Directed by Terrence Malick. USA. 1998.

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There is a strong thematic link between Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and the film he made after emerging from virtual invisibility 20 years later, The Thin Red Line.  Both stunningly contrast the beauty of the natural world with man-made ugliness, in the former film working-class poverty and in the latter the bestialities of war.  Both films, together with his debut Badlands (1973), stamp Malick, a genuine poet of the cinema, as among the most supremely visual of all film-makers, and both certainly rank among the best American films of their respective decades; in the case of The Thin Red Line arguably the best, and certainly (to my mind) far more memorable than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which was released in the UK at almost exactly the same time.  So high is the respect in which Malick is held that “stars” like John Travolta and George Clooney were happy to appear in tiny roles in this film.  At first viewing it can seem confusing and confused, but its riches reveal themselves on subsequent viewings, and I would not be at all surprised if in years to come it moves up the “critics’ all-time best film” polls, rather as the greatness of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was not recognised for many years after its initial release.

Based on James Jones’ semi-autobiographical WW2 novel, and previously filmed in 1964 as a conventional war-movie, The Thin Red Line tells of the capture by American troops, “C-for-Charlie” company, of a hill occupied by the Japanese, with heavy losses on both sides.  By not placing the story in the context of a wider war, Malick heightens the sense of the absurdity of it all.  The title comes from an old adage that “there’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad”, but in this film “between life and death” would do just as well.  The battle-scenes, shot with wonderful fluency, occupy less than half the 3-hour running-time, because Malick is more interested in the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of several of the combatants, expressed largely through voiceover.  If there is a central character it is Private Witt, a Christ-figure played by Jim Caviezel (later to play the actual Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004)), who sees the possibility of a transcendent world as well as the one in which he has to live as a soldier.  In the opening scene he has gone AWOL, wandering among the native Melanesians in their idyllic existence, with voiceover musings like “How did we lose the good that was given us, let it slip away, scattered, careless?”  Near the end of the film, after witnessing ill-tempered arguments among these same natives, who have perhaps already been corrupted by the fighting between the “civilised” nations, Witt sacrifices his own life to save his friends.  (Malick is perhaps a little too inclined to romanticise the “noble savage”, but we’ll let that pass.)

The Thin Red Line. All Rights Reserved.During Witt’s incarceration for being AWOL he is interrogated by the cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) who has a very different philosophy: “there ain’t no world but this one”, his voiceover thoughts expressing variations on this theme, such as complaints that the war is all being fought for capitalism.  Then there is Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), the middle-aged commanding officer who has never yet seen action and is desperate to do so, being happily prepared to sacrifice most of his men for the thrill of capturing the hill; his character is a cross between Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963) and Robert Duvall in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978).  Other characters on whom the narrative concentrates from time to time are the private (Ben Chaplin) whose wife (Miranda Otto, in dreamlike flashbacks the only woman in the film apart from a Melanesian) runs off with another man during his absence, the raw recruits whose faces are filled with fear, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who by justifiably disobeying an order sacrifices his career.  The confrontation by field telephone between Tall and Staros, with explosions going on all around, is one of the most enthralling scenes of the entire film.

Particular mention must be made of the cinematography and the musical score.  John Toll proves a worthy successor to the great Nestor Almendros (who shot Days of Heaven), with extraordinary close-ups of small animals, and even insects and single leaves, as well as of the idyllic landscape.  Hans Zimmer’s score, hauntingly contemplative, could not be further from the rousing brass of the traditional war movie, yet is exactly right in the context of Malick’s poetic film.  One is reminded of Takemitsu’s great score for Kurosawa’s Ran (1985); both films contain a memorable sequence where the noise of battle is eliminated from the soundtrack, with the music providing the only audible commentary.

During his 20 years’ absence from the cinema Malick was rumoured to be teaching philosophy in Paris, and The Thin Red Line certainly seems to exemplify an existentialist philosophy, maintaining that life is too short to be endlessly arguing about what we ought to do; rather we have to make decisions from moment to moment.  In war, men know that they can be obliterated at any time, so each moment should be lived as if it is one’s last.  This is why the central characters are continually musing about the Big Questions (Why are we here?  What is the meaning of life?).  These questions will always be asked, and Malick’s superb film will never lose its relevance.

Alan Pavelin

Also see Adrian Gargett's essay on this movie:

"Is this darkness in you too?"
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