Review: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is a remarkably unusual war film. The first time I saw it, back in highschool, I was intrigued but not satisfied. It opens with the image of a crocodile descending into a jungle pool as music swells. We then watch an AWOL soldier, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), as he relaxes on a Pacific island, delighting in the natural paradise, admiring the Melanesian natives. In voice-over, we hear Witt’s inner musings: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” I thought, what’s going on, where’s the war? While the film soon turns to the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific theatre of World War II, it never sheds its evocative poetic images or philosophical voice-overs. It’s just as interested in blades of grass and asking questions as guns. Only now, years later and after several more viewings, do I feel like I’m beginning to understand the film.

Certainly the great American auteur, Terrence Malick, with his poetic style and philosophical interests, would not be expected to produce a conventional war movie. Nonetheless, the film is an impressive war movie in some conventional ways. The Thin Red Line boasts an incredible cast; hugely familiar faces keep surprising you throughout the movie. Sean Penn plays a battle-weary sergeant, Nick Nolte a lieutenant colonel trying to secure a promotion, and the great, underrated Elias Koteas the company captain, to name just a few. Malick also builds wonderful tension and ominous dread before the battle, as ships carry the soldiers to Guadalcanal. I can’t think of another movie that’s better at capturing the feeling of the electric stillness before the storm. The major battle on the hill that stands at the centre of the film is also charged with energy and visually unforgettable.

That same battle also demonstrates the film’s satisfactions as well as its depth of meaning. The US company has to make their way up a large hill covered in tall grass, but the Japanese are dug in tight and their positions are nearly impossible to make out. Nolte’s lieutenant colonel puts pressure on the company to get the job done, and great sacrifices result. We get heroics, such as when the captain refuses a suicidal order. We get drama, such as when Woody Harrelson’s Sgt. Keck messes up badly with a grenade. We get suspense, as the party must crawl their way up through the tall grass. And we get some great combat sequences. Malick also imbues the battle with thematic significance. The viewer barely sees the Japanese, and so the soldiers working their way up the hill takes on a mythic dimension: it’s the universal struggle to get to the top, to overcome. Malick’s visual style suggests that war is not only conflict between parties but also an aspect of the human condition of suffering and struggle, and in that sense it’s a part of nature’s war between death and life, decay and rebirth. That’s at least what I can make out.

I have to admit, though, I’ve never been able to shake the idea that the film’s a bit muddled. I remember hearing stories about how ridiculously long the first cut was, or how Adrien Brody thought he was going to be the main character but in the final cut he hardly says a line. Whether or not these stories are true (I can’t confirm), Malick’s kaleidoscopic editing style seems less precise here than in other films of his. I can’t help feeling like there’s often more to be said, more to be shown. For instance, near the end the film, after a significant character is killed attempting to lead the Japanese away from his company, Malick cuts to his fellow soldiers pausing around a makeshift grave. What’s become of the Japanese pressing in on the company? While the transition from act of sacrifice to commemoration is meaningful, the gap in the narrative is confusing. How much of the film’s bewildering quality is intentional, though—meant to evoke the confusion of war, the incompleteness of perception, the unanswerability of questions about life and death?

I don’t think The Thin Red Line is as excellent as Malick’s The Tree of Life or The New World, but it is a deeply haunting and incredibly beautiful war film. Even if parts are bewildering, there are moments of precision and transcendence that have stuck with me for years. Watch it not simply to be roused and excited or to witness a historical conflict like most war movies (although it satisfies these desires to an extent). Rather, accept the film as a meditation on war. On a day of remembrance, this just might be the right kind of war movie to witness.

8 out of 10

The Thin Red Line (1998, USA)

Written and directed by 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, and John Travolta.