on August 21, 2002
I have always liked the James Jones trilogy of the war era army--
"From Here to Eternity"
"The Thin Red Line"
"From Here to Eternity" details in unmatched accuracy what the pre-Pearl Harbor
professional army was like for the enlisted man.
"The Thin Red Line" carries that army and those men into combat in the Solomons
with the same honesty and intensity.
"Whistle" takes men wounded in combat home via hospital ship and stateside
Most people have heard of "From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line" because
they have been made into movies.
"Whistle," the concluding, and in many ways the most important volume of the
trilogy, is less known.
Jones has always dwelt in the shadow of the more famous Norman Mailer. But I
have always thought of Mailer as poseur who wrote what he wrote in order to be
accepted into literary society and become famous. Jones has always seemed to
me the real deal. He enlisted in the army in 1939, was at Pearl Harbor when
the Japs attacked, fought in the Solomons, receiving the Bronze Star with V for
Valor and the Purple Heart.
With the money he made from "From Here to Eternity," Jones founded a writer's
colony and paid the hospital bills of the great and tragic poet Delmore
Schwartz, who clearly influenced Jones' writing. See especially the poem "For
the One Who Would Take Man's Life in His Hands" from the collection "Summer
Knowledge" published in 1938.
As far as I know, no critic has ever noticed this, but the first stanza of this
poem in 12 lines gives the storyline of "From Here to Eternity." The second
stanza gives that of "The Thin Red Line," and the third and final stanza that of
Jones carried out something remarkable, getting the vision for a monumental
literary undertaking from a poem he read as an enlisted man in a garrison army,
actually carrying out the vision and producing what, in my opinion, is the
definitive American fictional narrative of the war. In short, Jones turned his
life into a poem and that poem into splendid novels.
I stand in awe.
on October 27, 2004
It's difficult to write a book about soldiers at war. There are always many characters, the ranks are confusing, the description of the battles must be very accurate otherwise the reader will be lost. If it's fiction, the author must be very careful not to, unwillingly, transform his book in a re-telling of other, more commonly known battle events. James Webb managed to write a very good book about soldiers at war, "Fields of fire". Cornelius Ryan wrote a series of excellent non-fiction books about the second World War in its European Theatre.
"The thin red line" is about the battle of Guadalcanal, an island of the Solomons chain and an important base in the south Pacific Ocean, between the american and the japanese troops.
"The thin red line", by author and ex-combatent James Jones, was brought under the spotlights once again more recently after cult director Terrence Mallik transposed it to the big screen, for the second time, in 1998 (the first time was in 1964). The movie is visually beautiful, long, and insightful, with extraordinary development of its main characters. The book does not have visual resources, but Jones' fast prose, moving from character to character, from battle scenes to the long nights spent in the open, all this makes the reader "watch" what is happening with his or her mind, just like it was a movie.
Jones knows what he is writing about. He was there, he did that. And he is intelligent. War battles are not much different, one from another (except if you are actually there, of course). So, Jones technic is to write unusually long chapters, to make the reader feel involved with the environment, with the people of C-for-Charlie Company. All the characters, with no exception, have, contrary to the chapters, unusually short names - four or five letters at most. Witt, Fife, Bell, Dale, Stein, Tall, Bosch, Bead, Gaff, just one syllabe, they are easy to remember and their sonority makes the reader instantly recognize the person associated to the name. Also, the brevity of the names reminds us of the brevity of the lives of his characters, fighting unexpected death at every moment.
"The thin red line" is fiction, but barely. The last sentence of the book gives Jones away. It's fiction in the sense of characters ann their development, and building atmosphere. It is very good fiction, really a masterpiece. And it's a true account on the horrors of war. Fiction and truth, ballanced. Enjoy both parts.
on October 1, 1999
In a word - incredible. Terrence Malick's sketchy, loooong, underdeveloped movie does not do this classic justice. If you care about the WW II soldier, what this generation did for ours, and what it was like to fight on an infernal island thousands of miles from home, witnessing savagery and experiencing traumas that you could never fully recover from, you simply must read this one.
James Jones masterfully goes from one character to another, introducing the reader to the character's internal thoughts, while keeping the novel moving, marching through the jungle, to a conclusion that is exactly how it was for the soldier - this battle over, on to the next, what for, who cares - you didn't die, but you probably will on the next island.
How does one manage these thoughts, as a sane, rational human being? Jones' does an amazing job of bringing out these subleties in each character, how each one deals with it, how each one thinks about it. You can almost feel yourself there on the island, having made it through a day of horrors, lost some acquaintances, exhausted, and what for? In WW 2, it wasn't one year and out of service - you were in it 'til A.) you died, B.) you were maimed, or C.) the war ended. After 24 hours of constant combat and no water during a battle, all you had to look forward to during your "recovery" (a day, two days, a week?) was the same thing all over again, until you either died or somehow, the war ended.
While Mallick's films fails spectacularly in attempting to illustrate these points, Jones succeeds in ways that will only cause you to keep reading, imagining what it must have been like, yet thanking your God that you weren't there, and that these brave men were there for us.
I cannot imagine why the earlier reviewer here at Amazon trashed this book. Please make your judgements based on the 30-some glowing reviews and his/her one negative review. My only criticism with this book is that Jones seems to be fixated on the p*nis (can you write p*nis at Amazon?!), and writes about homosexuality among the troops quite frequently. Well, he was there, so he must know, and while I personally don't enjoy reading about a man longing for another's "sweet, girl-like buttocks," I have to defer to the author and trust his experience on this one.
Do yourself a favor, buy this book, and like "All Quiet on the Western Front," add a timeless war classic to your collection that will help add to your "humanistic" understanding of the war, a war which was about tactics and generals and presidents and prime ministers, but more than anything, like all wars, came down to the individual courage and suffering of the individual soldier.
on February 7, 1999
I thought both this book and the movie were excellent but the two are so unique in their own way, you almost can't compare them. Both address the difficulties of facing and accepting death brought on by war. The book does this in a realistic, almost 'in your face' way with its detailed depictions of soldiers' experiences, both on the front line and off, and as it delves into each character's evolving thoughts and emotions. James Jones really brings you onto the battle field and into the soldiers' minds. The movie on the other hand takes a poetic, almost ethereal approach, leaving you to wonder and reflect upon death and war. While it doesn't take you deep into all of the character's minds, the movie does offer powerful imagery and eloquent narratives to illustrate its message...as well as excellent performances by the actors themselves. I highly recommend reading this book and seeing the movie, but don't expect them to take you down the same road. And if you're expecting another "Saving Private Ryan", then you should see "Saving Private Ryan". "The Thin Red Line" is on a whole other level.
on April 13, 2006
James Jones draws the title of this book from the "thin red line between the sane and the mad." But the subtitle gives a clearer sense of the theme - "every man fights his own war."
On the surface, The Thin Red Line is strikingly similar to The Naked and the Dead. Each novel tell the stories of a group of inexperienced soldiers sent as cannonfodder to fight the Japanese on a lonely Pacific island.
But under the surface, the novels could not be more different. Norman Mailer's novel uses the war as a vehicle to preach a message about hypocricy and corruption at the core of American culture. The soldiers, not really human to start with, are manipulated and degraded by the military machine.
The soldiers in The Thin Red Line face the same experiences as Mailer's characters. But Jones' characters are realistically human. They display independent thought (rational or not) and realistic emotions (alternately strained and dampened by the extremity and exhaustion of battle). Canny or confused, each one strives to make sense of the war and of his own responses. The theme of the book is the diversity of those responses. The last line sums it up: "One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way."
Mailer gives us subhuman characters cast as soldiers; Jones helps us appreciate the humanity that survives even in the most degrading circumstances.
Although this is a novel about characters, it does not let the reader get sentimentally attached to them. I appreciated the measure of emotional distance because otherwise the (sometimes graphic) death, destruction, and mayhem would have been painful to read.
on July 21, 1999
What struck me about this book was the lack of a "message." Jones simply tells a war story without making any judgments about it. Those looking for an anti-war or pro-war message will be disappointed.
This book can be read on two levels. One can read it for its hard-hitting descriptions of combat. The fighting scenes on the various hills of Guadalcanal are somewhat tedious to read through the first time, but become clearer with a further reading. The raw impressions of the members of Charlie Company (with curses and all) are also particularly effective.
On another level, Jones seeks to describe the human (as opposed to the mechanized) element of war. He describes the raw feelings of the men of Charlie Company. Some can't wait to kill the enemy. Others want to get out at any cost. Most are just resigned to their fate. Shining examples of heroism are also to be found. Jones also discusses the nature of leadership, as well as the opportunism and politics that thrives in any military organization. Jones makes sure that we never forget that an army is first and foremost an organization of people, and that it is these human relationships that shape the war.
"The Thin Red Line" is one of the masterpieces of American war literature. If you like "The Thin Red Line", I also recommend Jones's earlier novel, "From Here to Eternity."
James Jones loves the American Soldier. He loves the men from C for Charlie Company. They are the story. He describes many events that comprise a battle, the transport, the encampment, the waiting, the shelling, the shooting, the fighting, the bravery, the cowardice. We enter the minds of those who fight. Some fight for politcal advancement. Some fight for fear of being labled a coward. Some fight just becuase they love the company and men they're fighting with. The main characters are John Bell, a former engineering officer who resigns his commission to be with his wife. He opens the story as a lowly private. The fear of being killed hardly enters his mind. He's too worried that his wife is cheating on him to think about anything else. Corporal Fife, the company clerk and coward, learns to fight and love it. 1st Sergeant Welsh is the madman leader of the non-coms who does surprisingly little fighting. He likes to walk around and stir the pot. This is probably due to his two canteens full of gin. There are many other important characters, but interesting to me is a minor one named Witt. Witt, is the doppleganger of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt from Jones first book of the trilogy From Here to Eternity. Witt, like Prewitt is a strong willed Kentuky boy who was once a regimental boxer. In this book he drifts in and out of the company as it suits him. The 1998 movie focuses on him much more than the novel.
If you are interested in World War II, you'll enjoy this book.
on January 25, 2002
The Thin Red Line is a fast paced exciting novel of combat on Guadalcanal. Forget all that you know about the dull introspective movie of the same name, the book is nothing like the movie.
The novel details the adventures of C Company as they arrive on transports and engage in two battles. At the outset of the action Guadalcanal has already been invaded and the men of C Company are part of a force that will mop up remaining Japanese forces on the island. There is a cast of dozens of characters that is too long to detail here. Most are well-formed individuals. Jones takes us into the thoughts of each man. We read each mans inner dialogue as he is forced into life or death combat situations. All are scared, some rise to the occasion, some find they enjoy killing, some go mad and many are killed or wounded. Just like real life. They do not spend their time contemplating lizards and jungle foliage as is in the movie.
The characters go through a transition from scared untested troops to battle hardened veterans all in the course of a two-day battle for a hill called the Dancing Elephant. Jones describes how they acquire the "thousand yard stare" along with a mental numbness that inures them from horrors of battle.
After the first battle the men are given a week off which they spend getting drunk. Their too-cautious Captain Stein in relieved of command and his exec, First Lieutenant Band takes over. Band is eager to prove himself and volunteers his company to lead the next assault, the battle of the Great Boiled Shrimp.
This battle is a success and the Japanese are completely defeated. Unfortunately Band is judged to be too reckless by his superiors and he too is relieved.
With these two battles behind them, a new company commander is appointed. Captain Bosche is a stranger to the men, having been transferred from another division. Many of the veterans are promoted to fill ranks thinned out by casualties. Many others find that they can talk the army doctors into transferring them away for medical care, even though some aren't very sick or disabled. The novel ends with C Company climbing into another transport to be taken to fight for another island.
Unlike many other war novels, The Thin Red Line does not have a single overarching message. In this book, war is hell but it is also fun. Killing is bad but it also exhilarating. Heroism is a complex issue here. No man is purely heroic but many do behave heroically. Some do so because they don't want to be thought cowards by their buddies, others because they are hungry for glory, medals and promotions. One soldier, "Big Un," volunteers for a dangerous mission because he's upset that the Japanese are killing captured Americans. During that mission he himself kills several Japanese who are trying to surrender, screaming at them that this will teach them not kill captured Americans.
There are a few stylistic issues that I found annoying. Jones gives every man a monosyllabic name. He insists on unnaturally referring to the company as C-for-Charlie every time he mentions it. Other companies, such a B-for-Baker, are named similarly. Natural speech would of course abbreviate familiar names. There are other similar stylistics excesses. An officer is referred to a "pickle nosed, mean and mean-looking" every time he appears. Jones probably thought he was quite the artiste in doing this but I found it annoying and distracting
These minor points aside, The Thin Red Line is enjoyable, exciting and well worth reading.
on January 11, 2000
To say that this book is outstanding is an understatement. The Thin Red Line is one of the greatest books I have ever read concerning the infantryman at war. If you liked All Quiet on the Western Front or A Midnight Clear (the books or the movies) you will love this book. Although the film is one of my favorites, I did not really understand it until I read the book on which it is based. So if you weren't too thrilled with the movie as I was, read this book and watch it again. I guarantee you will like it a whole lot more. I did. Because of this book, I now understand what my great-uncle must have gone through on Saipan and Okinawa where he was killed in action. This book made me appreciate the sacrifices of the men who fought the war in the Pacific a lot more than I already did. Depressing, terrifying, humorous, touching... Read this book immediately! You won't regret it.
on August 23, 2002
George Plimpton has stated that "The Thin Red Line" contains the best writing about war ever put on paper--"better than Tolstoy, better than anyone."
Irwin Shaw has said that one of the key obligations of novelists is "carrying the news of one generation to those that follow. If you want to know what it was like to be alive and be an American soldier during World War Two--not only in the foxholes of the front lines but in the bars, on the parade grounds, on the hospital ships and military hospitals. If you want to know what it was really like to be alive and walking the streets of 1941 Honolulu or 1943 Memphis, or to fight on Guadalcanal, then you read James Jones. He has carried the news and will be read hundreds of years from now by those who want to understand this war and this era."