Modern war movies, like Tolstoy's happy families, are all alike. Old wars are another story: Salamis, Thermopylae, Cannae, Lepanto -- those battles were different. But from World War I on, a certain sameness sets in. We are introduced all too briefly to far too many characters who remain interchangeable, especially so in helmets and battle gear. Shouted commands are often unintelligible, strategies and tactics hard to follow. Lately, men have begun dying more graphically, more gorily. And sometimes we see women at war. Still, though it was not coined for cinematic warfare, the old saw applies: plus ça change . . .
Nevertheless, some war films make it by concentrating on special aspects: ski troops, a submarine, a military hospital. Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, from James Jones's eyewitness novel about Guadalcanal, is largely straight fighting, yet it does achieve some genuine distinction. Thus there is a lot of Jonesian philosophizing in interior monologues of various characters, sometimes in rapid succession. Though frequently sophomoric, they come, after all, largely from very young and not especially educated persons, although one of them manages a Homeric tag in the original Greek. It would be nice, however, if the same character, Sgt. Welsh (well played by Sean Penn), did not almost simultaneously declare that "a man alone is nothing" and "you've got to shut your eyes and look out for yourself."
The film was shot partly on Guadalcanal, where some of the natives participate, and mostly in Australia. To my untutored eye, it all looks seamless and persuasive. Of course, it helps that this action takes place in exotic sea- and landscapes, that soldiers move through man-high grasses where the wind soughs, and bodies elicit a thwacking sound as they push through the often dry blades. Alternatively, men move through towering forests, into which the light penetrates in seemingly separate rays, as if through tiny skylights or cathedral windows.
John Toll's cinematography works many wonders. His camera is often one of the soldiers, swaying a little side to side as it trudges on, or lurches, rushes, jumps about during battle. It captures frequent and sudden changes in weather: seas of grass undulate green and gold, water shimmers silvery-black. Periodically, the camera sidesteps into an idyllic glimpse of some bird or beast: a crocodile easing itself into a bath, an upside-down sloth or pendent cluster of bats.
At times we get blocks of color: everything blue-green or exploding orange and red. At night, a single match may illumine no more than one eye and a bit of nose. Everything seems to be -- or really is -- shot in natural light. The lens takes refuge, as the soldier's gaze might, in an expanse of unbesmirched sky or lushly gilded sunset cloud banks, or is jolted by a blood-bespattered blade of grass. At times we are blinded by mist; at others, dazzled by eerie clarity.
Malick directs in psychological time. Some terrible moments stretch on and on, others race desperately by. Often more goes on in one shot than a single viewing can encompass. Pvt. Bell, demoted from officer, is haunted by memories of his wife: of the two of them in intimate situations, or her alone on a beach or a swing. Miranda Otto has that cozily homey look: pretty but not glamorous. When Bell (Ben Chaplin) gets a pitiful Dear John letter from her in voiceover, he wanders off forlornly with that scrap of white paper dangling like a slipped bandage from a limp arm. When men advance into danger, there is a special choreography as, capering to the right and left, they try to forestall an ambushing enemy.
The point of view changes restlessly. Now we look out of a Japanese hilltop bunker from which havoc is wreaked. Now we are privy to a walkie-talkie argument between the ambitious Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who orders a suicidal frontal attack, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas, surprisingly good in an atypically sympathetic role), who refuses to sacrifice his men. Gunfire may natter sporadically or burst into sudden bombardment like an uncheckable firestorm. We may see a bullet go through someone, or we may come across a dead soldier with both legs torn off at the hip. Or, again, mere intense acting will convey that Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) has blown off his own lower half.
But the emphasis is less on engulfing horror than on individual anxiety and resolve, frenzy or terror. Pvt. Witt from Kentucky, the nominal hero, often stares bemusedly as his mind monologizes; Jim Caviezel, a newish actor, has such a thoughtful, confidence-inspiring air that we easily immerse ourselves in his roving bewilderment. And so many poignant details! An old Melanesian walking unconcernedly past an army column marching in the opposite direction. Dogs (coming from where?) chomping on something (dead soldiers?) as no one heeds them. A native village that provides fleeting asylum -- mothers with tots, children playing games, a singing procession-but also natives sharply bickering and an ossuary full of skulls to signal death in Arcadia.
Most of the acting is solid, nicely backed up by a score made out of Fauré's Requiem, Arvo Pärt, and original music by Hans Zimmer. This will surely be the year of heated debates between partisans of Line and of that other 160-or-so-minute epic, Saving Private Ryan. My vote goes to the more chaste and cohesive Thin Red Line.
The screenplay of Shakespeare in Love is credited to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, though the idea came from Norman's son, and the writing from Stoppard. This is a fantasy, which would be fine, save that it flagrantly defies known facts instead of working around and in between them. Still, fun is to be had with the concept of a Lady Viola de Lesseps, who, out of love of poetry and acting, gets the part of Romeo under the assumed identity of one Thomas Kent, women not being allowed on the stage. Unaware that she is right under his nose, Will falls in love with the distant Lady Viola and circuitously works his way into her bed.
For her family's social-climbing reasons, however, the young woman is promised to the nasty and impecunious Lord Wessex in a loveless marriage; he, in this year of 1593, would whisk her off to his estate in Virginia. (Anachronism runs rampant.) Many well-known figures appear: Marlowe (Rupert Everett), the manager Philip Henslowe (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), Richard Burbage, Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck, strange among the sons of Albion), a bloody-minded young lout called John Webster, and Queen Elizabeth, sovereignly played by Judi Dench.
There are amusing inventions: the moneylender Fennyman (a supremely droll Tom Wilkinson), the ignoble nobleman Wessex (a funny Colin Firth), a stuttering tailor who becomes fluent onstage (Mark Williams), Anthony Sher as an astrologer who uncannily resembles a modern-day ther- apist, and Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton, and Simon Callow in other merry roles. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I have never before liked, is a creditable Viola cum Thomas; only Joseph Fiennes, as Shakespeare, is a wimpy, calf-eyed nonentity. John Madden has directed with bounce and brio, and the picturesque, authentic-looking backgrounds are nicely rendered by Richard Greatrex, who, with a name like that, might as well have been in front of the camera as behind it.
The problem for me is the relentless crosscutting from bedroom to stage, with identical or similar dialogue surfacing both in Will and Viola's dalliance, and in the rehearsals of a play first called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, which gradually evolves into you-know-what. The conceit of life imitating art and vice versa becomes a bit too mechanical; certain other parallels, or bits of leering revisionism, are likewise labored. But when a gag works, it's a corker. So Viola remarks to Will, mourning Marlowe, that she never before heard him as admiring of his rival. Comes the reply, "He wasn't dead."
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