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Holy Hell! The Thin Red Line Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Thin Red Line Turns 20

Most war movies are ensemble pictures, but few feel as truly egalitarian as this.

Film director and WWII vet Samuel Fuller infamously derided the overwhelming majority of war movies, including and especially the ones that professed to be anti-war, as little more than “recruitment pictures” whose thrilling but fundamentally safe replications of live combat and courage under fire would only encourage impressionable young moviegoers to enlist in search of their own cinema-worthy story. You certainly couldn’t find a better example of this than Saving Private Ryan, 1998’s giant smash that sought to convey the absurdist moral calculus of military strategy and the near-impossibility of humanity in war and instead crafted the non-plus ultra of contemporary action cinema, reducing the meat grinder of the war to a series of badass heroism and iconic sacrifice.

All of this makes the year’s other WWI movie, The Thin Red Line, all the more remarkable. From its opening image–a crocodile receding into mossy water–the film makes it clear that it operates from a perspective distinct from the soldiers trapped on Guadalcanal. The camera remains intimate with its characters; with Terrence Malick directing, no war movie has ever felt so close with its GIs. Yet the film is intimate in such a way as to home in on the characters’ emotional responses to battle while never getting caught up in the rush of combat. Shot as if from the perspective of the earth itself, the movie regards war as something so endemic to humanity that to be for or against it is vanity. It simply is, though the pockmarks it leaves on the planet speak above all to a species more ruinous than any who preceded it.

Most war movies are ensemble pictures, but few feel as truly egalitarian as this. At first, Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) seems like the protagonist: introduced as an AWOL peacenik musing poetically on his surroundings and the indigenous people with whom he has hidden, Witt is the most Malickian figure present. But soon he is drawn back into a huge cast of grunts and officers whose own idle narrations offer contrasting views of their assignment. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who leads a regiment, radiates concern for his men, while commanding officer Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), a colonel hoping to make general before retirement, muses on the outrage of watching younger men promoted past him as he blithely orders attacks at all costs to look good for top brass. Even in the midst of a hellish firefight, men can ruminate on the futility of their task, or on a loved one back home. These are all clichés of the genre, but by being woven into a constantly drifting tapestry of innermost thoughts, such thoughts are freed from the hackneyed burden of such information. The narration is not simply a means to define each character but to place them as points on a larger map of expression, one fragmented by everything except a shared sense of overwhelming fear.

As for the battle scenes themselves, Malick and cinematographer John Toll achieve an extraordinary, mercurial approach that manages to stick close to the soldiers without ever trying to feel like one of them. The Guadalcanal campaign brutality is captured in shots of soldiers sneaking through long grass and firing wildly at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Even as the Americans advance, there’s no real sense of battle progression as Japanese can emerge from seemingly anywhere, popping up from hiding holes or suddenly revealing a machine gun nest as a hail of bullets cuts through a group of men. There are heroic acts to be seen–medics operating under fire, a sergeant (Sean Penn) risks death not to save a wounded comrade but simply to give the doomed man enough morphine to send him to a quick, peaceful death rather than one of agony–but by and large questions of bravery are rendered moot in the face of sheer survival instinct. Whenever anyone is recommended for a commission or medal, their blank faces reflect the absurdity of rewarding someone for surviving a fight when the survival was the only relevant reward in the first place. Most often, however, the camera is at the mercy of nature, rushing with gusts of wind that ripple the grass, or watching a wounded bird flail on the ground or a cobra to slither past some marksmen, hissing at their intrusion into its territory.

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at Malick is his supposed squeamishness toward the physical reality of human beings, that his sensual style avoids any of the vulgarities of the human condition. Typically this is said in reference to the director’s approach to sex, but he has also often shied away from direct violence. Here, however, he gives a brutal, unsentimental view of the impact of war on men barely out of their teens, if that. Whenever someone gets pinned down by enemy fire, his face betrays utter terror, and there never seem to be quite enough volunteers for a dangerous maneuver. In the film’s most disturbing scene, Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson), grabs a grenade by the pin, ripping out the primer and leaving him with just enough time to throw the grenade still on his belt against an embankment to absorb the explosion and save those around him. As the bleeds out from the wound, Keck can only moan softly about being unable to have sex anymore with his ruined groin, a thought that comes to his brain before the usual bestowal of a letter home to a trusted comrade. It’s one of the most unsparing scenes ever put into a war movie, excising the most graphic views to focus solely on the look of despair on the man’s face as he lives his final seconds in shame.

Even the Japanese soldiers are afforded respect and empathy. Though the voiceover narration does not extend to them, the men are shown not to be fanatical fighters simply due to dogma or a death drive but in large part thanks to a supply shortage that has left them completely malnourished and rotting. When the Americans finally break through to the Japanese camp, there’s no sense of victory as they find men who look more like the inmates of a POW facility than the force who inflicted such heavy casualties on the GIs. The denouement of The Thin Red Line is the most dour and drained in war fiction, filled with pent-up trauma, Dear John letters, and a change of command that provides a wholly different personality than Tall yet feels like more of the same for the beleaguered men. Malick sends us off with one final reflection from Witt, who literalizes the band-of-brothers talk of military cliché by imagining everyone, ally and enemy alike, as one linked soul at war with itself. Faced with this hopeful but troubling interpretation, Witt can only pray that the light wins out in the end.

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