4 Stars out of 4
The Thin Red Line is not a war movie. Instead of being a clear representation of World War 2 it takes place out of time in some exotic, unknown space in some sort of beautifully haunting reverie. Instead of showing soldiers fighting rigorously on the battlefield, it studies them and their thoughts that exist outside of the action. Well, this is not about soldiers but fallen angels. This is not about war is hell but that war is a passage through heaven on the way to hell. The film is majestic, with each frame being tarnished by the surrounding madness and chaos, descending upon the natural world. Okay, the surface of The Thin Red Line is a war movie but it exists at higher ground, about ideas instead of what it is like to pull the trigger.
The location is Guadalcanal where the soldiers of C Company engage in a “baptism of fire”. It was a 1942 siege, the first offensive attack by the Americans on the Japanese and just the beginning of the warfare and chaos on the Japanese (the attack on Iwo Jima occurred two years later). We get many characters but no one is the hero; they are a family, one tree blowing and shaking in the tempest of war.
Some of these soldiers are played by Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson. There are so many more but I barely have the space to mention them. Some of these characters narrate the film, delivering thoughts, opinions, and feelings of the chaos before them. In a sense The Thin Red Line never has a focus in its opinion but that is what makes it kind of brilliant. We see war in ambiguous forms, not what is just crafted by the director.
The film is directed by Terrence Malick known for his excellent period pieces, like Badlands and Days of Heaven, that come without the nostalgia and predictable melodrama. He depicts a time out of time, establishing ineffable, tangible feelings that make us feel as if we are flying above this period while never being grounded in it. In The Thin Red Line, Malick shoots the battle sequences as if heaven and hell are crashing down on its world. The camera swoops down from the sky like a philosopher pedantically pondering the oncoming madness, and then soon after gracefully gliding over the grass as the soldiers blend in.
Malick loves to create detached films. He uses narrators that see the world through an emotional filter, interpreting minor details over telling a story. Here The Thin Red Line is about people who have been to hell and back, and know – directly – what their world is about. In a sense detachment wouldn’t work because this is a story about wisdom emerging from utter mayhem.
So I found that The Thin Red Line is not detached but cerebral. The difference is that Malick is not rejecting emotions but admitting they did exist but are not essential for the audience. We naturally sympathize for these characters because they are doing things that test the will of human nature. War is a fearful place, so we fear for them. We worry for these characters but at the same time are more interested in what they are saying not what they are doing. The narration of these soldiers is a reflection from above, musing on what has happened and scrutinizing what it means on a wider scale. Genius.
It’s a film that keeps on going. There is no beginning, middle, or end – which rather coincides with the interminable progression of war. Malick asks profound questions: What is a hero? What is narrative? What is war? What is nature? This is a film studying human nature and nature itself, and the symbiotic, ironic, and symbolic relationship it serves amidst war. When a soldier is shot, Malick does not show a bloody face but a tree explode, dried up vegetation, or an injured bird. We get it. Malick shows how the world’s components connect in harmony or rupture. It’s beautiful and rather sad.
The Thin Red Line came out the same year as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It seems every Hollywood male actor was eagerly on call for these two films. This was the year two directors were trying to make a devastating impression on World War 2. These were two talented while very different visionaries trying to allow its audience to live in this time. Saving Private Ryan is a fascinating film with a lot of story to hurdle its themes forward and some meticulous, endlessly poignant realism. The Thin Red Line, however, does not have a story but is about humanity on a collision course to the world of nature. Malick fragments the film to show all of its ideas and their tiny yet important differences. He achieves a naturalism, where we establish an idea what war felt like and what it has turned us in to – which is pretty timely.
The Thin Red Line is a film that flies. It’s long but every minute seems to be building towards another extraordinary moment littered with ideas. It was based on the novel by James Jones (of which I am currently reading and enjoying) and Malick ensures that he doesn’t get caught up in dialogue or realistic touches. He just kind of lets it be.
I’ve seen the film twice now and have accepted it as a metaphor. I don’t know if soldiers really were this wise or insightful, but instead I took into consideration what they represent and how their ideas may echo universally. Malick creates a film that gives each character a moment, not for redemption but for thought. The Thin Red Line is not a war movie, but a thinker’s experience.