While the legendarily AWOL auteur Terrence Malick made a hero's return to Hollywood with his $50 million version of the James Jones novel The Thin Red Line, director Andrew Marton's low-budget screen adaptation from 1964 spent the past several decades missing in action. Long unavailable on home video and almost never mentioned in reviews of Malick's epic, the black-and-white Line has finally been issued on tape and DVD by the enterprising Simitar Entertainment Inc. (based in Maple Plain, Minn.), albeit in a milky and spatially distorted widescreen transfer that somehow suits the film's scrappy roots.
Filmed in Spain on a bare-bones budget that barely allowed for a few dozen hand-grenade explosions, Marton's cheesy but not unimpressive B movie premiered in New York on a double bill with Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss, and the two were jointly reviewed in the Times. Fuller's melodrama was deemed to have "style to burn" while Marton's lacked "cohesive cinematic technique," according to critic Eugene Archer, who apparently wasn't counting Line's bravura sequence in which Pvt. Doll (Keir Dullea) suffers a surreal double-flashback, imagining himself straddling his wife (Merlyn Yordan) back home and orgiastically beating a Japanese soldier to death on the battlefield. Sergei Eisenstein, meet Sigmund Freud. No wonder Life's film critic opined that Jones "seemed to say war is not so much hell as it is a hell of a substitute for the sex act."
Compared to Malick's sumptuous art film, Marton's 35-year-old Line looks awfully naive, and yet it goes a great deal further in grappling with the author's touchy subtext of soldierly love. Where the new movie suggests a sort of mystical respect between grunts as the ultimate wartime brotherhood, Marton dolls up the book's queerer passages with a flamboyant scene of one Army buddy putting on a "show" in a kimono and padded bra--which, of course, makes the platoon's fawning girly-men incredibly vulnerable to Japanese attack.
Jones, a veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, was reported to have considered a role as technical advisor on Marton's film, which went into production less than two years after the novel was published. While the reason Jones bowed out isn't fully clear, a clue can be found in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, the Merchant-Ivory bio-pic of the author that was released last year. Jones (known in the movie as Bill Willis) is shown arguing with an unnamed filmmaker about preserving a scene from the book in which a private soils his pants on the way up an enemy hill. "You can't put that in the movie," says the filmmaker. "The studio won't buy it." Jones/Willis replies: "There's nothing glorious or glamorous about killing."
Marton, a Budapest-born journeyman best known for his co-direction of the D-Day drama The Longest Day (1962), should at least be credited with taking Jones's fierce anti-heroism as far as a B movie would allow in '64--which is to say, not very far. Besides streamlining the book's deliberately fractured narrative into an easily read sarge-against-grunt tract, Marton could do nothing toward capturing the hilariously sarcastic worldview that Jones made clear right from his first words: "This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE."
Come to think of it, Malick's earnest, rather hippie-ish rendition fails the more acerbic Jones on this count as well. Any chance Stanley Kubrick will be available to direct a third Line movie in 2001?
The Thin Red Line (1964) is available on videocassette and DVD through Simitar Entertainment; 1-800-657-7118.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.