mark monday's Reviews > The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Oct 29, 11

bookshelves: alpha-team, into-the-past

A true masterpiece and one of my favorite novels. Although it has all the realistic, gritty detailing that any novel recounting World War 2 Guadalcanal should have, it is so much more. The reader will indeed learn which gun is which and which rank is which. They will understand what needs to happen to take a hill. They will know what a crowded ship full of men will smell like. They will come to understand the practical intricacies of making war. But, as anyone who viewed the recent version of the film will know, the story is not one based on narrative but one based on a specific philosophy: we are all, as humans, forever destined to never truly understand one another, we are forever destined to never truly achieve the kind of empathetic meeting of heart & mind & soul that we may yearn for - a yearning we may not understand or even recognize. War is, if it is anything, an insane metaphor for that lack of understanding, that true lack of connection, and to be a part of that metaphor is to be, in a way, as insane.

This is a novel of many voices, each individualized and each specifically unique and amusingly detailed. And yet there is a similarity to the themes that emerge from the thoughts of each of the characters, whether they are trying to understand their brothers, their girls back home, their commanders, their enemy, their next target, or the war itself: the feeling of distance. It is a melancholy and confusing feeling. Each one blunders through his life in his own way, barely grasping what is happening around him, barely grasping what is happening inside himself as well. The novel is epic in its depiction of war, but it is intimate in its depiction of the levels of mystery within each of us and between us as well.

It is surprisingly funny at times. James Jones has a mordant voice and he knows the ridiculousness of men, how amusing our little concerns and irritations and idiosyncrasies can be when depicted at times gently but more often pointedly. He also knows that throwing dozens upon dozens of characters in the narrative will confuse and annoy the lazy reader – but how else to illustrate the confusion of wartime? The coming and going of bodies, of places, of times that all blur together. Jones himself was a WW2 veteran, and so the details are impressively laid out – but what is even more impressive is the poetic, sorrowful mourning that is suffused throughout the novel, one that builds and builds and builds. It is hard to imagine the number of his fellows he saw slain, and how it impacted him. But beyond that, to see the melancholy within the man, not just the soldier, not just the circumstance? He is the rare author I would love to have known, and yet the idea of his experience and his sadness is so intimidating, it makes me feel like less of a grown man when thinking of the person who could write all of this down. What have I done in my life in comparison?

It is interesting to compare the film with the novel. The theme of the distance between humans is there, as is the idea of many narrative voices recounting many different things but all ending in despair over our lack of ability to truly understand ourselves, the world, each other. But Malick widens the melancholy even further by including his usual theme of man’s distance from nature as well. It works beautifully. Two character differences stand out: Pvt Witt and Cpl Fife.

In the film, Pvt Witt is played by James Caviezel as a beatific savior of men, spiritually connected to nature and prone to daring displays of bravery. In the novel, Witt is a spiteful hick, also prone to daring displays of bravery, but also an unrepentant racist towards all non-whites, and is filled to the brim with petty contempt towards all forms of authority. I like both portraits, but the novel’s Witt seems so much more human, so much more real. You don’t have to be a saint or even particularly likeable to be brave, to save lives, to accomplish daring deeds, to be loveable. He is a hero, ignorant redneck and all, precisely because he is not particularly heroic in thought – only in deed. He comes through, again and again.

In the film, Cpl Fife is reduced to a couple cameos by Adrien Brody, standing distraught by a soldier’s corpse or looking terrified during a river crossing. In the novel, he is so much more: a dissection of the falseness of the concept of “cowardice” during war. He is full of fear, he calls himself a coward, each path he chooses is one that has self-protection at its core; and yet his depiction is entirely sympathetic and rational: what sane man isn’t a coward when it comes to the insanity of war? Who wants it, who wants to be in it? It is not something to run to, it is something to run from. Fife is the secret hero of The Thin Red Line, the rational man not understanding the irrational world around him, and rejecting any attempt to bend him to that irrational world’s rules. I can see how that character would not translate successfully to audiences yearning for heroes, and so Fife in his entirety barely makes it to the screen.

The book’s great success may not just be in its depiction of the distance between humans, but in the illustration of war as the ultimate insanity. As we all know, World War 2 was the Good War, the one in which we all should be proud, the one with truly golden heroes and truly evil villains, the one we all are glad was fought and would have fought in if we could. We had the right reasons after all; at least that is my own perspective. But a good war is still war, and war entails the deaths of the young, the destruction of lives and of love, of cities and of countryside, of innocence, of tradition, of everything. So why do we love it so?
62 likes · Likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Thin Red Line.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-41 of 41) (41 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Glad you're back, Mark. I've missed your reviews.

message 2: by mark (last edited Feb 09, 2011 11:56PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks! had to take some time off in December & January to focus on work.

message 3: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely I agree with Nancy. I was wondering where you were. :)

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly We love war because it is a spectacle. Only those who are fighting in it, or are being forced to fight in it, hate war. The politicians who create war, the readers like us who read war, the film buffs who watch war--they all like war because they are not actually in it.

message 5: by Brad (new)

Brad Or perhaps we like war because we, as violent animals, love to have an outlet for killing that pretends to be guilt free. We can fulfill our need for bloodletting in a "justifiable" way.

message 6: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I don't like war stories that emphasize brutality and gore, details of military equipment and other boring minutaie. The stories that grab me are those that explore human nature and the impact of war on soldiers and civilians. Though I haven't read this book yet, I really enjoyed the quiet film.

mark monday the film is one of my favorite films. i love that director, he makes works of art.

message 8: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I'm not familiar with the director, Terrence Malick. What films of his would you recommend?

mark monday all of them! he's only done 4. although he has a new one coming out this year.

in order of most beloved:

1) Thin Red Line. i'm not sure how many times i've watched this one. too many times, no doubt. i think i've shed a few tears each time.

2) Badlands. so sad, so funny, so strange. and dark!

3) The New World. colin farrell is in it, but don't let that bother you. he's good, same with christian bale. but the lead actress is amazing, and the movie is so much more than its actors.

4) Days of Heaven. this may be my least-beloved, but it is still better than 90% of films ever made. excellent narration, per usual.

message 10: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Thanks for the recommendations, Mark! They all look great and are in my Netflix queue now. I'm wondering how I could have missed Badlands. Sissy Spacek was one of my favorite actresses.

message 11: by Michael (new)

Michael I tried reading this book twice and couldn't get into it and finally sold it to the used book store. Nice to see you back (in time for Survivor!) and the profile picture is sort of disturbing!

message 12: by TK421 (new) - added it

TK421 This was an amazing review. I will begin this book soon.

message 13: by mark (last edited Jun 08, 2011 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks gavin! i'm looking forward to reading your thoughts. i love this book.

message 14: by William1 (last edited Oct 31, 2011 09:52AM) (new)

William1 Have you read Mailer's The Naked & the Dead? I think you'd like it given this wonderful review. Similar terrain and wonderful writing.

message 15: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks William. i'm ashamed to say that i have not read any Mailer yet. i do have several of this books (this one, Castle in the Forest, Ancient Evenings)... must make him a priority!

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Shit, this is nice. My Grandpa was on Gaulalcanal during the war, during the push. I've always wanted to read this because of that, but I have never much enjoyed war lit. This pushes me closer to reading it...

message 17: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks Ceridwen

read it, read it! so i can read what you think about it!

message 18: by Esteban (last edited May 07, 2012 03:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Esteban del Mal I don't think Jones actually saw any action in the war. He was stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (which, admittedly, is quite a bit of "action"), but beyond that I'm unaware of anything.

He was a pretty interesting guy in his own right. If he hadn't died so (relatively) young, who knows what he would've given us. He was considered right up there with Mailer for a time (in fact, I second the recommendation above about The Naked and the Dead, but I don't think it's as good as TTRL). Did you read either From Here to Eternity or Whistle? They're pretty remarkable in themselves; in fact, the archetypes from FHTE are in the other two, sorta like some weird trilogy that Jones was writing.

Didn't know you were a fan of Malick. We're few and far between. I don't think he did himself any favors with Tree of Life. Yuck.

message 19: by Esteban (last edited May 07, 2012 03:02PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Esteban del Mal Also, you might like this:

message 20: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks for the interesting points about Jones, Esteban. and the book link. i was unaware of all of that. Thin Red Line is the only Jones i've read so far.

yes, Malick! just such an amazing director. happy sigh.

i have actually not seen Tree of Life. it just looked, i dunno... sorta goofy, sorta corny. eye-rolling. i will watch it eventually but have avoided it so far because i want my good feelings about Malick to remain intact.

The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon) Okay, like the last paragraph of your review! Maybe it should be a goodreads quote?

Wonderful review, Mark. Thanks.

message 22: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks Hugh! i love this book. have you read it? i would be very interested to read a perspective on the novel of a person who was in the military.

i tried talking about it with my dad, but he is not a reader and is not remotely interested in reading anything to do with the military. which sorta surprises me since he is often chock-full of stories about vietnam at family gatherings. ah well.

message 23: by The Pirate Ghost (last edited May 07, 2012 06:52PM) (new) - added it

The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon) I have not, I'll have to give it a shot. The last paragraph (yours in the review) did remind me of the speech my Commanding Officer on the USS Wisconsin gave at the start of hostilities during the first Persian Gulf War (The big one, WWPG!). He was a Vietnam Veteran, gunboats up and down the river and talked about what we might see or what might play on the news. He ended his speech with..

"Anyway, war is hell, and this has just begun."

message 24: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve Sckenda mark wrote: "yes, Malick! just such an amazing directo..." Excellent review. I had seen the film, and your review helps me to understand it better. The book is on my night stand waiting for me soon. BTW, Tree of Life was one of the finest films I have ever seen. It reminded me of Thin Red Line with its voice-over narration, philosophical questioning, and its long-lingering shots of nature. All of Malik's films are masterpieces. If you like James Jones, there was a film made about his life in Paris, told from the point of view of his daughter. It is called, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." I liked it as well.

message 25: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday give it a shot, Hugh!

thanks Steve. i'm stoked that you loved Tree of Life. how would you rank Malick's films, in terms of your favorites?

message 26: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve Sckenda mark wrote: "give it a shot, Hugh!

thanks Steve. i'm stoked that you loved Tree of Life. how would you rank Malick's films, in terms of your favorites?"

I would rank Malick films that I have seen as follows:
Tree of Life
Thin Red Line
New World
Days of Heaven
Badlands (been a very long time, may not be fair to it.)
Love all these films.

Esteban del Mal Steve wrote: "mark wrote: "yes, Malick! just such an amazing directo..." Excellent review. I had seen the film, and your review helps me to understand it better. The book is on my night stand waiting for me soo..."

What did you like about Tree of Life? The cinematography was, as is always the case with Malick, great, but the story was just so, well, plodding and dull to me. He tried to marry the sublime to the banal and it fell flat. Believe me, I love the man's work and wanted to like it, but I can't.

Maybe it's because his other movies have concerned themselves with some dramatic theme, but Tree of Life only concerns itself with a middle aged man's crisis.

Esteban del Mal Here's one that fans of the movie might enjoy (some insightful essays about what Malick was doing):

message 29: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett I spent tonight watching the long 1998 movie of The Thin Red Line online and will try to follow that up one day soon by starting to read the book. I need some time and space to reflect on what I found to be a most powerful movie experience.

message 30: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday I think the movie is incredible. one of my favorite things.

message 31: by rahul (new) - added it

rahul the story is not one based on narrative but one based on a specific philosophy: we are all, as humans, forever destined to never truly understand one another, we are forever destined to never truly achieve the kind of empathetic meeting of heart & mind & soul that we may yearn for - a yearning we may not understand or even recognize


Thanks for this.

message 32: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett After watching the movie, I read the first 50 pages of the book and stalled out. It is waiting for me to return to it on my "set aside temporarily" list.

message 33: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks Rahul!

Larry, I hope you do return to it. although maybe it is just not the book for you.

message 34: by Deena (new) - added it

Deena This is one of the most amazing reviews I've read on Goodreads. You have made me want to pick this book up and read it! I've see the movie and it is so lyrical and poetic while at the same time showing the brutality of war and how it affects each soldier in a different way. Malik is brilliant in showing a metaphysical aspect to life within this depiction of war's cruelty.

message 35: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thank you Deena, very nice of you to say that.

I hope you do read the book. it is amazing!

I love the movie version. love the director in general. definitely brilliant. coincidentally just found a perfectly new dvd of his New World, right on my sidewalk. serendipity!

message 36: by Lachlan (new)

Lachlan Jones What a superb review, thanks indeed for sharing your thoughts.

message 37: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks Lachlan! I think this is an amazing book

message 38: by Martin (new) - added it

Martin Dylan Beautifully said, thank you.

message 39: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday glad you enjoyed the review, Martin.

message 40: by Ashley (new) - added it

Ashley Great review! (A little long but the point was caught!!)

message 41: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday thanks! I am surprised and happy you are interested in this book. it is one of my favorites.

back to top