The Thin Red Line (1998)

Directed by Terrence Malick


The story goes that Adrien Brody took his family to the premiere, thinking he was the main character but was surprised to find that he had been mostly cut out of the film, reduced to a side character whose name I can’t even remember.  A similar thing happened with Sean Penn in Malick’s The Tree of Life.  In Roger Ebert’s review of this film, he writes, “The actors in “The Thin Red Line” are making one movie, and the director is making another.”

And I guess that’s just a common theme in Malick’s work.  His first two films, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven, both feature an extensive use of voiceover by a secondary character.  In Badlands, Sissy Spacek poetically describes Kit’s run from the law, and in Days of Heaven, the young Linda tells us about Bill and his reasoning for doing what he does.

In each case, the device of the narration is outside of the protagonist.  Typically you might expect the protagonist to narrate their own story and thus give us insight into their actions and line of thinking, like in a novel.  But this device sets us apart from the main characters, and I think Malick’s filmmaking style is meant to pull us out of their worlds as well.  We’re meant to feel for these people, but from a distance, like watching an execution from a gallery.

Maybe that’s not the best example, but most of his characters are flawed and prone to violence.  Kit became a serial killer by the end, and Bill tries to manipulate the life of a shy farmer before killing him.  In The Thin Red Line, there isn’t a single protagonist, though the film begins and ends with Private Witt, instead there’s a focus on the group, many of whom commit horrible acts of violence normalized by the nature of war.

The narration in those two 70’s Malick films adds a sense of myth to the story.  What we’re told about Kit and Bill feels subjective because these are people in their lives who choose to see them a certain way.  Sometimes this narration contradicts what we see in their behavior.  Holly (Spacek) glorifies some of Kit’s behavior even as we see his lack of humanity.

So instead of helping us empathize with these characters, this technique pushes them away and pulls us closer at the same time.  We feel for them, on some level, but we’re kept at arm’s distance.

In The Thin Red Line, it does seem like the actors are making one type of story, something like Saving Private Ryan, and Malick is using that energy to make another.  It’s like, in a brawl, when you might use someone’s momentum against them, ducking out of the way as they charge.

This film is long, very long.  It’s almost 3 hours in length and yet it only really features one battle, an attempt to take control of a hill controlled by Japanese soldiers.  Because of how small the battle feels, at least in comparison to other war films which seem to feature multiple battles, this film becomes intimate.  There are so many characters to follow, and yet you start to feel like you know them all.

Malick’s camera absorbs their expressions, drifting around looks of absolute horror, dread, fear and anguish.  It’s the same thing as in other films, but as opposed to speeding up the editing, reflecting the fast pace of action, the cutting always seems to slow down.  In this way, the form contradicts the content, with Malick’s shooting style refusing to acknowledge the action and speed up the representation of it onscreen.

We’re not meant to be right there in the trenches with these characters.  While they’re buried, we glide.  The camera literally floats over the grassy hills while the characters cling flat to the ground, hoping to avoid the machine gunfire of a Japanese turret at the top of the hill.  While they lay low, we drift away.

This film is meditative, often taking long breaks away from the action to listen to various characters ruminate on the nature of war, nature itself and of life.  It’s quite possibly the most boring war movie ever made, but it’s not about war or even the individuals.  It’s about… I suppose, nature.

In one moment, a PTSD-riddle soldier lets the dirt drift through his fingers, stating matter of factly that all they are is dirt.  In another, two characters talk about nature’s cruelty, but nature’s not the one that’s cruel, it’s man.

The film is full of beautiful, quiet images of the natural landscape.  There are oceans, windy fields, hills and we even open with slow-moving shots of the sun through the trees and people swimming underwater.  It seems a celebration of what is natural, with man as the foreign invader, causing all the problems.

The film opens with Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) hiding out on an island, amongst the villagers.  He’s a soldier who has chosen to abstain from the war.  He lives with this small community and asks questions like, “are you afraid of me?”  He’s welcomed into their lives, and he cherishes this way of living… until a U.S. ship is spotted in the bay, treated as an invading enemy despite this being American, aka ‘us,’ for much of the audience at least.

So right away, we are the enemy, the antagonistic force.  Soon enough, we watch characters march to their death and even reckon with their death before it happens.  It’s all hard to watch, particularly one moment in which Woody Harrelson plays a soldier who makes a fatal mistake and has time to understand the mistake he made and the cost of that mistake.  In other moments, the horror comes straight from the visual gore and explosive action.  All the while, the camera lingers, rarely cutting away as this is happening.

Eventually the Americans take the top of the hill from the Japanese, and in this final attack we get the most visually horrific violence yet, all committed by our traditional heroes.  They have been remade by war, and though many of them maintain looks of horror, they carry out their duties regardless.  It’s all quite disturbing, but then again, so is war.  There is no good or bad here, just people who have been forced into the dirt and treated as such, whether by each other or by their commanding officers who look at them as numbers, not people.

The film later ends with Private Witt making a sacrifice for his company.  He’s killed, something he expects, and his death allows the rest of the American soldiers to get away, on to fight the next war.

Is there a difference between a war film and a battle film?  This is a war film, I guess, but the more I think about it, all war movies seem to focus on a small section of the war.  When this movie ends, the war is still a long way from ending.  Hell, the end of the film shows an officer telling the troops not to expect to be home by Christmas.  In a movie like Saving Private Ryan, the final battle is made to feel like the culmination of the entire World War, particularly as we flash to the future and an aged Private Ryan reflects on the war.  But in truth, that was just a small battle in the larger war.

Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket takes a larger view of the Vietnam War, covering a larger swath of time.  That film follows the training of the characters for the first half and their journey in war during the second half of the film.  Still, the final ‘battle,’ is again a small moment in regards to the entire war, yet a huge moment in regards to the characters’ personal experience.

Really, every war movie just seems to be an attempt to make heroic a small moment that is easily buried underneath the magnitude of war.  These wars last years, and any one person has no real impact.  That’s even mentioned in The Thin Red Line.  So movies like these have to focus on smaller battles, yet this choice admits a certain defeat, though maybe that’s looking too far into it.

Almost every war movie implies that there’s always another battle to be fought, and in saying so, there is never any real victory.  You just fight to survive, and the film’s ultimate commentary on war rests on the implication that it’s never over, even when the story is.

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