Approaching the bunker with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

It’s the epitome of serenity, the green field hill in the Windows 7 default wallpaper. Millions have stared at it for hours, days, weeks of our working lives. Did you ever wonder what was over the brow or catch a glimpse of movement on the ridgeline?

Last night I finally sat down to watch The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s flawed 1998 meditation on the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign. I’ve put it off for years, warned away by others who have described the film to me as a sumptuous mess. Originally presented to the studio that commissioned it as a 5 hour epic, the version eventually released to cinemas was a hacked-back edit around 2.5 hours long. Consequently characters come and go, events appear or jump with little explanation and the viewer is left to work to interpolate a narrative arc.

But the film does sumptuous in spades, particularly in the mid section in which a squad of US marines are stuck under fire in the middle of a pastoral scene reminiscent of the Windows 7 screensaver. Surprisingly, given the pressure to edit the film down to a manageable size (and the coherence lost everywhere else) this scene holds a good, unhurried 45 minutes, with lingering shots of sky, hill and the shoulder-high kunai grass blowing in the breeze as vulnerable bodies seek what shelter they can improvise at its roots. The squad, pinned down, repeatedly look anxiously towards the ridgeline and try to reconcile their peril with orders to advance.

thin-red-line-03

But it is at the moment towards the end of this scene when their officer announces specifically that the object of their assault is a “bunker” at the top of the ridge that the scene both grasps a narrative coherence and loses its strange power. Until that moment the enforced sojourn in the field seems a shapeless purgatory in a hostile paradise. But with the announcement “bunker”, a trope is keyed in queuing up a ‘mission’ and the films story (and the situation of ‘stuckness’ that it otherwise portrays) is broken. We, the viewer then know – “ah, so the next scene’s a bunker assault then”. And, lo and behold it is. Lots of running around, explosions and shoot-outs from behind fortunately placed rocks. In the assault dialogue the “bunker” is descriptively reduced in to a “dug-out” and, through a combination of this semantic re-designation and a few grenades the mission is solved.

Many war films follow the bunker assault trope – see for example the bunker/cliff scene in Saving Private Ryan, the bunker assault in one of the early episodes of Band of Brothers. In these the structures under assault are the monolithic concrete cubes of the Atlantic Wall, but representations of the Pacific war present bunker assault climaxes too, albeit that the bunker complexes there are rudimentary dugouts or underground tunnels.

What intrigues me about the bunker assault in The Thin Red Line is its lingering prelude – the meditation on the rolling green hills and the unspecified nature of the jeopardy on the ridgeline. Here is an environment both calm and hostile. This is very different to the ‘set-up’ work done in the D-Day films, where the bunkers sit castle-like on the horizon, taking centre stage signalling the action-to-come. This unknowing aspect of the peril faced in the Thin Red Line scene is atypical, and all the more potent for that reason. Here the bunker is more menacing before it is seen and whilst we (the audience) and the pinned-down marines are in its thrall. This effect (whether intentional or a byproduct of Malick’s destruction of the film’s narrative coherence) is reminiscent of classic horror films, in which (in the pre-CGI era) the object of menace is most scary when it is left weird: hidden and unclarified. But once named, framed inter-textually by reference to every other war film that has gone before, and thereafter seen it loses some of its power through assimilation into its known, measured and brought-down-to-size state.

I can’t find a film still of the rudimentary dug-out that is eventually revealed in the Thin Red Line, so here’s a real-life one:

jap-dugout
On Guadalcanal the Japanese defences were particularly hastily constructed as the defenders retreated inland in the wake of what would come to be the first of many US amphibious island-hoping assaults. But as Rottman (2003) notes the early, vernacular style was also characteristic of Japanese bunkers generally. With its forces spread across a vast archipelago of conquered Pacific territories materials characteristic of Western European industrial construction could only be dreamt of: concrete and steel were simply not available. Thus local improvisation was the only option, adapting to widely varied terrains (from barren sub-arctic wastes to dense tropical forests, via rocky volcanic outcrops). Typically a Japanese bunker was a dugout augmented by a sheltering structure made of logs, lashed and stapled together, overlaid with earth and vegetation.But it was not just material exigencies that kept things simple compared to the pattern book endeavour of the Nazi Atlantic Wall bunkers – the Japanese were also having to learn the art of defence quickly and from scratch, as defensive warfare was – until the tide turned – alien to Japanese military doctrine. As a 1944 Handbook on Japanese Military Forces put it:

“The defensive form of combat generally has been distasteful to the Japanese, and they have been reluctant to admit that the Imperial Army would ever be forced to engage in this form of combat.”

 

Image credits: 

http://wallpaperpulse.com/wallpaper/1767671

http://cinetropolis.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/thin-red-line-03.jpg

http://www.mnseabees.org/flashback.htm

Reference:

Rottman, Gordon L (2003) Japanese Island Defenses 1941-45, Osprey Publishing

 

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