The Thin Red Line (1998)
Written & Directed by Terence Malick
War movies should always be horror movies. Terence Malick seems to have had this in mind when he shot The Thin Red Line, a film made after a twenty-year absence. Malick’s journey adapting the novel by James Jones began in 1988, his producers agreed to help him bring the book to the screen. What followed was a decade of some of the most in-depth research a filmmaker could embark on. Malick consumed everything directly and tangentially related to the story. He read books on the reptiles and amphibians of the Pacific region, the Navajo code talkers, and immersed himself in traditional Japanese drum music. Malick’s ultimate vision of the Pacific theater of World War II was to portray the island of Guadacanal as “raped by the green poison,” a term he used to refer to war.
It’s a shame that this film came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan and was eclipsed by that movie’s acclaim. The Thin Red Line is the superior film in its emotional depth and spiritual maturity. Saving Private Ryan is, like most of Spielberg’s work, too eager to gloss over the horror to hint at some noble pursuit beneath the act of war. As in Ryan, there is an act of sacrifice that caps off the picture, but Malick’s lamb is informed not by the duties of his uniform but by a more primal, elemental connection to all nature. There is specific time allotted to spotlighting the Japanese soldiers, allowing us to see how war has ravaged their minds and souls. The American soldiers seem to struggle as the picture goes on with justifying what they are doing; only when commanding officers imbibe them with distractions are they able to crack and smile and momentarily forget.
Malick seems to be the business of building cathedrals, his films are sacred places where light penetrates the darkness. His characters are floating, both existing within their present moment and in oneness with all that has come before and that which might be one day. There is no real central character though Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt could be seen as one. The camera changes its perspective when needed, allowing the inner voice of all characters to speak, contemplating their lives, and the substantial charge they are burdened with.
Elias Koteas’s Captain Staros is a fascinatingly complex character, leading his soldiers in a suicide mission to take a bunkered-in group of Japanese. Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is barking through the phone that Staros needs to send his men up that hill, death be damned. Staros stands up for the lives of his men, understanding the subtext of the ambitious Tall. We learn through Tall’s inner monologue that he was too young for World War I and now an old man amid World War II. He sees this command as an avenue to boost himself up in the ranks, the war an ambitious opportunity for a promotion. This involves erasing the humanity of the Japanese and his own men. They are pieces shuffled around the board in the hopes Tall can gain more territory.
While the setting and period are Guadacanal in the 1940s, Malick has a way of elevating the proceedings. These are both moments intimate and epic, magnifying tiny human sufferings into moments of transcendental understanding. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) is one of the more fascinating characters, who advises Witt to close himself off to his fellow man, harden his heart as a method to endure this terrible war. Witt is picked up from going AWOL, living on a remote island among native people whose way of life pulls him in. When he arrives on Guadacanal, he sees natives to that place transformed into ghosts, stumbling along and invisible to the soldiers occupying their home. Some natives are directly assisting the Americans, even wearing helmets and holding that thousand-yard stare of the shaken and traumatized.
The Thin Red Line is a film that works at its own pace and its own structure. This causes friction with the general audience, but like all Malick’s work, this is pure art. The movie is full to the brim with theme, characters, and beauty. It finds moments of intense love in the middle of a fiery raging hell. This is a great war film that truly informs its audience about what war does to people.