THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
US soldiers ponder the mysteries of life, death and nature during the battle for Guadalcanal in 1942.
Terrence Malick, a former academic philosopher and magazine journalist, made his debut as director-writer with Badlands (1973), a relatively conventional movie by his later standards, although already showing him to be a filmmaker with a striking and idiosyncratic vision. He followed it up with Days of Heaven (1978), where his poetic but precise style came fully to the fore, then disappeared from the screen for two decades before releasing The Thin Red Line in 1998.
The movie is possibly his best—peak Malick, as it were—a seamless blending of the director’s unique and instantly recognisable contemplative style with a strong, if intentionally disjointed, narrative and a convincingly realised historical setting.
He didn’t continue far down this line. Although The New World (2005) was—like The Thin Red Line and its predecessors—anchored in story even while it revelled in poetry, by the time of The Tree of Life (2011) Malick had largely abandoned plot, or at least relegated it to a secondary role in movies which are best viewed as poems or philosophical essays. The Tree of Life, incidentally also the first Malick movie to be set (partly) in the present day, is perhaps the most convincing rival to The Thin Red Line as the director’s best work—but critical reception for his subsequent movies (some of them taking The Tree of Life’s abstract tendencies even further) was poor until A Hidden Life (2019).
The Thin Red Line is pure Malick from the beginning: a crocodile, a huge organ chord, sun-dappled foliage… a voiceover meditates on nature (why does it contain so much conflict within itself?)… a group of Melanesian kids appear to the strains of the ethereal final movement from Fauré’s “Requiem”. Finally, we meet a character—Private Witt (Jim Caviezel)—rowing a canoe and grinning. It’s a war film that opens with pure peace, then, and this contrast is pursued throughout The Thin Red Line both in structure and in tone, with an odd calmness pervading even the most frenetic moments. A feeling of suspended time.
The peace is soon broken by the appearance of an American patrol boat off the shore of this Pacific island, and before long Witt’s below decks on a larger ship with Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). We learn that Witt had gone AWOL in paradise, but now he’s back with his fellow soldiers in Charlie Company, preparing for the assault on Guadalcanal. The rest of the movie, like James Jones’s novel (although Malick’s adaptation is more lyrical and takes much less interest in individual characters) and the now largely forgotten 1964 movie adaptation, follows the company through the battle to retake Guadalcanal from the Japanese in August 1942. There’s no single lead, but Witt, Welsh, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), and Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) are the glue holding an episodic narrative together.
It’s a numinous film—Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life might be speaking of The Thin Red Line when she declaims “love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light”—but a gorgeous one, thanks to John Toll’s cinematography as well as Malick’s direction. Many of the filmmaker’s trademark devices (flashbacks, voiceovers, shots of animals and plant life) are employed liberally but never overdone. And if the natural world can occasionally seem forcibly inserted into Malick’s films, here its omnipresence never feels contrived given the setting.
Shots are frequently taken from low angles, showing characters immersed in their environment, even literally immersed in water. This prelapsarian world is not simply a backdrop for human events; Malick is depicting humans as being completely in it, as parts of a creation that also includes the trees and the crocodile and the bright parrots and the staring bats. “Who are you who live in all these many forms?” a voiceover asks.
The Thin Red Line is a deeply philosophical movie, drawing on American transcendentalism (there’s even a brief quote from Whitman when a dying boy says “Oh captain…”), and probably referring in its title to the line between life and death, though Jones’s direct source was a line from Rudyard Kipling. But its concerns are difficult to pin down exactly, and indeed trying to “crack the code” and extract a single meaning from the movie is the worst way to approach it. As Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta) says, “we don’t know the bigger picture… if there is such a thing.” Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” is one of the classical compositions used on the soundtrack, after all, and Malick’s film similarly raises profound questions without comprehensively answering them.
It ponders the problem of evil (“Where did it come from? How did it steal into the world?”) It observes the unity of nature and existence, but also wonders if individuals are ultimately alone within them. Shots of a single person are frequent, and Japanese dialogue spoken by a PoW to his American captor isn’t subtitled, emphasising the separation of each man from the other. And yet, apparently contradicting this, it’s often very difficult to pin down the identity of voiceover speakers. In particular, several key passages are spoken by the minor character of Private Train (John Dee Smith) and not, as the viewer might expect, by Caviezel’s Witt. Surely deliberate, this seems to suggest commonality rather than isolation.
Amidst all this thoughtfulness it’s easy to overlook that The Thin Red Line is also a terrific combat movie, with four stand-out sequences proving that Malick really can direct action when he wants to: the initial landing on the island, the first assault on Hill 210 when the Japanese easily repel the Americans, the eventual taking of the Japanese bunkers which have been holding the hill, and the rapidly-edited attack on a Japanese encampment. These frenetic passages and the many quieter moments could not be more different, but they never feel they come from different films; the sense that everything is taking place in the same world is one of the movie’s achievements.
While not striving heavily to follow war movie genre conventions any more than the source material necessitates, Malick’s evidently also aware of them and subverts them to good effect. In particular, as the philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink pointed out, a confrontation where Staros refuses to obey an order from Tall, believing it will sacrifice his men’s lives pointlessly, feels like a familiar war movie trope but defies almost every expectation. Tall, who in most films would be stupid, inflexible, and vengeful when challenged, in The Thin Red Line turns out to have been correct in his tactical assessment of the situation—and also turns out to be surprisingly openminded and generous in his treatment of his subordinate.
There’s realism in minor details of a kind that many other war films overlook: the importance of getting water to the men is a recurrent point, for example, and combat fatigue is presented vividly. There are even touches that might be humour, not something one normally expects from Malick: American and Japanese soldiers shout insults (“Tojo eats shit!”—“No, Roosevelt eats shit!”), while a comment from Tall that he is worried for his men that the attack will “sap their strength” has an unmistakable flavour of General Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).
It’s not really a performer’s movie despite a cast brimming with famous names, and if Malick’s characters are often a bit unknowable they are especially so here. Still, the people of The Thin Red Line are always credible and often memorable: perhaps Nolte most of all, though Koteas, Penn, Woody Harrelson and Dash Mihok also stand out. The movie is also worth seeing for Travolta’s 1940s moustache and ramrod military posture alone.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards (although it won none of them)—‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’, ‘Best Cinematography’, ‘Best Film Editing’, ‘Best Original Dramatic Score’ and ‘Best Sound’—The Thin Red Line is an extraordinary achievement. It’s a movie that, if it resonates with you, will bear repeated watching and be much enhanced by the extras on Criterion’s Blu-ray disc. It’s a film of stunning, almost overwhelming beauty, but also the one where Malick most perfectly achieves a balance between the demands of narrative and his own philosophical and aesthetic inclinations.
If it has a fault it’s that, like much of his work, it can steer a little too close to sentimentality. For example, in the choice of music and in shots like a bird injured by human warfare. But the director always manages to pull back in time, and indeed if that bird feels like a blatant tear-jerker when it first appears, he later puts it right at the core of the film’s meaning in a voiceover from Welsh which—like so much in The Thin Red Line—links the particulars of World War II combat to an all-encompassing perspective on life. “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. But death’s got the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird. Feels the glory.”
Few filmmakers could manage this without seeming pretentious or portentous. Terrence Malick himself doesn’t always. But in The Thin Red Line he does, superbly.
USA | 1998 | 170 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • TOK PISIN • JAPANESE • GREEK
director: Terrence Malick.
writer: Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones).
starring: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly & John Travolta.