now (Redux), Cross of Iron, and Full Metal Jacket have either abandoned any intent to return home or ceased to think about home as anything genuine. In Apocalypse, not only Kurtz, but Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard, too, (as we learn in Redux‘s restored plantation sequence) no longer plans to go home after the war. In Cross (right), James Coburn’s Sgt. Steiner, rejecting the possibility of a home and love life with Eva, the nurse he meets while recuperating from his wounds, says, “I have no home.” More complexly in the absurdist black comedy that is Full Metal Jacket, there are only two references to the soldiers’ home life. The first is Drill Sergeant Hartman’s crude take on the sentimental “girl back home”: the recruits’ supposed dreams of fingering “Mary Jane Rottencrotch” through her panties. The second reference is when Mathew Modine’s Pvt. Joker recalls this remark in his voiceover at the end: “My thoughts drift back to erect nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the Great Homecoming Fuck Fantasy. I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short.” He thinks not of any real girl from any real home, but of the vulgar typology Hartman provided to him. Home, otherwise absent from the film, has no individual reality, and the musical accompaniment to Joker’s voiceover, as the soldiers march on through the burning nighttime hell of a bombed out Hue, is their singing of the Mickey Mouse Club song, theme to the Disney version of nineteen fifties home-heaven with which these baby boomers were raised. Joker may be “short” (a “short-timer” soon to go home), but short for what? It has also been pointed out that the marching soldiers in this scene cross the axis, marching first from left to right and then from right to left, with no clear, linear destination.2 In the meantime, says Joker: “I’m in a world of shit . . . yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” He has adapted to hell.

Adapting to hell is, of course, one of the potential horrors of war — the last for anyone who survives it: a solider temporarily makes a home of hell, and then carries hell home with him. “Myself am hell,” says Milton’s Satan, and the realization that Kurtz’s “horror” is not the contagion of some external agent but a constituent part of the self is what haunts him, Capt. Willard, and all the rest. With that truth as the newly realized, ultimate horror of war, the interior rather than the exterior experience of war becomes the greater concern of the anti-war film, even while it focuses ever more graphically and realistically on the destruction and the physical human damage. The psychological damage cannot be fully appreciated without attempting to do justice to the true character of the physical damage that assaults the personality. This is the structure of the combat film, and especially the anti-war film, at the personal level — the reciprocal nature of the soldiers’ physical and mental experience of war reflected in the evolving relationship between home, or heaven, and hell. And this personal structure is mirrored and magnified in a philosophical super structure that reveals home to be, not the spiritual antithesis of war — a heaven to a hell — but war’s original, human and political source, as the horror does not so much afflict us as emerge from us.

Cross of Iron is problematic and instructive on these points. The film has if not a cult, then a devoted following3 that praises it as a great, unheralded anti-war film. Peckinpah’s strategies in positioning the film as such are fascinating to consider. For his only modern war movie, he chose as a source Willi Heinrich’s German novel The Willing Flesh (with a screenplay co-authored by Casablanca‘s Julius Epstein). The story focuses on a German reconnaissance squad on the Russian front in the waning days of the war. To begin, then, the audience has no natural and immediate protagonist with whom to identify. Character development and plot will soon alter that situation, but in a film about combat between Soviet forces and the army of Nazi Germany — particularly when told from the perspective of the Germans — patriotism or sympathy for national or cultural aspirations will clearly play no role for an American audience. (In fact, the film did poorly in the U.S., much better in Europe.) In addition, every character of consequence in the film — from the common man Sgt. Steiner, who leads the reconnaissance squad, to the career officers, to the wealthy, aristocratic Prussian villain of the film, Capt. Stransky — makes clear his distaste for Hitler and the Nazis. So what we have, despite the Hitler newsreel footage over which the opening credits appear, is a WWII film from which all political context and motivation have been removed. (We will find the same to be true, for the same reason, of The Thin Red Line.) Peckinpah gives us only the structure of war as he sees it — ordinary men and even career military men functioning only as pawns for a nation’s wealthy and powerful political class interests. The film’s primary antagonism, beyond the pro-forma German-Russian combat, is that between Steiner and Stransky, and it is that conflict, not the war’s, that leads to the film’s climax.

Following almost twenty years of war entertainments and right on the heels of the Vietnam War’s end, but released only just as the Vietnam War films started to appear, Cross of Iron‘s combat evocation is grittier than what had recently been the norm, more in the manner, say, of a film like Robert Aldrich’s Attack!, a more genuine effort from 1956. Cross of Iron also pays some serious attention to the psychological experience of war, notably in the hospital sequence, when Steiner recovers from his wounds. In one hospital scene, Peckinpah uses the disappearance and reappearance from shot to shot of the people around Steiner, and Steiner’s confused perceptions, to indicate the Sergeant’s sense of disorientation, isolation, and alienation. (The scene also has a moment that is the single most mordant I have seen in a war film. A visiting officer attempts to shake the hand of a soldier in a wheel chair. The soldier offers the officer a stump. Momentarily nonplussed, the officer extends his hand to the soldier’s other arm, and he is offered another stump. Now the officer is truly taken aback — at which point the soldier offers him a leg.) The film also contains one soldier’s almost mandatory moment of hysteria, a convention that The Deer Hunter, the following year, would extend into the famous Russian roulette scene representing nearly all of the film’s combat coverage — and representing it psychologically. Peckinpah also verbalizes his point of view by having Steiner and a fellow soldier knowingly quote not only Von Clauswitz’s “War is a continuation of state policy by other means,” but also Frederich von Bernardi: “War is the highest expression in life of a truly cultured people.” This is a briefer and more sophisticated version of a scene in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul and his comrades rest and speculate on what — since they hate it so much — keeps the war going. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful,” says one of the soldiers.

Despite these significant anti-war film characteristics, however, Cross of Iron is problematic as an anti-war film. Its war milieu is gritty, and there are a couple of grisly shots of human carnage, but mostly the destruction of combat is filmed in Peckinpah’s trademark slow motion, of objects blowing up and bodies flying through the air, which by this film, and after all these years, seems a rather tired external mannerism rather than the inspired violent poetry of The Wild Bunch. More importantly, though, the film and its maker — this should surprise no one who knows his work — are a little too much in love with violence and the male culture of it for Cross of Iron to be an anti-war film at its heart. That the film opposes what it presents as the structure of state-organized human combat is clear, but it not only, at times, poeticizes and revels in violence, as Peckinpah often does, it also poeticizes male camaraderie amid violence to the point of homoeroticizing it. For instance, when that one member of Steiner’s squad does become hysterical under the pressure of the war — during a bunker based, at-home-in-hell birthday party for the Lieutenant — he is silenced and calmed, brought back into the fold, by a sudden and surprising, almost violent, long, hard kiss on the lips by a fellow squad member. And when, at the climax, Steiner’s men are cut down by fellow Germans as they cross back from behind the Russian lines — in the film’s great, final irony — the tragically stirring music and heroic postures as they struggle to make it across the field and the barbed wire elevate their efforts and their status as heroes no less than does any patriotic war film dignify its combatants. It is an essential attitude of the (pro) war film that while war may be ugly, the protagonists are fighting for a worthy cause that ennobles them even as they are soiled by the sinfulness of a hellish descent. Peckinpah is not distanced from this attitude by substituting for state policy a different ideal, of anti-authoritarian camaraderie forged by courage and competence in violent conflict. Indeed, the film fades to this anti-fascist quotation from Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men./ For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard,/ The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Peckinpah may hate war, as he conceives it, but he doesn’t hate violence, and in the end, it is not the horror of war that repels him, but only the authority of war-making.

It might, indeed, be asked of Peckinpah ( substituting the word “violence” for “war) — as nurse Eva asks of Steiner when he rejects her: “Do you love the war so much, or are you afraid of what you’ll be without it?” The question might ultimately be asked of the major characters of both Apocalypse Now (Redux), and Full Metal Jacket. Both films, despite their dramatically different styles, fully create hell and leave their characters terribly at home in it. Each film begins with a vision of hell. In Apocalypse Now (Redux), it is, first, the incendiary Vietnam jungle under music of The Doors’s “The End” on the soundtrack. This dissolves into Capt. Willard’s already internalized hell in his Saigon hotel room — in seclusion, drunk, violent, entirely inward — as he tries to live with himself until his next assignment. The opening hell of Full Metal Jacket is the entire first half of the film, the boot camp section (oddly sterile and denuded of any set decoration that would speak of a home world) that represents the boot camp experience, in a manner not quite like any film before it, as one clearly intended to dehumanize the recruits in preparation for war.

When Apocalypse (right) is not obviously internalizing hell in the experience of its characters, it is rendering hell as an absurdist landscape, which is the sole style of Metal Jacket. In Apocalypse, this landscape is most eerily drawn at the battle for the Do Lung Bridge. The pitch black of night is lit by flares and strung lights, and the flash of armaments. Voices cry out in the darkness, both tauntingly and painfully. The viewer, like the soldiers, has no clear sense of the battle lines. Faces appear in shadows, briefly lit. Willard searches for who is in command. When he asks one soldier, the reply comes: “Ain’t you?” Willard observes another soldier almost preternaturally locate and kill an enemy soldier by the sound of his voice alone. Willard asks this solider, too, if he knows who is in charge. The soldier smiles, and says, “Yeah.” Then he simply walks away. Full Metal Jacket‘s sense of absurdity is achieved through both silly and jarring juxtapositions — in parodic language, in the soundtrack music, in the clash of attitudes and behaviors with truths we now know about the Vietnam War. I believe, though, that it would be a mistake not to perceive the absurdist elements of the Apocalypse and Metal Jacket as another approach to internalizing the hell of war in the experience of their characters. Many of the absurd elements — the music, the language, the dope we see in Apocalypse, though not Metal Jacket — were actual parts of the Vietnam soldier’s experience. There was probably no war in American history in which so much of the misery of war consisted for the soldiers in a sense of futility and of absurd contradictions and lies. Coppola and Kubrick were not laying out their absurd terrain as a stylistic statement of their own thematic ideas, in the manner, for instance, of Joseph Heller in Catch 22; they were objectifying the soldiers’ interior sense of the war.

The importance in both films of internalizing hell is reflected in the use of sound, too. In most films, sound, other than environmental, is music, and soundtrack music in film often plays a dual role. It attempts to evoke what the characters might be feeling, and it attempts to evoke the same, sympathetic feelings in the audience. In addition to music, however, Apocalypse and Metal Jacket each offer hellish soundscapes. The Do Lung Bridge scene is played out under eerie bell and metal noises, and every significant scene of death or battle in Metal Jacket, beginning with the uncovering of a mass grave of Vietnamese, is accompanied buy groaning metallic sounds. Unlike the overwhelming cacophony of battle in the traditional (pro) war film, intended to represent just that external experience, sound in the anti-war film is a tool for evoking the soldiers’ interior sense of the war.

Both films end on hellish ground. When he is finally found, Apocalypse‘s Kurtz appears almost entirely in fire-illuminated darkness. Willard, a slime-covered creature from infernal waters, rises up out of the river to kill Kurtz, and after he has done it, slinks back into the darkness through the hordes of Kurtz’s faithful now ready to worship the apparent spiritual doppelganger of the man who first confronted “the horror.” Metal Jacket ends with the soldiers making their way through that dark, desolate, burning shell of Hue. And though home is absent from these films in any but the vaguest sense, the duality of home and hell is still thematically essential.

In Apocalypse‘s restored plantation sequence, which is crucial to thinking about both versions of the film, Roxanne Sarrault addresses the doubleness of human nature during her opium-assisted seduction of Willard, when she says that he, like her dead husband, has two people in him: the one who kills and the one who loves. This very serious moment is comically mirrored in Metal Jacket when Joker is challenged by a Colonel at the site of the mass grave. The Colonel questions Joker’s wearing a peace symbol button while marking “Born to Kill” on his helmet. Asks the Colonel, “What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?!” Joker replies, I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.” “The what?” says the Colonel. “The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir,” Joker replies. (To which the Colonel responds, “Whose side are you on, son?”) The duality that all the films consider has various forms: home and war, heaven and hell, love or peace and killing. It can be represented in human terms, as Apocalypse‘s Roxanne explicitly does, in terms of political structures, as all the films do, and in natural cum spiritual terms, as The Thin Red Line focuses it. Asks an early voiceover in that film: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?”

The Thin Red Line has, in fact, been criticized for turning its gaze from the naturalistic-political structures of the James Jones novel to the natural-spiritual structures of the film. Patrick Paul Christle argues that the novel is a work of literary naturalism, because the soldiers’ destinies “are determined by chance, and by social, economic, psychological, and political forces beyond their control and, often, even beyond their recognition.”4 The novel, he says, “presents an unrelentingly bleak vision of the world,” in which “the individual is totally insignificant.”5 In contrast, the film, because of its spiritual vein, “amounts to a repudiation of Jones’s view of the world as meaningless, chaotic, and deterministic.”6 It is important to note, first, how accurately I believe Christle’s description of Jones’s novel fits all the anti-war films under consideration. I have discussed the political forces that make home the source of war rather than any ideal, heavenly antithesis to war’s hell. Perhaps no one comes to perceive this relationship more fully than Apocalypse‘s Willard as he reads Kurtz’s dossier during the journey upriver. Kurtz’s descent into madness comes from his insight into the connection between home and the hell of war, and into the conventional lies that attempts to mask that connection: “What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin?” he asks. After Willard encounters the lunacy of Kilgore’s modern cavalry, he thinks, “I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone.” Willard reads that Kurtz, accused of insanity himself, considers the charges against him “under the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane.” There are moments, Kurtz writes, “for ruthless action, or what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be the only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware . . . , looking at it.” So Kurtz, who is operating without any “decent restraint,” who assassinated four South Vietnamese intelligence agents for their collaboration with the North — but did so without higher authority — is targeted for his own assassination by men who are also going out of bounds: “You understand captain…that this operation does not exist, nor will it ever exist.” “The horror,” then, is not only in what we are capable of becoming, but in what we already are, and in the forces that direct us against our better nature, so that even someone like Willard will fulfill his role and become his antagonist, because, of course, Kurtz has to be stopped. And this determinism, from an individual perspective, is to be found in the film of The Thin Red Line.

Christle’s error, I think, beyond the old one of thinking that a film must serve any literary source it may have, is in understating the determinism of Malick’s Thin Red Line, and in overstating, or misperceiving, its spirituality. In Malick’s film, as in Cross of Iron, the war we are shown — the most contextually justified in human history — is stripped of all context. There is no talk of Pearl Harbor, or of fascist, military dictators, or occupied nations, or a fight for democracy. There is simply war. There is an island with enemy forces, a surrounding armada, a hill to be taken, an enemy camp to be overrun, a mop up operation, and soldiers so overwhelmed by dread, and tedium, and terror, and a sense of their powerlessness before the matter of their own life and death that they envy the fellow soldiers who have already lost all hope, as Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welsh says he envies Sgt. Storm. While Apocalypse Now (Redux) is not quite so denuded of political and historical context as Thin Red Line and Cross, it is almost so, and the ever fascinating plantation sequence is critical in this regard, too. It offers the one extended consideration of specific Vietnam War related issues, and Coppola’s excision of the scene from the film’s original release, under the usual running-time pressures, reflected his understanding of his film’s greater themes. The restoration of the scene to the Redux version only serves to remind that however interesting the scene, it is a scene from another film, one that might have actually been about the Vietnam War, as The Killing Fields was, indeed, a film about a specific historical period in Cambodia.

The decontextualizaton of these films fosters the sense of the determinism they suggest. Context provides reasons. Reasons lend meaning, and meaning offers the hope of real choices and individual significance. There is no sense of any of this in Thin Red Line (right). A pompous general and a vainglorious colonel look out over the sea toward Guadalcanal (barely acknowledged as such in the film) and their sense of the moment has little to do with the advancement of a great human cause. The soldiers simply wait to be led into battle. They do not talk of a nation’s defense and ultimate victory, and they have less idea of what drives the men who lead them. (When soldiers do give voice to grand themes and great causes, as in the videotaped interviews in Full Metal Jacket, they are ironic and inauthentic.) The battlefield offers no strategic sense. In most films of the type, the audience has little awareness of the battle lines or of the meaning of any engagement. In Thin Red Line, we know there is a hill to be taken at first, but that is all we know, and nothing drives the battle but the determination of Nick Nolte’s aging Colonel Tall to have his moment, to redeem his career, and to achieve the victory in battle for which he has waited his whole life. When he does achieve it, what is most remarkable of all of Nolte’s remarkable moments is the sight of his Colonel Tall sitting alone on a stool in a clearing, wasted by the effort of victory, desolated by the fatigue of his own ambition. In the film’s combat centerpiece, when the marines overrun a Japanese base camp, Hans Zimmer’s musical score is not stirring, but mournful and tragic, as there is no joy in victory, rather the frenzy and waste of killing and the shattered personalities of the defeated enemy. Nothing, anywhere, is elevated to meaning and purpose.

The basis of Christle’s objections lies in two areas: Malick’s focus on natural beauty — even amid war — and the film’s voiceover narration. However, I believe nature’s thematic role in the film is more ambiguous than might seem apparent. While Malick juxtaposes nature’s beauty against human destructiveness, it is never entirely clear whether humans are cast as part of nature or apart from nature. The native islanders (like the voiceover narration, an added conceit of the film) live beautifully with nature — an apparent part of it — until human conflict degrades their existence. They are the film’s heaven on earth that cannot withstand the dual human nature. Everywhere, the island rainforest is beautiful amid the carnage, yet the film opens and closes with conflicting images. It is easy to preserve the final image of a small rock in the island waters after the fighting is done, with new life sprouting from it, easier to forget by then the opening image, of a crocodile floating just above the surface and then submerging into opaque water. While the camera often finds a diffused, heavenly light breaking through the jungle canopy, we are always aware of those men moving in what seems another world well below the canopy. Beneath them may be that watery, transformed and transformative state in which Pvt. Witt dreams of swimming, delivered from care, and above them may be the light, but in between is this violent world, and none save Witt seems able to look beyond it. When Witt, near the end, is surrounded by Japanese, he thinks long, though mostly off camera, before choosing to raise his rifle rather than drop it, inviting his death. He then swims under the sea with children. But is that some kind of heaven or just the transformation and release of death? And even if — how might it redeem this world for itself?

Malick’s added voiceover narration is the foundation of his dramatic removal of much of the hell of war from the exterior world to the interior of his characters. Unlike Willard’s voiceover in Apocalypse Now, this is not narration that advances or muses on the elements of plot or character. It is all essential philosophical wonder, and voiced as it is, by varying, often indeterminate characters, it becomes an essential human voice querying the world of its existence. The sounds of combat fade in and out against the voiceover or the music, so during the base camp battle, for instance, the sudden, opening shots strike more genuinely and frighteningly for not being lost amid a general environmental din. The hell of Malick’s war is in the combat, to be sure, but for those yet physically undamaged, it is also in the terror, the uncertainty, the pain and loss of friends, the unknown, the self-destruction of killing, and the fear of meaninglessness.

The major war films of the past three decades, including Platoon, Causalities of War, and Three Kings, have all significantly advanced the sense of verisimilitude in their depiction of modern combat. Many have shifted from an exclusive depiction of war’s hell as the fury and destruction of the battlefield alone to including the tumultuously altered state that is the mind of a person at war, but this has not prevented filmmakers, in their pursuit of verisimilitude, from reaching new, disturbing levels of visual graphicness. Three Kings, in its own, unique way, unites that graphicness with a striking move into a different interior, that of the body, as the film visualizes the destructive course of bullets and shrapnel through flesh and bone. Indeed, it is, surely, the success of modern combat films in achieving both a sense of physical and psychological reality that has helped make them so notable. It is this commonality, as well, in addition to their being released in the same year, that led to the popular incongruity of comparing The Thin Red Line to Saving Private Ryan.

Private Ryan is justly famous for the verisimilitude of its Normandy landing sequence and its combat scenes in general, lauded by veterans as the closest recreation of the reality they had seen. It also contains two remarkable representations of the altered state. The first is the scene when Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller, standing on Omaha Beach moments after the landing, becomes paralyzed by the catastrophic death and carnage around him. His perceptions slow. He sees another soldier pick up his own bloody, severed arm from the sand. Miller is overwhelmed. It is the moment every soldier fears, the moment he might lose his nerve and all control. But somehow, Miller gathers himself. He pulls himself out of it. This scene is bookended by the extended focus on the cowardice of the squad’s interpreter, Cpl. Upham, during the film’s long closing battle. Most (pro) war films, when they have depicted cowardice have done so only briefly, as if embarrassed to look on it, and they have generally dramatized the cowardice in the midst of other soldiers, who stand in for the audience, performing a kind of ritual of public shaming, conferring a socially useful stigma. In contrast, Cpl. Upham’s cowardice is depicted at great, agonizing length (for him and the audience), and mostly when he is alone. His cowardice is not a public moment, but a private one, for him and the viewer, who has no recourse now to easy public consensus, but who must contemplate Pvt. Upham singularly, with pity and terror. Little noted, as well, is that Private Ryan, does show dishonorable conduct — what would surely drive headlines today — as when the GIs, having finally made it off the beach to conquer the German bunkers above, are so filled with the fury of battle and of the losses they have suffered that they shoot a stream of Germans raising their arms to surrender in the trenches.

What has confused some viewers, I think, about Saving Private Ryan is that while it contains many features of an anti-war film, which The Thin Red Line unquestionably is, it is itself unquestionably a patriotic, (pro) war film. If the film left any doubt, which it does not, the public role and utterances of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have made clear what their purpose was — to honor the contribution and sacrifice of the World War II GI. To redeem the horror of what they experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it. Detractors of the film have called it sentimental, in part for its patriotism, which, being its typology, is a little like criticizing it for being a film. The term “sentimental,” which should refer to cheaply or unearned sentiment, is sometimes used by those inhospitable to any notion of redemption at all, so that one critic who agrees with Christle about the spirituality in The Thin Red Line actually calls it an “inexcusable descent into the sentimental.”7 What I think is indisputably sentimental in the film is the classic (pro) war film depiction of the heaven of home, including the Norman Rockwellish scene of Ms. Ryan in her idyllic and American, isolated and private farm house watching the long approach of the car that carries news of a son’s death. Why not Walker Evans? There are other moments, too. The patriotism, however, and the film’s ending, present, I think, a different issue.

The Thin Red Line (right), like the other anti-war films, shows us that even in the most just of wars, if any can be so, war is a great inhuman machine, subsidiary to an even greater state machine, and the individual, in the end, only low and lonely fodder for the relentless engine that moves them all. The patriotic war film argues that even if we acknowledge the unspeakable nature of war, we must also acknowledge it as sometimes necessary, even unavoidable, and that the horrific inner lives soldiers bring home as a consequence need be — deserve to be — salved by honor. The response of many veterans to Saving Private Ryan, the displays of veterans during D-Day anniversaries at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer — scenes, often, from the close of Saving Private Ryan — suggest that many of these veterans believe that this perspective strikes a truthful balance. Of course, Saving Private Ryan offers what one might call a best-case scenario. The many anti-war films that found their inspiration in the Vietnam War suggest how much darkness surrounds even a patriotically presented cause and action. One might argue, as well, that anniversaries and graveside visits are brief moments in the sun. There are the ruined lives of every war and the plumbless, private inner worlds of a veteran’s days far from dirges and flags. Can any patriotic war film, however well intended, fail, in the end, to deceive? Can anti-war films do more than hit, by now, an easy mark? Is part of the horror of war the possibility that it is, in human terms, forever irresolvable? The issue, finally, is not in the films; the issue is in us. Asks the narrator in The Thin Red Line,“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root, did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us?….Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

  1. For the purposes of this essay, a “type,” in contradistinction to a “genre” (also, briefly, discussed), is externally, culturally directed, referring both to the filmmakers’ intent and the audience’s reception of the film. Genres are internally directed and concerned with conceptions of storytelling. []
  2. Darren Hughes, “Full Metal Jacket,” N.d., Long Pauses, (8 July 2004). []
  3. One can find, for instance, a petition to film distributors to release an improved DVD version to replace what is, indeed, an atrocious Hen’s Tooth DVD currently available in the U.S. There is a better Warner Bros./Studio Canal DVD available in Region 2. []
  4. Patrick Paul Christle, “James Jones, Terrence Malick, and The Thin Red Line,” 2002 Twentieth Century Literature Conference (Louisville, KY: 22 February 2002) (13 July 2004), 1. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Tom Whalen, “‘Maybe All Men Got One Big Soul’: The Hoax Within the Metaphysics of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Literature/Film Quarterly 27.3 (1999), 162-66. []