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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August 8, 2017: AmericanStudying the Pacific: Midway and The Thin Red Line

[August 7th marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major Allied offensive against Japan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five aspects of the war’s Pacific Theater, starting with that 1942 battle.]
On the clear and telling differences between two similarly star-studded World War II films.
Jack Smight’s Midway (1976) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) have more in common than just their Pacific Theater settings. Or at least they have one pretty obvious and striking thing in common: each uses a huge and star-studded cast to capture a wide range of soldier and officer experiences within its focal battle. Midway features Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, James Coburn, Dabney Coleman, Robert Mitchum, Toshiro Mifune, Pat Morita, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, and Erik Estrada (among others!); Line includes Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta (to say nothing of the equally big-name actors, such as Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, and Gary Oldman, whose parts were cut by Malick during editing). When it comes to cast size and scope, the two films are similarly old-school epics to be sure.
The similarities pretty much end there, though, and while some of the differences can be attributed to Malick’s particular and very unique style—see: long, long shots of waving grass and the like—others can reveal a great deal about both the eras in which the films were made and the distinct genres in which they could be classified. For example, Midway makes significant use of stock footage, both from wartime camera shots of aerial battles and from numerous other films (American and Japanese); Malick’s film features no such footage. That’s partly a difference in period, as the use of stock footage was still somewhat common in the 1970s and has almost entirely disappeared from filmmaking in the decades since (other than in rare and significant cases such as Forrest Gump). But to my mind it also reveals a key difference in the films’ emphases and goals: Midway is largely uninterested in engaging critically or analytically with the history it portrays, focusing instead on the character identities, interactions, and communities as they experience those events; whereas in Line individual characters come and go almost at random (and again, some were dropped entirely in post-production), making the history itself far more consistently central than any particular identities or interactions—and making the battle scenes the film’s acknowledged centerpieces, rather than simply stock footage to be quickly shown before we get back to the characters.
To connect those distinct emphases to genre, I would argue that the films break down along the “period fiction” vs. “historical fiction” line that I delineated in this post. As I noted there, such a distinction is never absolute when it comes to individual works—it would be silly to claim that Midway could be set against the backdrop of any battle without changing in one important way or another; and some of Line’s key themes of individual choice and war’s destructiveness could be located in any military conflict. Moreover, it’s important to note that Midway includes an interesting subplot dealing with a very specific and important history, that of the Japanese Internment. Yet those qualifications notwithstanding, Midway is to my mind about its star-studded cast, and the individual characters they create and interactions they portray; while Line’s famously haphazard usage of its equally starry cast makes clear how much Malick sees those individuals as instead part of a larger and more central tapestry. While that distinction does to my mind make Malick’s the more historically complex and interesting film, the truth, as so often in this space, is this: watching both provides a particularly balanced picture of how epic films can portray war.
Next PacificStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of the Pacific Theater you’d highlight?

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