Sunday 24 May 2015


(Cornel Wilde, 1967)

Beach Red is the story of an American attack on a Japanese-held Island in the Pacific during World War 2. It opens with an almost 40 minute long sequence of the preparation for and action of the landing on the Island's beaches by the Americans, then follows one unit as they move inland, sending out various recon patrols and encountering pockets of resistance. This sort of material had been covered in a hundred films before, as well as in such novels as James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and Mailers "The Naked & the Dead". But Wilde avoided the cliches of many of those films while adopting a sensitive, meditative approach suggesting he was aware of the novels. Beach Red uses several risky stylistic techniques in its attempt to tell this story differently. Wilde uses first person point of view shots. He throws in moments when we hear the men's musings in brief snatches of voiceover as they think their frightened, selfish, sentimental thoughts. His Captain thinks, a little comedically : "Would there be Wars if clocks were never invented?" Other men ponder their own fear of death, their chances of survival, their loved ones at home. He also features visual flashbacks, generally played out in artful montages of still photos, representing (surprisingly effectively) the memories playing through these men's minds under high stress. Men remember wives, lovers, children, houses. Several key men are given actual flashbacks, always to encounters with women. Wilde's own flashbacks to his wife (Wilde's then-wife Jean Wallace) are poetic and melancholy, the effect lessened slightly by images of his son playing with a toy gun leadenly intercut with shots of men dying on the battlefield.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because Wilde's film seems to have been a definite influence on Malick's sublime The Thin Red Line.
Beach Red features a moment where the advancing Americans troop though a field, passing by a still, ancient-looking native farmer, as does The Thin Red Line. Both feature cutaways to the Island's wildlife, both treat the Japanese defenders sympathetically, even acknowledging their inner lives (Wilde with flashbacks, Malick with a voiceover). Both feature conflict between pragmatic, stoic Sergeants and liberal, sensitive Officers. Beach Red may be Wilde's most beautiful film, it's lovely attempt to capture the play of shadow and light beneath the jungles canopy only slightly bettered by Malick's film. Wilde's film also seems to have influenced Saving Private Ryan, in the horrible violence of its beach landing scenes (which of course seem utterly tame in comparison with Spielberg's ordeal) and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in its even-handed portrayal of the Japanese side of the conflict. Violence and what it morally reveals about mankind was obviously a theme which interested Wilde, since it is central to The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and his next film as director, No Blade of Grass (1970). Beach Red stands out as a memorable and inventive combat film, and again its success is partly down to Wilde's determination to concentrate so singlemindedly upon the action at its centre. We are shown nothing of the wider campaign, and only learn of the men's pasts as they tell one another. Instead we follow them through this primordial jungle and all of the surreal horror of battle together. Distant explosions are picked out by Wilde's camera, but he is only really interested in what is happening inside these men as they deal with the violence closer to hand. The idea of violence reducing men somehow, tearing them away from civilization, is suggested. The film's most memorable moment may just be the one which best fuses the interior and exterior worlds of one soldier - as he lies dying by a tree, mentally listing his conquests, Wilde shockingly pours blood in a thick drip down a still photo montage, and the man dies.

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