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"Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces are the same man."
Private Witt
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The Thin Red Line is a famous book about the battle of Guadalcanal by author James Jones. It is a philosophical work about the internal and external battles the various soldiers go through.

It was made into a movie twice, in 1964 and 1998. The more famous of the two adaptations (the 1998 one) was created by legendary reclusive auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick, whose films specialize in deep philosophizing, sumptuous nature photography, and internal dialogue by multiple characters. Malick used the film to expound on the idea that "all men have got the same soul" and are part of nature, therefore warfare is just an example of mankind fighting against himself.

The film features Loads and Loads of Characters (still more in the book) who each have their own perspectives on the battle raging around them, although most of the characters seem to be surprisingly thoughtful and articulate in their internal monologues, despite (or perhaps because) the ever present threat of impending death.

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The film is also notable for being pitted against Saving Private Ryan both at the time it came out and ever since, with the two (very different) war films being (perhaps unfairly) compared to each other and various film critics taking sides. This is owing to the fact that it depends on what kind of war movie you are looking to see.

Both movies are visceral, but Saving Private Ryan would probably be described as "action packed" and expounding the attitude that "war is hell, but sometimes necessary and we will never understand what the Greatest Generation went through." (It could even be said to have popularized this nostalgic approach to WWII.) Whereas The Thin Red Line would probably be described as "philosophical" and immersive, expounding the philosophy that men don't really know why they fight because they are part of nature, and make excuses for their violent nature.

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Please note that this article is first and foremost about the 1998 film; examples exclusive to the novel or the 1964 adaptation will be noted as such.

See also From Here to Eternity, also by James Jones.

DEFINITELY not to be confused with The Thin Blue Line.


This work contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: A truly crushing example with Bell and his wife.
  • The Ace: Captain Gaff, who is just as much of A Father to His Men as Staros, but succeeds in an assault that Starts and his men had previously failed.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Witt. The film elevates his altruism (already evident in the book) to near-messianic proportions, and does away with his eminent character flaws, such as his racism and his highly volatile temper. He also gets a Heroic Sacrifice at the end.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: In the 1998 film Tall has a tendency to fly off the handle when disobeyed and secretly has a low opinion of himself, while his book counterpart is rather composed for the most part and has a rather high opinion of himself.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Capt. James "Bugger" Stein becomes Capt. James "Bugger" Staros (Elias Koteas). His ethnicity is also changed from Jewish American to Greek American, making this a case of Actor-Shared Background.
  • Adapted Out: Several important characters do not make it into the cast of the movie.
  • Ambition Is Evil: In the 1998 film, the antagonistic LTC Tall is unconcerned with the losses in the battle because a successful attack is his last chance at a promotion. In the book, the nearly-amoral Dale is motivated by his desire to become a sergeant.
  • An Arm and a Leg: In the book Marls has his hand severed by bomb shrapnel.
  • A Father to His Men: Capt. Staros is specifically described as this.
    Staros: You're like my sons. (...) You are my sons.
    • Also invoked in George Clooney's cameo as Captain Bosche. When giving a speech to the men he describes himself as their father and Sgt Welsh as their mother. Welsh's private dialogue shows he's not impressed. The book plays it straight, with him looking out for his men whenever he can.
    • Doll and Fife become this by the end of the book after being given their own platoon.
  • The Alcoholic: Welsh is an alcoholic even by the standards of C Company (e.g. he's the only person who opts to keep gin rather than water in his hip flasks), yet still makes a competent First Sergeant because he's a Functional Addict.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they do.
  • Arcadia: The Melanesian village; Witt's memories of life on the farm; private Bell's memories of his wife.
  • Armchair Military: Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta) and captain Charles Bosche (George Clooney).
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: LTC Tall's repeated orders to attack the ridgeline.
  • Auteur License: To quote That other Wiki:
    "(The producers) gained the director's confidence by "catering to his every whim," providing him with obscure research material, including a book titled Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, an audiotape of Kodo: Heartbeat Drummers of Japan, information on the Navajo code talkers... making his travel plans and helping the director and his wife Michele get a mortgage."
  • Author Avatar: Cpl. Fife.
  • Becoming the Mask: In the book, Doll initially only pretends to be a brave war hero, simply trying to prop himself up. Much to his surprise, he continues to volunteer himself for more and more dangerous missions and performing a one-man attack on Japanese riflemen that causes Captain Gaff to recommend him for a Distinguished Service Cross. By the end of the book he has become the head of a platoon and is A Father to His Men, being the closest the book has to a completely heroic character.
  • Beneath the Mask: The narration shows different sides of several characters and how different they are from how others perceive them.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: In the book Bead is a rather shy fellow and something of an Extreme Doormat, but he utterly annihilates a Japanese soldier with his own bayonet.
  • Break the Cutie: McCron after his squad is killed.
  • The Big Guy: Corporal Queen and the book-only character Big Un Cash.
  • Big Guy Fatality Syndrome: Cash.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The Japanese soldiers' untranslated lines.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The soldiers manage to take Guadalcanal, but many of the characters don't make it.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: The entire film. Regarding Malick's vision of the film, the producers said,
    "Malick's Guadalcanal would be a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison, as Terry used to call it, of war. Much of the violence was to be portrayed indirectly. A soldier is shot, but rather than showing a Spielbergian bloody face we see a tree explode, the shredded vegetation, and a gorgeous bird with a broken wing flying out of a tree."
  • Blood Knight:
    • The excessively savage Dale.
    • Queen in the book goes on a rampage during a battle and gleefully murders his way through the Japanese, only stopping when his rifle jams.
    • LTC Tall is glad to finally have the opportunity to command troops in a real war, and urges his soldiers to attack the enemy with fierce aggression.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Queen, in the book.
  • Boom, Headshot!: In the book this is how Pvt. Earl dies.
  • Camping a Crapper: Subverted in the book. Bead is ambushed by a Japanese soldier while pooping, but messily kills the Japanese soldier in self-defense.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough
    A unit is like a family. Every family has a father, that's me. Sergeant Welsh here is the mother.
  • Card Sharp: Nellie Coombs (in the novel).
  • Central Theme: The central themes of the movie seem to be: "Is war an inevitable part of human civilization or not? Is war just a nonsensical tragedy or does it have some bright side as well? Does nature suffer from war at least as much as humans?" The answer is up to you, dear tropers.
    • Private Train invokes this in one of his inner monologues:
      This great evil, where does it come from?
      How'd it steal into the world?
      What seed, what root did it grow from?
      Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us, robbing us of life and light?
      Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known.
      Does our ruin benefit the earth?
      Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?
      Is this darkness in you, too?
      Have you passed to this night?
  • Chewing the Scenery: Nick Nolte performing Ltc. Tall's furious rants.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Witt feels drawn to sacrifice himself for the good of others.
  • Communications Officer: Cpl. Fife serves as the company's radioman in the first battle.
  • Composite Character: In the film Keck (Woody Harrelson) combines elements of Keck and Big Un Cash from the book.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Witt's character (Prewitt) dies in From Here to Eternity, Dash Mihok's character (Pfc. Doll) is the focus of the 1968 film by Cinemascope, and Pvt. Train was meant to be an Audience Surrogate.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Bell gets such a letter, much to his grief. It's a literal example as well, since his name is John ("Jack" in the film).
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • In the 1964 film, Welsh dies in a Heroic Sacrifice moment.
    • Witt survived the novel, but isn’t as luck in the 1998 film.
  • Death by Irony: In the book 2LT Whyte believes he will survive the war and leads his men into a dangerous area as he feels that he (and he alone) will be unharmed. Almost immediately after he gives the order to charge, he is shot by a sniper.
  • Death Seeker: Sgt. McCron (John Savage), after a Break the Cutie moment when we see him praying with his men in the hull of the landing craft.
    Why did they have to die and I'm still here? Huh!? I can stand right here, and not— one— bullet!
  • Defector from Decadence: Witt, with his pacifist worldview, repeatedly goes AWOL. The beginning of the film has him enjoying life in a Melanesian village.
  • Demoted to Extra: Adrien Brody was cast in the lead role. You'd be forgiven for not noticing he was even in the movie.
  • Dirty Coward: In the book Fife believes himself to be one, though in reality he is more of a Cowardly Lion.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In the book, a clearly stressed Fife snaps at Band when Band tries to tell him his helmet story. Band then places Fife in the rifle squad, the most dangerous job in the company in a gambit to get him killed.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Half The entire movie, but especially the tracking shots through the tall-grass during the hill assault.
    • There is also a scene with the capture of the bunker, where one of the Japanese soldiers sits meditating in the middle of all the carnage surrounding him.
  • The Dog Bites Back: In the novel a drunk and pissed off Fife confronts Weld for stealing his job, and when Weld attempts to attack Fife by surprise, Fife proceeds to beat the ever loving shit out of him.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: LTC Tall may be commanding in the field rather than presiding over basic training, but he takes a similar browbeating attitude towards his subordinates and seems to feel like they need remedial education in manliness and obedience.
  • During the War: War Was Beginning long beforehand.
  • Epic Movie: This movie ticks a lot of boxes: Based on a classic war novel, about a famous battle, directed by a difficult genius, all-star cast, three hours long, scored by a well-known Hollywood composer... it's got the works.
  • Expy: The characters are all recapitulated from Jones' previous novels. In From Here to Eternity, Witt is named Prewitt, is a boxer, and dies in that book.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Witt recalls his mother's quiet acceptance of her impending demise and hopes he will act the same way when the time comes. He does.
    • In the book Lieutenant Gray, after being mortally wounded in battle, calmly prays his own last rites and asks Bell to pray for his soul, before continuing to pray as he bleeds out.
  • Famous Last Words: In the book:
    • "Come on, boys. Let’s go get ‘em!" 2LT Bill Whyte
    • "Oh my God!" PVT Wynn
    • "Goodby. Goodby Welsh." PVT Alfredo Tella
    • "What a fucking recruit trick to pull." SGT Keck
    • "Oh Fife. Oh Captain." PVT Bead
  • Field Promotion / Rank Up: happens everywhere in the book, the most notable examples being John Bell and "Skinny" Culn), two NCOs who get a commission.
  • The Film of the Book: Two of them. Both are pretty faithful to the source material.
  • Foil: Lt. Col. Tall to Capt. Staros (the former is career-oriented, the latter is genuinely sensitive to the needs of his men); Welsh (the materialist with an individualistic outlook on life) to Witt (the idealist who believes himself to be part of a bigger whole).
    • The 1964 movie pits Welsh (a career military who plays by the rules of the war) and Doll (a survivalist opportunist) against each other.
  • Foreshadowing: Witt's mom's death.
  • Freak Out: McCron suffers a nervous breakdown after all of his men are killed in battle.
  • Ghibli Hills: The Melanesian village.
  • Glory Hound: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte). "You're young. Y-you've got your war. This is my first war."
    • Brass Band in the book, called "Glory Hunter" behind his back.
  • Gorn: In the book, Bead's killing of the Japanese soldier.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Both the Japanese and American soldiers commit atrocities and suffer During the War.
  • Guttural Growler: LTC Tall.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Witt (in the book only), Lt. Col. Tall (in the film only).
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom: The Navy cruiser arrives off the coast of the Melanesian paradise looking for Witt and Train.
  • Heroic BSoD: Sgt. McCron (John Savage) is mentally broken shortly into the film when his entire platoon is wiped out, causing him to have a bad flash back to his experiences as a soldier in another life.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In the 1998 film Witt draws the attention of an approaching Japanese column to buy time for the rest of his unit to escape. He gets surrounded and allows himself to get gunned down.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Welsh's gruff, cynical exterior and pragmatic worldview effectively hide the compassion that he feels for his men.
    Witt: You care about me, don't you, sergeant? I always felt like you did. Why do you always make yourself out like a rock?
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Keck accidentally blows himself up with his own grenade.
  • Holding Hands: The dying Bead asks Fife to hold his hand.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: The very last scene shows a coconut sprouting on the beach.
  • Hungry Jungle: Col. Tall: "You see those vines? How they twine around, swallowing everything? Nature's cruel."
  • Hypocritical Humor: In the book Mazzi brags about how he wasn’t afraid of the scattered bits of enemy fire while mocking Tills, Fife, and MacTae for doing so. Then an unseen Japanese soldier fires at them, and everyone (Mazzi included) jumps to the ground.
Tills: (Flipping the Bird) Not even once you weren’t scared?
Mazzi: And I guess you stood there like a big fat fucking hero, fuckface.
  • Irrational Hatred: In the book Welsh hates Fife mainly because Fife is intelligent, but not intelligent enough to share Welsh's nihilistic world view and thus assigns Fife to demeaning jobs and harasses him constantly. This continues even after Fife does have the same nihilistic realization Welsh did, and in fact begins treating him even worse by replacing him with Weld and taking pleasure in Band placing Fife in the rifle squad.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Witt, in the 1998 film.
  • It Has Been an Honor: In an odd variation, Staros implies this to his men after being relieved of command.
  • It Never Gets Any Easier: "Have you ever had anyone die in your arms, sir?"
  • Jerkass: Mazzi, Band, and Dale in the book.
  • Jumping on a Grenade: Sgt. Keck, after he accidentally detonates his own.
  • Jungle Warfare: Most of the film is centered around US Army troops patrolling in the vast jungles of Guadalcanal, battling the elements, disease, the jungle itself, and of course, the Imperial Japanese Army.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Welsh.
    Welsh: The world's blowing itself to hell just about as fast as we can arrange it. Only one thing a man can do - find something that's his, and make an island for himself.
    Welsh: Still believing in the beautiful light? I wish I knew how you did that. Because me, I can't feel nothing.
    later: Where's your spark now? [cries over Witt's grave at the end]
  • Emotions Versus Stoicism: Characters in the book note that failing to feel anything does wonders for their performance in combat.
  • Lack of Empathy: "combat numbness" (Emotion Suppression induced by the horrors of the war) leads everyone to temporarily lose the ability to feel. Discussed in the movie, when Storm remarks that he's no longer able to empathize with the suffering around him and Welsh wishes he could say the same about himself.
  • Large Ham: LTC Tall (Nick Nolte) earns a place next to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and General Patton in the ranks of hardass, over-the-top U.S. army bosses.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In the book Whyte, after getting two scouts shot by Japanese riflemen, sends in his men anyway despite the obvious danger and being unable to locate the riflemen, with the narration making it clear he does this only because he believes that he will survive. Immediately after he gives the order to charge, he is shot dead.
  • Like a Son to Me
    Tall: You feel like a son to me, John. [beat] You know what my son does? He's a bait salesman.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To a Rudyard Kipling poem, which also makes up half of the book's epigraph. (It's also an allusion to a Midwestern saying, which makes up the other half).
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: It's been said there's only one character in the movie, and it's Charlie company.
  • Long Take: Some of the tracking shots during the hill assault.
  • Mangst: All the characters, for various reasons.
  • Mauve Shirt: Sgt. Keck, after tremendous build-up, dies accidentally a horribly short way into the film when he pulls the pin instead of the grenade.
  • Meaningful Echo: Witt's opening monologue about his mother. Can double as a Tear Jerker on a repeat viewing. (It's quite possible due to the nature of the movie, and its length that you have forgotten exactly what he said at the start.)
  • Meaningful Name: The book notes that, oddly enough, Welsh is actually of Welsh origins.
  • Mercy Kill: A variation occurs when Welsh delivers morphine to the mortally wounded Tella, who proceeds to shoot himself up with it.
  • Military Moonshiner: Nellie Coombs in the novel.
  • Mind Screw: If "all men got one big soul", then every soldier's internal monologue is really the same character trapped in a different body. But only Witt realizes this.
  • Narrator All Along: A variation. Significant portions of the voice-over (including the opening monologue) cannot be immediately attributed to any of the major characters; the ending shows them to be the thoughts of Pvt. Train.
  • The Neidermeyer: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), a "Captain Queeg"-like character, only more effective.
    • True to form, he is pitted against Capt. Staros.
      Staros: We had a man, gut shot out, on the slope, sir. It created quite an upset.
      Tall: Fine! Fine! Now what about those reinforcements!
      Staros: My company alone cannot take that position, sir.
      Tall: You're not going to take your men into the jungle to avoid a god damned fight.
      Now do you hear me, Staros! I want you to attack. I want you to attack right now with every man at your disposal. Now attack, Staros!
      Tall: (later) It's never necessary to tell me that you think I'm right. We'll just... assume it.
      Staros: We need some water... the men are passing out.
      Tall: The only time you should start worrying about a soldier is when they stop bitchin'.
    • Downplayed in that he secretly has a low opinion of himself, as revealed in the internal monologue.
      Tall: Shut up in a tomb. Can't lift the lid. Playing a role I never conceived.
    • Band in the book is a Glory Hound through and through, and once placed in command of Charlie Company he gets men killed with his incompetence and his quest for glory, and places Fife in the rifle squad out of spite. This winds up getting him removed from his position by his superiors and Band leaves Guadalcanal disgraced.
  • Noble Savage: The Melanesian village. The first one Witt goes AWOL on is paradise on earth, untouched by Western ways. The second one is scarred by war and the people avoid him like the plague.
  • Not So Stoic: The normally indifferent and composed Welsh sheds a few tears at Witt's grave.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: [[spoiler: After leading them on a merry chase to give his Company time to escape, Witt gets surrounded by Japanese troops pointing their guns at him. After a long standoff he provokes them to shoot him by raising his rifle, dying without fear or regret.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting : At the beginning, the requiem "In Paradisum" from Gabriel Fauré. There is also Melanesian singing at some points.
  • The Philosopher:
    • Witt, a fact which is especially evident in his inner monologues.
    • Train (the red-haired private) is responsible for the film's first and last monologues.
  • Pineapple Surprise: Sgt. Keck's death by his own grenade.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Capt. Staros, who prays for his men's safety before battle.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Capt. Stein/Staros, who (at the cost of his career) refuses a direct order for what he deems a suicidal frontal attack. His successor, Capt. Bosche, appears to be this, too, at least in the book.
    • Captain Gaff also makes a The Men First, request to Colonel Tall after taking the hill.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the book a drunk Mazzi gives one to Band for being a Glory Hound and The Neidermeyer, getting his men killed, and how he constantly tells his men the story of how his helmet was pierced by an artillery shell.
Mazzi: Come out, you son of a bitch! I said come out, you cowardly shit-eater! Come on out and find out what the men in your outfit think of you, Band! You want to know what we think about you? We call you Glory Hunter! Come on out and volunteer us for something else! C’mon out and ged some more of us killed! You gonna make Captain for takin us to Boola Boola, Glory Hunter? How many medals you ged for that roadblock, Glory Hunter? You’re a prick, Band! A schmuck! C’mon out and I’ll take you myself! Everybody in this outfit hates your guts! Did you know that, Band? How does it feel, Band, how does it feel? You think that fucking helmet makes any goddamn difference? You think anybody cares about the fucking goddamn helmet?
Soldier: Let’s git back to some serious drinking.
Mazzi: You really think that fucking hero helmet means anything alongside all the good men that are really dead?
Suss: Come on, Frankie.
Mazzi: And that’s what we think of you! And so court martial me!
  • Re-Cut: The original cut was five hours. In addition to the stars who were cut out of the film, George Clooney and John Travolta's parts were meant to be bigger. Probably the most reduced role was that of Adrien Brody, who played Corporal Fife. In the script, his role was advertised as the lead and had the most dialogue. Brody though that the role would provide him with his big break. However, in the final version, Brody only has one line of dialogue and is barely on screen at all. Brody was upset with the change.
  • The Resenter:
    • In the film, Lt. Col. Tall resents being passed over for promotion.
    • In the book Fife resents Stein for calling him unfit for the field in his notes on Fife’s request to become an infantry officer. Fife mostly keeps this to himself, though he has a few outbursts at Stein.
    • In the book Dale resents Storm and the rest of the cooking crew for little reason.
    • In the book Witt quietly seethes at Stein and the rest of the commanding officers who transferred him. He also resents Fife and breaks off there friendship after Fife tells him that the only way to stay in Charlie Company is to beg Stein, and tells Witt (who refuses to do so) that if he does not he will be moved. Still, Witt notes that he would still save Fife if the situation came to it.
  • Scenery Porn: The entire film. Some entire scenes consist of contemplative shots of a coconut growing on the beach, water falling off leaves, birds and animals trying their best to ignore the carnage.
  • Sergeant Rock: First Sgt. Edward Welsh.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several.
  • Shout-Out: The narration paraphrases a lot of poets.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Private Witt is constantly taunted by his superiors for being a naive dreamer.
  • Situational Sexuality: Occurs several times in the book, the earliest example being between Fife and Bead.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism:
    • The film is a rumination on war and nature; initially it shows the world in a pessimistic light, noting the conflict between the two powers of nature - however, the final scenes suggest that our universe is essentially harmonious.
    • The sliding scale also appears in arguments between Witt (idealism) and Welsh (cynicism).
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Dale, although he does have a Heel Realization in the film (in the book, not so much).
  • Southern-Fried Private: Southern-accented Witt is of the highly-articulate variety.
  • Standard Snippet: Journey To The Line has become one.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Bell's wife is shown playing on a swing, an activity in which she looks especially lively and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: 2LT Whyte being shot by a Japanese rifleman in both the book and the film.
  • Team Chef: Sgt. Storm is the company cook, which the book (unlike the movie) makes clear.
  • Team Mom: In the book, McCron has the reputation of a "mother hen". Additionally, in both the 1998 film and the book Captain Bosche refers to Welsh's role within the company as this.
  • Those Two Guys: Mazzi and Tills, although they seem to dislike each other.
  • Token Good Teammate: Witt is the only soldier who never lets the war corrupt his sense of right and wrong.
  • Undignified Death: Sgt. Keck accidentally pulls the pin off his own grenade while it's still strapped to him, mortally wounding him in his butt and private parts. He curses himself for making a stupid mistake, and begs his comrades to pretend that he died gloriously in combat.
  • The Voiceless: Catt from the novel is most well known in Charlie Company for not speaking at all.
  • War Is Hell:
    • And apparently not just for humans. Many of the most haunting shots in the movie involve nature being destroyed and ravaged by war. One particularly gruesome scene is a close-up of a mortally scorched baby parrot, slowly twitching and dying in the burnt grass. Damn.
    • There's also a scene in which a soldier remarks that he had seen burnt corpses of both men and dogs, and there wasn't really any difference between them.
  • Warrior Poet:
    • Witt is a philosopher who speculates about war, nature, and the human soul.
    • Ltc. Tall studied Homer at West Point, in the original Greek no less. He quotes from the verse about "rosy-fingered Dawn".
  • We Have Reserves: Ltc. Tall orders that a heavily defended ridge be captured by frontal assault, treating the prospect of heavy casualties as an acceptable tradeoff. Staros's inability to take this attitude creates friction between them.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • A character removes teeth from (either live or dead) Japanese prisoners using pliers, then later has an emotional breakdown and throws the bag of teeth away.
    • While less prominent in the film, it is one the novel's major themes; the characters' inner thoughts often deal with them battling the realization that they could get away with immoral things in wartime.

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