A lyrical war movie to end all war movies, Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line, this epic and metaphysical film, asks the most essential of questions: Is war – such a primordial conflict resolution tool – as natural as the magnificent landscape shown on the picture?
Why does mankind need to reach the depths of despair in order to notice the precious nature of life and to contemplate what’s beyond the mundane? Perhaps, it is this paradox that makes war stories especially poignant, with such a rich array of feelings and emotions that seems to encompass humanity’s whole range of meanings. Thus the actuality of war poses a great conundrum to our species as it encapsulates primeval aspects of mankind’s psyche, and as such serves us with the tools to search for and reach the sublime.
In 1942, during World War II, in the South Pacific, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) is arrested after going AWOL. Inside the troop carrier, 1st Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) questions him as the ship is heading towards Guadalcanal Island, where the C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division is expected to make an offensive in order to try to regain the island from the Japanese. Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta) lectures the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) about the mission. On the island, as C Company tries to reach the top of Hill 210, where a Japanese bunker is placed, they are repelled by gunfire. Second Lieutenant Whyte (Jared Leto) and Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) die during the attempt.
Colonel Tall then orders the company commander, Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) to attack the bunker at any cost, but he refuses to do so. As a small group – led by Captain John Gaff (John Cusack) and containing Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) and Private Witt – succeeds in taking the bunker, they find only malnourished Japanese soldiers there. During the week’s leave that the men received for their efforts, Captain Staros is relieved of his command and Private Bell receives a letter from his wife telling him she is in love of someone else. The C Company is then led on a mission up a river by 1st Lieutenant George Band (Paul Gleeson), who orders some men to check further ahead. As they encounter troops, Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody) is sent to inform the rest of the unit, while Private Witt draws the Japanese away. As he eventually surrenders, Witt is gunned down. At the end, Captain Charles Bosche (George Clooney) assumes command of the company.
..The Thin Red Line Trailer © The Criterion Collection.
It is a known fact to admirers of his work that the films of Terrence Malick are poetry in motion – visually stunning pieces, filled with rich storytelling. By juxtaposing images of fauna and flora to a story dealing with war (this uniquely human device of solving problems), the film-maker asks us to reflect on the significance of such event to a perspective outside of ourselves. The Battle of Guadalcanal (the film is a fictionalised version of it) would open the way for the United States to win the war and eventually for the country to become such a hegemonic power. However, the grass and the wind, the rivers and the mountains on the island will still be there long after these human beings have gone and their contribution to the direction of history ceases to be relevant.
To some, such thoughts might seem trivial (even pointless), but indulge me for a moment and think how changing the focus (or calibrating our lens) actually stretches our range; amplifies our vision. War might be fought between countries by the orders of politicians for the supposedly purpose of survival, but on the most of fundamental levels, its protagonists are the Privates and the Sergeants and the Captains doing the dying down there. Through the multiple voice-overs presented in the movie, The Thin Red Line exceeds in rightfully individualising the tragedy of war. The meaning of a battle isn’t found in the establishment of some truth (which side is right, right?) but instead it encompasses every single person who has died and who has lived through that hell.
The ensemble cast put together for the film has to be one of the greatest ever. In fact, there are so many actors of stature in the movie that the story only allows few to be in prominent roles; most only play marginal parts, appearing for no longer than five minutes on the screen; some (John Savage as Sergeant McCron and John C. Reilly as Sergeant Storm) are like extras. The point I’m trying to make here is that the players involved in the project have forsaken their egos in order to be part of it. The genius of it all is that in every one of these great actors’ characters’ eyes there is the manifestation of fear: the very definition of war. Heroism is not only secondary to the tale, for what the movie wants us to see is the reflection of reality, but when heroic acts are performed these are almost accidental rather than intentional.
After two accomplished masterpieces (Badlands, 1973 and Days of Heaven, 1978) and a long sleep (20 years), Malick achieves something extraordinary with this comeback tour de force: despite the overwhelming number of movie stars in the film, there is no distraction from the tale towards their stardom. We do not see celebrities pretending to suffer; we see the representation of true pain. The drama feels real… In contrast with so many war movies, which wear their moral certitudes on their sleeves, the film is ambiguous enough to be thought provoking. By the end, we barely know the characters who passed in front of us (some only for an instant; others for a little longer), but we surely grasp their anxious state of mind.
Does The Thin Red Line stand tall if put beside Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick), Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Das Boot (1981, Wolfgang Petersen) or Platton (1986, Oliver Stone)? It surely does – the movie is arguably the most visually stunning war film ever made.