The Thin Red Line – 1998
Director – Terrence Malick
Starring – Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson
Terrence Malick’s floating, lyrical film about the battle of Guadalcanal in World War 2, avoids the clichés of most other big war epics. Where other films seek to wow the audience with man’s inhumanity to other men, The Thin Red Line, instead seeks to show man’s absolute humanity. For good or for ill soldiers are people, they get scared, their motivations are often impure, and they can be tremendously courageous. Where a lot of other war films might dwell on the violence and carnage, Malick aims his camera towards the calm, and the natural stillness of the battlefield. That is not to say their isn’t a fair share of action or death, it is after all a war film, about World War 2 in the Pacific, but it isn’t this action and cruelty that makes the soldiers great, it is their compassion, their courage, and their honor.
There is no hard and fast story in this film. Instead we have a general idea of the goals of the soldiers as we lilt back and forth between the men in this company learning about how each man deals with his circumstances. We learn about each man not so much through back story, but through occasional inner monologue, and how they interact with the other men. There really isn’t a main character, although the closest thing to it would be Jim Caviezel’s character, Private Witt. The film opens with Private Witt living on an island in the South Pacific, after having gone AWOL, and follows his subsequent recapture, punishment, and re-stationing as a medic during the battle. While he is not necessarily the main character at all times, he does touch the lives of each of the soldiers featured in the film, most heavily on Sgt. Welsh, played with surprising restraint by Sean Penn.
Nature plays a big role in this film, so much so that it shows just how much the soldiers and their war, are out-of-place here. This concentration on nature provides some similarities to the films of Werner Herzog, in which nature is heavily featured and often plays a very central role in the story. While not as overt as a Herzog film, the surroundings in The Thin Red Line do provide a visual and a metaphorical juxtaposition to the action. Soldiers die in unspeakably beautiful surroundings and explosions and gun fire are the only things that drown out the roar of the river and a the call of the wildlife.
When the two sides finally see each other face to face it becomes obvious how similar they are, despite their opposing view points. Both are made up of people who are scared, opportunistic, and brave. The war makers are sitting in their respective countries, comfortable, and safe, while the war is being waged by common people with the least to gain and the most to lose.
By and large I really liked this film, aside from the compelling visuals, the acting and story telling managed to compliment the cinematography and avoid being too heavy-handed or preachy. The only weak elements in this film, in my opinion are the music, and the poetic inner monologue. The film, which runs at just under 3 hours, has the tendency to feel sluggish and repetitive, not because of the situations, not because of the lack of action, but because of the score, and the narration. This semi-dramatic undercurrent of music swells at just the right time when the emotionally confused soldier has just seen the beauty of this land destroyed by war.
Once the music swells, we get yet another semi vague, flowing, pondering on the nature of perception. These elements work just fine to a certain degree, but ultimately are used far too often to inspire emotion, or to describe the absurdity of the conflict. A huge teaching in film is, show, don’t tell. What could be inferred into this statement also, is “Don’t do both.” There are more than enough times where we understand exactly what we are supposed to, but the music swells and the narration comes in any way. These are our cues that we are supposed to be walking away with some larger message, and frankly I didn’t need them.
This film was a quite refreshing despite its slight flaws. It is rare that you come away from a war film that isn’t an actioneer type film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, feeling uplifted and generally positive. War films can be horrific, and disquieting, and contemplative, but The Thin Red Line shows that they can also be a cathartic, teaching experience, with more to offer than they take away. Well done Mr. Malick.