The Thin Red Line (1998)

Dir. Terrence Malick. Starring Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte

In his essay on The Thin Red Line for the Criterion Collection, David Sterritt calls it “arguably the greatest war film ever made.” I’m not sure I would go that far, seeing as Grand Illusion still exists, but I have a hard time thinking of a better war movie in which a battle is the centerpiece of the plot. It achieves something which I wasn’t sure was possible: it gives us scenes of battle which are engrossing and bloody and explosive and terrible without once making it exciting. Say what you will about D-Day in Saving Private Ryan and its powerful verisimilitude, or the vast scale of Gettysburg, or the tension of The Hurt Locker, but each of those movies is exciting, each in its own way like a video game. The Thin Red Line is not like a video game. It emphasize the unseen, the out and out terror of making a frontal assault when you have no idea what’s ahead of you. Whyte (Jared Leto) orders two men to go forward to scout out a position ahead, and the two men look at each other. They know it’s curtains. We know it’s curtains. A few moments later, it’s curtains. Much of this fight is just suicide by other means, and what’s even more stunning is the timing of this part of the Battle of Guadalcanal: the marines have already cleared the beaches and fought the Japanese force into the mountains. The campaign has been ongoing since August of 1942; the events of the film probably take place in December of that year or January 1943. In some ways Malick (and author James Jones, whose novel of the same name this movie is based on) have chosen some of the most mild action of the battle to highlight. A danger every bit as great to the American soldiers as machine guns is dehydration which of course is a great risk, but it’s far from the most pressing fear I imagine most GIs had during the Pacific theater. None of those other concerns make the scenes of battle any less disconcerting.

Malick is working with an enormous cast with enormous talent. The Academy Awards are imperfect, but there are no fewer than nineteen competitive acting nominations spread across this group and five total wins (two for Sean Penn, and one each for Leto, Adrien Brody, George Clooney). Elias Koteas, quite possibly the best actor in the movie, is essential to the film’s tone. John Cusack plays on his star image as a likable, reliable soldier. John Travolta is effective as the movie’s highest ranking character, sonning Nick Nolte as much as Nolte sons Koteas or Cusack. John Savage is probably better known for his role in The Deer Hunter, but he makes the best single face of The Thin Red Line. Dash Mihok and Ben Chaplin play enormously different individuals – Chaplin is nearly as essential to the movie as Koteas – but they fairly represent the poles of soldiery. And Jim Caviezel, who I suppose would be the main character if The Thin Red Line cared about main characters, is significantly more Christlike here than he was six years later in a bloodier role. Beyond his actors, Malick is also leaning on marvelous technical collaborators. John Toll was at the top of his game after having won consecutive Oscars for Best Cinematography with Legends of the Fall and Braveheart. This is secretly one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores. Every movie is made in the editing room, but it’s especially true for The Thin Red Line; Malick and his team (Leslie Jones, Billy Weber, and Saar Klein) forged an incredible amount of literal film into a brilliant, coherent movie via their work in post-production. (I am fascinated by how this movie would look like if Malick could have made a six or seven hour feature. Would there be more Brody, Mihok, Cusack, Clooney, Travolta? Would Mickey Rourke and Lukas Haas and Bill Pullman have made it into the movie?) If nothing else, this movie proves that auteurism is, if not totally mythical, at least seriously overrated. The collaborative energy in this movie is absurd; even if Malick’s hands were in each part of it, it is obviously the masterpiece of a great many people.

The movie itself believes in that idea of togetherness as well. We are by and large refused a single entry point into understanding this plot. This is not Witt’s story or Welsh’s or Tall’s or Bell’s, but it concerns every man, some way or another, by virtue of its wide outlook on Charlie Company. The individuals of this unit cooperate with that point of view, more interested with the connection of man to man than they are with their own fates or lives. The commander, Colonel Tall, feels old compared to the flood of kids around him, “lucky” to enough to have a war to catapult them up the ranks the way he could not; he thinks to himself that he is “dying” the way that a tree dies: slowly. Witt wonders if all men aren’t connected, like all of them have pieces of the same soul. (It takes a long time for Witt to open fire on anyone else; I cannot imagine what it would be like to believe in a collective soul and to go about shooting down other pieces of it.) Witt’s ruminations usually occur with magnificent island backdrops. Welsh, having taken Witt into custody for being AWOL, lectures the soldier who is his biggest problem in the unit and maybe his best friend.

Welsh: What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness? If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this world. Just this rock.

One single man can, as Staros proves, preserve the lives of some others, but not any specific man’s existence. One single man can, as Welsh proves, help another man die without pain. A single man can scout out a position, as Bell proves, but he cannot take it. And Bell likewise proves that a single man cannot hold a woman over a distance of thousands of miles, no matter how tenderly and smoothly the two of them have made love. Each person in the film is like a thumb covered in ink, leaving the marks of himself on the paper of each other man or woman. It is a bond far more sacred than, say, an old veteran saluting the grave of a long dead one. It is a living connection, as verdant and thriving as the jungle of Guadalcanal, and not a memory crinkling and fading and changing with time.

The men of Charlie Company are sent headlong into the abyss. As they charge forward, single file, an iridiscent butterfly flies across their path. The tall grass is green, but brighter than the green of the men’s helmets. Smoke billows, roughly the same color as the rifles. The men wear brown. And in the midst of it is a jolt of beautiful color and a reminder that Guadalcanal is an island in the Solomons first and foremost. Like Peter Weir does in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Malick has a keen eye for flora and fauna. The opening moments of this movie – probably the best American war picture outside Apocalypse Now – feature a crocodile sliding heavily into the water, blinking as it submerges and then begins to tread forward.

Flying foxes peer at a small group of GIs in the jungle. The mountains loom and blood runs into a small stream in the valley; presumably, the tides have run the blood of the amphibious invasion off into the open ocean, for the water on the beach is perfect aquamarine. The grass hides men climbing uphill but does not protect them from bullets or explosives. A small bird, bloodied and crippled, squeaks helplessly. This war takes place somewhere. Most war films try to give a sense of place; even a movie like Wonder Woman, which is no one’s first thought when you mention “war movie,” made a point of showing us a little village. The Thin Red Line is less concerned with people and individuals than most other movies, period, but it is intently focused on nature. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln makes a point of noting the ground itself, claiming that the men who fought and died there hallowed it. Malick does not try to give us the impression of hallowed ground – Witt makes a point that war does not “ennoble” men, that it rather “poisons the soul” – but he wants us to know that there is ground that existed far before the Japanese entrenched there, before the Japanese and Americans viewed each other as expansionist rivals in the Pacific, before Matthew Perry sailed into an insular nation to “open” it, before shogunates and samurais, before Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone, before nations and flags and combat. The Thin Red Line has no setting, for setting implies that the place serves the story.

In this film frequent cuts to nature, to the primacy of a butterfly over three soldiers in our species’ greatest war, evince the immortality that Witt hasn’t seen but senses the truth of from the get-go. It affirms the second life that Bell thinks of in reference to his wife, the world which is separated from ours by “dark waters.” It is a stunning perspective, and as daring as a movie’s perspective can be. It calls attention to the truth of our transitivity, of how small the death of an individual is from any distance. The movie is, for all of its breadth, the story of a small group of men fighting over a mountain on a Pacific island; yet Malick is not afraid to foreground this vast point of view, which knows that only nature will continue on with any semblance of permanence. Some men will die on this mountainside, and some will die old men in soft beds. The flying foxes will die and so will the crocodiles and butterflies. But the mountain will continue on, and the grass will rise.

2 thoughts on “The Thin Red Line (1998)

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