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This Great Evil - Where's It Come From?
on 29 January 2014
So questions Jim Cavaziel's Private Witt in Terence Malick's epic 1998 film, in the aftermath of his unit's attack on Japanese forces during the battle for the Pacific island of Guadalcanal during WW2. With The Thin Red Line, Malick had returned to film-making after a 20-year break and whilst, for me, his film is not an entirely successful venture, it has many compelling moments of 'sublime' beauty and horror, all overlaid with Malick's trademark poetic (and frequently philosophical) touch. Indeed, Witt's quote, in which he is actually questioning humanity's place (or perhaps, value) in the world - given war's savagery - follows one such sequence of cinematic brilliance, as the private's unit overrun the village, as Hans Zimmer's haunting theme builds in volume and John Toll's camera (which is visceral and dynamic throughout) help to provide a truly mesmerising few minutes.
Of course, Malick's decision to return with a 'war film' (albeit imbued with his unmistakeable sensorial touch) was always going to provide a challenge, given the plethora of great 'anti-war' films already on the books - Kubrick's Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket and Coppola's Apocalypse Now to name but three. And the man certainly gives it a good go - his 165-minute work being essentially one of three sections, topped and tailed by some reflective passages, which sandwich the film's hour-long centre-piece as, under the command of Nick Nolte's outstanding turn as the reckless, glory-seeking Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall, C-company attempt to 'take' a fortified Japanese hill-top bunker. Of course, this sort of thing has been done many times before in cinema, but Malick (and crew) deliver a brilliantly visceral and exciting sequence, during which (acting-wise) Elias Koteas shines as the concerned, self-doubting Captain James Staros, whose reluctance to undertake what he regards a 'impossible mission' puts him at odds with his superior.
Outside of the film's centre-piece Malick gives us a beautifully ironic opening as Jim Caviezel's (also excellent) AWOL Private Robert Witt is returned (forcibly) to his unit from his idyllic Melanesian island existence and sets the scene - of largely confusion and futility - for what is to follow by repeated (and probably overdone) voiceovers. His opening also sets up one of the film's key messages around the negative effects of war as, following the conflict (having come full circle), a young 'native' is reluctant to meet Witt's offered handshake. Similarly, Malick repeatedly contrasts the film's 'humanity' with the (external) forces of nature as (again, coming full circle) a crocodile is eventually `strapped up' - as well as including shots of butterflies, toucans, chickens, owls, bats, monkeys, etc.
In addition to Messrs. Koteas, Nolte and Caviezel (for me, the film's outstanding performances), the film also boasts Ben Chaplin, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody and George Clooney in its (probably unnecessarily) star-studded cast, between them delivering fine turns (Chaplin, Penn) to mere cameos (Clooney). I found that the film was certainly overlong (by at least half an hour), but, at its best, was brilliant (poetic, poignant and, of course, tragic). Malick also delivers a poignant ending (albeit its tragic element is fairly predictable).