Marking the return of Terrence Malick after a 20-yr absence, The Thin Red Line is the “other” World War II movie of 1998, overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan but nonetheless nominated for 7 Oscars among which Best Picture and Best Director. Despite their common subject, both movies could not be more different in how they depict the human experience in war. Both occupy different ends of the entertainment-art spectrum. In many ways, Spielberg’s movie is more technically accomplished but also less ambitious. As much as I love Saving Private Ryan, it follows in the footsteps of its predecessors as a conventional blockbuster war movie that is more accessible to mainstream audience. On the other hand, Malick’s movie is much bolder and more ambitious in its scope which may irk some mainstream viewers used to straightforward Hollywood fares. His choices made for an uniquely thought-provoking and philosophical war film.
An adaptation of the WWII novel by James Jones, the story follows the efforts of Charlie Company, a US Army rifle company, to capture an inland airfield on the Japanese-infested island of Guadalcanal. To accomplish that, they must make their way through a series of treacherous ridges and hills held by the enemy. The movie starts like no other war film with a man (Jim Caviezel) slowly walking around a deeply peaceful and heavenly Melanesian village. We get a glimpse of the native population which is living in harmony with its surrounding. Moments later however, we are landing on the beach of Guadalcanal with the men of Charlie Company and soon plunged in the middle of epic battle scenes.
The commanding officer Lt. Col Tall (Nick Nolte) desperately wants to be promoted to General and pushes his men beyond reason, raising opposition by Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), an hesitant officer who has grown reluctant to risk his men’s lives and perceives the orders as suicidal. Instead of focusing on one single character, Malick attempts to capture the collective thoughts of the entire company. Amid the senselessness of combat, each man spends the quieter moments reflecting upon his own existence, searching for meaning, and trying to maintain his sanity.
Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant director in Hollywood, Terrence Malick was able to assemble, without a doubt, the greatest all-star ensemble cast ever put together. The amount of big names who wanted to work with Malick is truly astounding with Sean Penn even telling him “Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up”. Believe it or not, footage of the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke never made it into the final cut. Actors like Woody Harrelson and John Savage stayed an extra month on set after their respective parts were done simply to watch Terrence Malick work.
The result is an uniquely poetic and metaphoric anti-war movie that contrasts the beauty of nature with the horror of war. Malick wanted to portray Guadalcanal as a Paradise Lost soiled by the savagery of men. The absolutely superb cinematography by John Toll captures this concept perfectly and the Oscar-winning soundtrack by Hans Zimmer complements the lyrical tone of the movie masterfully. Extending over nearly 3 hours, the movie features Malick’s deliberate pacing which could irk some mainstream viewers, used to nearly non-stop action scenes, as well as his usual contemplative shots of nature. Malick’s trademark fascination with the beauty and cruelty of mother nature shows in The Thin Red Line as he captures the spectacle of clouds passing over a field of tall grass blowing in the wind, of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy, of a wounded chick flopping in the mud.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there is no patriotism at work here, most men are only fighting for sheer survival while they watch the people around them slowly disappear and replaced by new faces. The difference between life or death is decided simply by being at the right place at the right time. The Thin Red Line steps into territory that Spielberg’s movie never dared enter. The title itself refers to the demarcation between sanity and insanity. How does a man cope with the savagery surrounding him in a time of war? Frequent voice-overs are used to prob the depth of each soldier thoughts and emotions as each of them copes with their reality differently.
The performance are uniformly solid although the characters are not sharply defined on purpose. As Pvt. Witt, Jim Caviezel gives a very good performance as a tormented yet outwardly calm and stoic character. Ben Chaplin is equally outstanding as a soldier who is constantly thinking about his beloved wife (Miranda Otto) waiting at home while Sean Penn is good as a hardened Sergeant. Nick Nolte gets the most flashy and high-powered turn as Lt. Col. Tall and acquits himself brilliantly as the furious high-ranking commanding officer who wants his promotion at all cost.
Finally, Elias Koteas is a revelation as the scared and indecisive Capt. James Staros, a front-line officer who has grown too close to his men and fears risking their lives ascending the hill. Bigger movie stars such as George Clooney and John Travolta also make small cameo apparitions here and there although those seem to be completely extraneous and only there to please the movie studio. I personally have no issue with the bigger names taking a backseat to lesser-known actors as some critics have.
Showcasing Terrence Malick’s trademark eye for visual poetry and meditative pacing, The Thin Red Line is an exquisitely stunning and emotionally breathtaking war film that probes the limits of the human experience. “Each Man Fights his own War” the tagline says: Each man of Charlie company is trying to make sense of his reality, aren’t we all doing the same thing?
Lesson of the Day:
Everything’s a lie. Everything you hear, everything you see. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You’re in a box. A moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie… There’s only one thing a man can do – find something that’s his, and make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.
Notes: Rated R for realistic war violence and language, 170 minutes, a Fox 2000 Pictures release.