On The Edge Films

Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds

The Thin Red Line

1998/USA

Director: Terrence Malick

Starring: Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Travolta

Note: The reviewer has not read James Jones’ original novel of the same name from which this film is adapted.

Do you remember that outstanding Second World War film released in 1998?  The film that featured an ensemble cast, weighty themes and visceral battle scenes?  The film whose characters found themselves trying to fight their way out of situations of hopelessness?

No, you’re probably not thinking of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.  You’re more likely to be thinking of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, widely regarded by critics and filmgoers alike as perhaps the greatest all-round war film of modern cinema.  Released six months after Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line is largely overlooked in comparison to its Academy Award-winning cousin.  Looking back at Malick’s nearly three hour creation, at times its sense – or lack – of direction proves frustrating.  However, the semi-spiritual path that the film treads diverges greatly from most comparable titles in the genre.  This path is Malick’s central construct.  It will sway your opinion either way, in regard to whether or not you place The Thin Red Line on the podium of great modern war films.  It is unlikely that those of you who prefer war films that deliver their message via more conventional means will be rewarded by investing a whole three hours into The Thin Red Line.  If, conversely, you can accept a war film that bears the topic of nature upon its shoulders and that takes your perception of armed conflict on a somewhat ethereal, ephemeral journey then The Thin Red Line will stand in the corner of your mind holding a lit candle in its hand.

It seems almost unfair to point out the earthly shortcomings of a film like The Thin Red Line in the way you would any other normal film.  But to refrain from doing would be most unjust toward other films in the genre that convey aspects of war through more grounded methods.  Pacing is not The Thin Red Line’s strong point.  Following a company of US Army soldiers who participate in the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War, the first sign of the occurrence of war doesn’t appear until over ten minutes into the film, in the form of a passing US Navy boat.  For a considerable time thereafter the film rotates through the principal characters, with not quite enough time to explore the motivations of each in a wholly satisfying manner.

Malick’s main narrative thrust is the impact the Battle of Mount Austen has upon the moderately optimistic soul of Private Witt (James Caviezel), but Witt’s portion of screen time is nowhere near comparable to characters like Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller or Apocalypse Now’s Captain Willard.  The cast list of The Thin Red Line is seemingly its own hindrance; the sheer number of noted actors each conveying the terror and trauma induced by chaotic, indiscriminate jungle warfare overloads the viewer on a first viewing of the film.  On the surface it seems, for instance, that Adrien Brody was cast for simply looking silently wide-eyed and terrified for his total five minutes of screen time.  It is possible to see where the seams of The Thin Red Line come slightly undone due to Malick’s reliance on post-production; the film originally ran at over five hours (the entirety of Adrien Brody’s dialogue was cut to just two lines, and George Clooney’s cameo lasts only about fifteen seconds, despite his involvement receive major billing).  Such a total runtime was obviously unfeasible and unmarketable for general cinema.  It is not difficult to tell that many of Malick’s sprawling ideas were forcibly removed in order to shoehorn the narrative into ‘just’ three hours.

Beyond these superficial shortcomings, The Thin Red Line is a visual and aural work of beauty.  The sights and sounds Malick delivers to the viewer are continually stunning.  The geography of the frenetic battles are a sad joy to behold; often the impacts of bullets are intercut with camera pans of the wind blowing across lush green hillsides or glimpses of beautiful indigenous parrots perched on tree branches above the gunfire.  In this way, The Thin Red Line feels at times to take on the mantle of a pseudo-documentary.  Especially in the first fifty minutes before the first shot is fired (yes, it’s a slow burner), at many times you see simple camera shots like the metal deck of a boat or a still pan of a Pacific mountainside sunset immediately before a character says something introspective or an explosion rocks your senses back into the real considerations of battle.

Military buffs might prefer the action set pieces of comparable films like Saving Private Ryan, but it is often during the genuinely frightening fight sequences that The Thin Red Line’s breathtaking ethereal side emerges.  A product of the film’s myriad characters, sometimes before, during or after a battle scene an individual Private or General’s pessimistic internal monologue (or the words of a letter posted home) dominate the soundscape, with all sounds of either onscreen calm or chaos dampened out.  Yes, it can be a challenge to follow who is saying what, but such a device reveals a level of introspection that is far more heartbreaking than that found in most other war films.  The recurring symbol and semantic field of light strewn throughout the frequent death adds another type of sadness that feels perfectly at home among this long, tragic tale.

At no point during The Thin Red Line is there anything approaching a feel-good payoff, the like of which typifies many war films whose sequences of violence and trauma are ultimately rewarded with an “it was worth it” exposition.  Nature, Malick seems to say, existed before mankind invented war and will still exist long after mankind likely makes itself extinct.  The people doing the killing or being killed with the bullet and the bayonet form a ‘thin red line’, collectively separated from those who have never been in war.  Yet the souls of these same soldiers in Malick’s film are corroded and affected by battle to hugely varying degrees. Cinema was conventionally established to enable audiences to share the experiences of the characters they watch onscreen, but the lesson of The Thin Red Line is to wish you never have to.  A must-watch.

– Harry Attridge

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