Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Thin Red Line

In the mid-70s a director named Terrence Malick graduated from the American Film Institutes's conservatory with a master's degree, and set about making two of the finest films in the richest decade of American cinema. Badlands (which I have not yet seen) and Days of Heaven (which is one of the best films I've ever watched) established Malick as a master filmmaker, one who could capture images of endless natural beauty and mix them with meditative scripts that were uniquely his. Days of Heaven in particular defied just about any convention you'd care to name, with its passionate love triangle filtered through the eyes of a teenage girl forced to grow long before she should have. With that film, Malick was on top of the world.

Then, he disappeared. For twenty years the world wondered where this visionary filmmaker had gone and, of course, rumors circulated. "I heard he died." "No, man, he's just living on an island somewhere." Finally, in 1995, Malick began casting for a war movie. Three years later, The Thin Red Line hit theaters, and it looked as though he'd made it right after Days.

Starring an ensemble cast including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Cusack and future torture porn star Jim Caviezel, The Thing Red Line documents the Battle of Guadalcanal through the eyes of a fictionalized group of soldiers, some fresh-faced, others old. Yet the age gaps don't mean as much in this film as they normally do in a war film; many of the educated officers are just as green in the field as their cannon fodder.

The film opens with Caviezel's character, Pvt. Witt, living AWOL with a Melanesian tribe. For him, the tiny village on the edge of the sea is Eden, a location Malick alludes to throughout the film. His paradise is short-lived; a patrol boat tracks him down and Sgt. Welsh (Penn) sends him to join the front line. As the company prepares to invade Guadalcanal, we meet yet more characters on the boat and learn more about the characters.

Even before the first battle, Malick crams two films into one. One film is a war story that subverts some war clichés without calling attention to itself, and the other is an existentialist search for spiritual truth. We start with a peek of Witt's heaven, and on the boat we learn of Colonel Tall's (Nick Nolte), a career-soldier who's never seen a battle. He speaks proudly of how he read Homer in the actual Greek, and cannot wait to see what a battle will actually look like after reading of them for so long. In his voice-over he mentions that this battle could be his last shot for a promotion before retirement. War is not necessarily his Eden, but he clearly looks forward to it.

The two aspects of the film create a dichotomy that most directors could never reconcile, but--and I humbly beg you forgive the cliché--Terrence Malick is not most directors. He captures the reedy hills of Guadalcanal with pristine detail, yet he breaks up the long, pastoral takes with quick cuts that leave the audience as confused as the soldiers. They land to find a deserted beach, but when they attempt to move in the center of the island a hidden machine gun nest mows down every advance. Even so, Tall orders his men on.

This all could have very easily devolved into the usual war archetypes, but Malick doesn't take the easy way out. Yes, Tall callously orders his men on a suicide run without considering the consequences, but when a field captain refuses he wonders if he might be wrong and heads to the front lines to see for himself. He realizes his error and the men change plans and take the bunker.

But just as Malick took much of the passion out of Bill's scheming in Days of Heaven, so too does he break up the visceral battles. Now, his battle scenes are chaotic, grand, and every bit as exciting as Spielberg's in Saving Private Ryan, but he spaces them out between meditations. If I had to hazard I guess, I'd say The Thin Red Line is Malick's way of saying that all creatures kill, and that Earth itself is our Eden, but we can never regain it. After the first grand battle, Witt disappears to another village but no longer finds comfort in it, for he sees the violence and evil even there. Malick inserts shots of crocodiles and a bird, injured by crossfire, dragging itself along the grass. In voice-overs, the characters search for meaning and they always lead to death.

I wouldn't call the film realistic, or at least not aspects of it. It gives us fleshed-out soldiers, but I doubt these kids were thinking about the nature of evil and death as mortars exploded around them. Personally, I'd be thinking "Don't die, don't die, duck! Don't die." But, of course, I can only speak for myself. However, Malick is a surprisingly adept action filmmaker; armed with a team of editors, he splices together rapid cuts to keep the viewer disoriented without ever going hog wild like more recent action purveyors. Combined with his more epic long takes, it makes for just about the most beautiful looking war film I've ever seen.

This is not my favorite war film. Hell, it's not even my favorite war film of 1998. However, it's maybe the most original and singular entry in the genre. The original running time clocked in at about 3 1/2 hours, but Malick recut the film down to just under 3, and it shows. He clearly aims for a more holistic approach rather than touching on each character individually, but even then some characters come off as barely cameos for special celebrity guests (Travolta and Clooney come to mind). I also would have liked to see some perspective from the side of the starving Japanese soldiers, but I cannot complain since we eventually got that film in the form of Clint Eastwood's masterpiece Letters From Iwo Jima (which plays not entirely unlike a companion piece to this film). Nevertheless, this is easily one of the finest war movies ever made, one that adds an approach entirely its own and, though that perspective creates some disconnect, makes for thought-provoking moments to compliment the carnage.


  1. I agree, the film was beautifully shot. But I couldn't find any meaning in the voiceover. To me it sounded like a lot of pretentious nonsense. And you're right, it's difficult to accept that soldiers would be thinking such things.

  2. It helps to have seen Malick's other films. I think his use of voice-over (and general narrative) is more a philosophical rambling than an actual story. The Thin Red Line is the search for that abstract "Truth" of human existence. I briefly touched upon that when I brought up the notion of Eden that Malick presents, but this is the more bottom line meaning of it all.

    Personally I think this trend for musing over narrative is Malick's strength and weakness, but I think he's brilliant. I can understand him being off-putting, though.