The Thin Red Line

Dir: Terrence Malick


Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

“What’s this war in the heart of nature?” asks a disembodied voiceover at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, one of the best films ever made about World War II. “Why does nature vie with itself?” Shadowed by another World War II feature also released in 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s 171 minute epic, has emerged as the more indispensible of the pair. For all of Spielberg’s technical brio, Private Ryan lacks the beating heart and philosophical searching that power Malick’s film.

Nearly 20 years had passed since Malick’s last feature (his masterpiece Days of Heaven) and The Thin Red Line, now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. During that time the filmmaker, who had only directed Badlands and Heaven, became Hollywood’s Holy Grail. It’s no wonder actors like Sean Penn clambered to work with the publicity shy director when he emerged to shoot The Thin Red Line in the Australian jungles. Based on the 1962 novel by James Jones (From Here to Eternity), the story takes place during the siege of Guadalcanal, a bloody campaign that lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 in the South Pacific Theatre.

Rather than focus on a band of brothers trying to save the life of one man, Malick’s film instead looks at the unit as a living organism. “Almost every man in The Thin Red Line is an everyman, lost in the bewilderness, struggling to survive under conditions as baffling as they are horrific,” writes critic David Sterritt. That is true, while each of the film’s principal characters has his own personality, Malick is more interested in the duality of good and evil, that exists not only in man, but in nature. “Darkness and light, strife and love,” opines a voiceover near the end of the film, “are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

Featuring a cast that mixes veteran stars (Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta) with unknowns who would soon become stars (Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Thomas Jane), I have always grappled with the appearance of people like Travolta and Clooney in a film that is ultimately more about its young characters. However, getting financing for the film without the big names attached was impossible and Malick gives most of the big actors (save Penn and Nolte in sizable roles) just one scene.

In Jones’ novel, the thin red line is defined as the tenuous boundary “between the sane and the mad.” Of course, war is hell, but that thin red line also exists in life’s other arenas. The film begins with a crocodile slipping into water until it is completely hidden. Malick warns us that in the calm depths of this pool lurks something dangerous. For anyone expecting an action movie (and there is plenty of that here), the first 10 minutes of the film may be jarring. Private Witt (Caviezel) is AWOL, enjoying life in a Melanesian village, swimming with the children and spending shirtless days in paradise. Malick juxtaposes this idyll with images of swaying vegetation and colorful birds, establishing nature itself as prime character in the film. But soon enough, war comes to Witt and claims him back.

More than any other movie I’ve seen, The Thin Red Line is a sensual experience, so richly detailed and textured that its images leap from the screen. I could smell the musty house where Witt’s mother passes away, feel the rough hewn edges of sawgrass as the soldiers push towards the Japanese encampment, experience the trace of the fingers and lips of Private Bell’s (Ben Chaplin) wife as he fantasizes her image to take his mind away from the war.

Malick’s script eschews the grimy platitudes of other war movies, relying heavily on disembodied voiceovers, much of which are poetic musings about the nature of things. Sure, characters speak to one another, but the true meaning of what they say emerges in the voiceover soliloquies. Along with Han Zimmer’s score, these profound segments remove us from the base frankness of exploding bodies and spilling intestines. But yet, the dying soldiers and haunting voices are all one and the same. “Oh my soul,” begins the final monologue, “let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look at the things you made.”While the meaning of these words remain elusive, after three hours of images so beautiful and so horrific, it somehow makes sense.

The film ends with an image of a new tree sprouting out of what could be a coconut, the gentle waves lapping around it in near silence. The reflection of the fresh shoot doubles as itself in the water. Despite all the death that fills these hours, somehow this new life has found hold, grappling through the horrors to reach up towards the sunlight.

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