Sunday, 13 September 2015

Solomon Islands - On the Silver Screen

As part of my research for this blog, I've been reading Lonely Planet's Solomon Islands 3rd edition, which dates back to 1997. Although that's almost 20 years ago, I like to read the LP editions from the late-90's, as this coincides with my early 20's and the time when I started travelling in earnest, so I feel like I'm following paths I never took - not merely armchair travelling, but time-travelling as well!

Something that's really struck me whilst reading through this older version of Lonely Planet Solomon Islands, is the fact that most of the main 'sights' that you are recommended to visit, are ship wrecks, war graves and pieces of aircraft downed during the intense battles that raged in this part of the Pacific during World War Two.

Pacific Theatre in World War 2
On Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, Japanese Imperial forces bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, effectively declaring war on the United States and setting off a chain of events that saw Japan occupy former British colonies such as Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma, as well as islands in the Pacific such as the Philippines, Solomons and Papua New Guinea.

This Japanese expansion opened up a 'theatre' of war in the Pacific, right on the doorstep of Australia, so the Allied Australian, British and US forces were quick to respond.  Guadalcanal suddenly found itself in the spotlight, as Allied forces deployed a land invasion, capturing the main air base at Honiara and holding the island during a six-month campaign in 1942/43, which eventually saw the Japanese withdraw their forces.

The only movie I could find that was partly shot on the Solomon Islands was Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998).  Amazingly, I'd never actually seen this movie before and it wasn't like other war movies that I've watched - actually, I found it incredibly slow-moving, languorous and reflective, a welcome change from the usual action-packed movies full of explosions and violence.

Marines rest in the field in Guadalcanal
Malick has a way of expressing the horror of war, without showing the horror and I loved the fact that nature was everywhere in his movie - a painful human death would cut to the shot of a baby bird being born, or a lizard crawling on a tree.  It's like war itself is a repulsive imposition on the natural world.

For practical reasons, most of the movie was shot in Queensland, Australia, however, they did also spend twenty-four days shooting on Guadalcanal and it was really the first time I got to see the Solomon Islands on the silver screen.  The portrayal of the Solomon Islanders is fleeting and has a dreamy quality to it, the native people almost blend into the background, as nature does, removed from the war and its violent intentions.

It must have been bewildering for the Solomon Islanders to suddenly find themselves at the heart of the most globalised war in human history, when the islands had always languished in the shadows of the global stage, far removed from the forces that shaped the 20th century.  I'm sure the US soldiers' experience of Solomon Island culture was just as fleeting as in the movie and most of them would never have heard of Guadalcanal, had it not been for the Japanese invasion of the western Pacific.

Malick's movie also introduced me to the concept of ensemble epic - i.e. a large-scale movie with a massive cast of characters, each one of them claiming a similar importance of role, rather than having one or two defined 'heroes'.  Malick managed to secure a lot of really well-known actors for his movie - Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody to name but a few.  In fact he had so many actors and so many hours of footage that some performances like those of Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke and Vigo Mortensen didn't make the final cut!



The Thin Red Line is well worth seeing and different that your usual war movie - a good Sunday-afternoon watch!

Image credits:

Both images used in this blog post are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.  You can click on the images to see their source page.  
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