The Thin Red Line is a film based on a particular World War II offensive. Yet it asks questions designed to inspire long thoughts that know neither time nor place.
“This great evil,” the film says of the war in particular and of destructiveness in general. “Where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light?” In the film, those are one soldier’s questions about his role in World War II, but they are questions all human beings of good will and sound mind have continually pondered in life, as in the movies. They have never been more pointedly raised nor poignantly explored than in Terrence Malick’s new film, his first in more than 20 years since he deservedly earned cult status with Badlands and Days of Heaven.
It has been a long, long wait to hear again from Malick — more accurately, since he is a master of the piercing image, to SEE again from Malick. Yet those who know his work and have hoped across two decades for more will be amply rewarded by The Thin Red Line.
Movie chitchat pegs it as a competitive piece with Steven Spielberg’s World War II film, Saving Private Ryan, about the D-Day landing and its aftermath for one company on a curious, dangerous mission. That’s the short, shallow take.
In fact, Spielberg’s film, magnificently realistic in its you-are-there opening stretch, is a narrative-driven piece populated by a bona fide company of high-profile Hollywood actors led by Tom Hanks. Malick’s film, on the other hand, recounts the taking of Guadalcanal in acutely impressionistic terms and is populated by a largely unrecognizable company of actors that also happens to include a few Hollywood stars.
Spielberg’s film aims for a strong emotional reaction and gets it. Malick’s film aims for a thoughtful reaction and gets it. That’s oversimplifying, but it speaks to the essential difference in the approach of the two directors and also to the separate and distinct strength of both films. Bottom line: The one doesn’t compete with or cancel the power of the other. They are complementary films on the same subject, each wholly worthy of your time and attention in its own way.
Based on James Jones’ novel, The Thin Red Line follows an Army rifle company’s devastatingly dangerous attempt to stop Japanese penetration of the South Pacific by fighting them where they are already entrenched _ on the island of Guadalcanal. It is a film that looks into the heart and conscience as well as the fear and yearning of several members of the company.
Some are young, some middle-aged. Some are educated, others not. Some count on spiritual matters for strength, others on emotional ties to a family member, a wife, each other. Some come to the hellish experience of war with a profound cynicism, while others bring complete, shivering vulnerability to each moment of the horror. Some succumb, others survive — not only the enemy fire, but also the demons within.
Malick makes frequent use of voice-over dialogue to get to the private places of the characters the film considers. Sometimes the device causes confusion. At the outset, you don’t know who’s speaking. Stay with Malick. All comes clear in time, usually in short time, and the voice-over allows the film an intimacy with a relatively large number of characters that would otherwise be impossible to achieve _ even in a piece that runs close to three hours.
Philosophical and richly ruminative, The Thin Red Line regularly makes a counterpoint of horrifying carnage caused by human nature and the innate pacific quality of nature itself. For every burst of fire that produces blood-and-guts horror, there is immediately an image drawn from nature — birds and bats looking down on the carnage in blinking disbelief; gauzy white clouds floating on a benign blue sky; even a snake shaken out of its haven in the tall grass by the ferocious fire between Japanese and American human beings.
The visual and, by unmistakable implication, philosophical terms of the film define it instantly as apolitical. World War II may have been the last noble war, but this film looks to both the inner life of the men who fought it and, from on high, at the insanity of war in general. It takes the side of an immensely, overwhelmingly beautiful world fouled by its own allegedly most intelligent life form. At the least, it forces you to wonder and, inwardly, to weep at the pain, the loss, the sorrow and the pity.
There are no star turns in The Thin Red Line. It’s a film that submerges such turns to its powerful point of view. Most of the big names in the company — John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack _ have bit parts.
Yet among the large, prime company, several players, well-known and less so, merit special mention: Sean Penn, the seemingly cynical sergeant who can’t kill off his essential core of humanity; Jim Caviezel, the insistently spiritual soldier who brings his own strain of heroism to the battle; Ben Chaplin, the young man who draws his courage from an idealized romance; Nick Nolte, the battalion commander who once read Homer in the original Greek and who has come to see Guadalcanal as his ticket to success, no matter the human cost.
Those who take film — and Terrence Malick — seriously won’t think twice about seeing The Thin Red Line immediately. A new generation of moviegoers will find it a revelation.