The Thin Red Line (1998)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Imagine opening the covers of a Clive Cussler wartime thriller, only to find pages of ponderous free-verse poetry about the human condition. That would be jarring, wouldn’t it?

But that’s exactly what happened to moviegoers who bought tickets for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and sat down with a barrel of popcorn expecting a crackling good genre picture or a historical recreation like Saving Private Ryan. Many gave up on it, bored by the lack of thrilling rescues, explosions, and shootouts.

Those who criticize it for these reasons are as misguided as someone who criticizes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for not being as exciting as The Hunt for Red October.

The Thin Red LIne, Terrence Malick’s first film in 20 years, is an adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 autobiographical novel of World War 2 and the battle for Guadalcanal, is anything but a crowd-pleaser. It is a movie that makes you work. It makes you think. It makes you ask questions. Its characters contradict themselves, talking one way, acting another. And it ends abruptly, with many things unresolved.

Even those who appreciate the film’s departure from normal storytelling conventions still take issue with its philosophical dalliances and often simplistic soliloquies. This film never even tries to tell a conventional story — as in a linear sequence of events following characters from a dilemma to resolution.

Like life.

The fact that The Thin Red Line opened in the same year as Saving Private Ryan was unfortunate, for Terrence Malick’s film was relentlessly compared to it… and usually unfavorably. But that was like comparing apples and aromatherapy.

Saving Private Ryan is a contemplation on the horrors of war and the cost of freedom that is housed in the form of an adventure narrative. Spielberg has never been one to let the audience wonder what he’s trying to say. He says it clearly. And powerfully. (Sometimes too loudly.) People are moved by Private Ryan‘s graphic portrayals, by its revelations of how chaotic, nonsensical, and excruciating were the battlefields on which brave men fought to save the world from a plague of evil. What you see in Ryan is what gets you.

The Thin Red Line is a different thing altogether. It is a meditation. While the meticulous detail of the battle is convincing, each scene draws us out of the temporal and into the timeless, into the common questions and conundrums that connect these soldiers with the soldiers of all wars throughout human hitory.

It opens, appropriately, with footage of a crocodile swimming with quiet beauty through and exotic jungle landscape — the perfect picture of the film’s central dilemma. What is this deadliness, this cruel beast housed in this beautiful world? What is it doing here? How did it grow in our hearts? Are we all destined to live under its terrible influence? Why this contradiction of good and evil living in everything we see?

Terrence Malick’s eye for natural beauty emphasizes these questions. Even as we brace ourselves for scenes of war and bloodshed in the battle for Guadalcanal, we are given visions of the startling grandeur of nature. Even in scenes of violence, the light of explosions and the power of the weapons take on a beauty that is unsettling in view of what they are accomplishing.

The Thin Red Line uses methods similar to those of Wim Wenders in the first half of his award-winning film Wings of Desire lets the audience look through the perspective of angels down on troubled Berlin before Berlin Wall came down. The text of Wings is made up which is made primarily of poetic questions and contemplations of beauty. And in The Thin Red Line, we drift from one soldier’s perspective to another, seeing the struggle for hope, the surrender to hopelessness, the fear and the courage, the way one man endures the trials by looking for the good in the hearts of the men around him. The crucible of war brings out the best in some, the worst in some, and a mix in others.

Some critics have complained that the device doesn’t work in Malick’s film because his soldiers deliver their contemplations in a manner that is simplistic and crude. I would argue that to have raised these internal monologues to a higher level of poetry would have been inconsistent with the characters through whom we are encountering moral and philosophical quandaries. These are simple men, some of them confronting life’s biggest questions for the first time. It is right that they should seem awkward, even fumbling at times.

In fact, it is wonderfully ironic that the one soldier well-acquainted with poetry is, ultimately, the most selfish, arrogant, and unthinking of them all. Nick Nolte give a fiery performance as the bullish Lt. Col. Gordon Tall who is determined to make his mark in the war, no matter how many lives it costs. Eloquence veils his fear and his mean spirit. At one point, he marvels at the beautiful sunrise and mutters lines from Homer about “the rosy-fingered dawn”, and we discover he has studied Homer. But his grasp of language does not seem to benefit him in understanding the plight of his soldiers; he drives them onward and upward into a hellish battle without being sensitive to their lack of water and their exhaustion.

Sean Penn’s performance as First Sgt. Edward Welsh, a soldier who at times resembles the crocodile of the opening scene, is perhaps the most memorable. His character seems to house the contradiction at the center of the film. While he shows himself capable of risking his own life for the sake of others in act of astonishing bravery, he refuses to search for the good or the hope that might bring him some comfort. War is slowly deadening his belief in grace and goodness. He warns another soldier that there is not some other world waiting beyond… “just this one.” He shares his philosophy, which is simply that a man “should look out for himself in a world that shot itself to hell as soon as everyone could arrange it.” Disappearing into the character, as is his forte, Penn paints a complicated portrait that haunts me more than any other from the film.

Jim Caviezel provides us with a thoughtful, introspective, likeable character — Private Witt — who has an alternate perspective. Witt looks for and tends to the strange glint of grace, kindness, and hope in everyone. Like Christ, he is there in the thick of the conflict, but his purpose seems to be to protect, to heal, to defend something higher than just the “cause” for which they are fighting. He seems to fight to keep the spark of hope alive in each man, to stoke the fires of faith. I found his example to be inspiring.

Thus I respectfully disagree with the writer Michael Elliott (The Christian Critic), who spends the first half of his review pointing out all the finer points of the film but then, in a sharp turn, announces,

“I wouldn’t want to give the impression that The Thin Red Line is somehow an edifying experience. Quite the contrary. There is nothing spiritually uplifting about death and destruction.”

Elliot quotes Phillipians 4:8 and claims that it is “nearly impossible to obey” this scripture while watching the film, claiming that contemplations of this nature are ultimately honoring the devil, and there is nothing good to be found in these experiences. But Malick has shown us, again and again, that his vision is penetrating. He takes us into tales of human failing and captures powerful revelations of beauty and hope that set such sins in stark contrast. Instead of packaging violence for big screen thrills, he portrays violence in environments that declare the glory of God, and thus reveal the world’s corruption for what it is: abomination.

We must be able to go into the darkness and find the hope, the good, and the light there. Malick takes us into the jungle and shows us that, yes, amidst the “death and destruction,” there is still goodness, light, and beauty to be found, and these act as powerful symbols of grace and hope.

I would believe that Malick — an Episcopalian — knows something about where hope truly lies. He obviously believes there is nothing uplifting about destruction, but he seems impassioned in his consideration of where we might find hope. (Malick is also formerly a Harvard philosophy student and Rhodes scholar, and thus it is not surprising his films employ narrative only as a loose structure to house such introspection.) I am inspired by the film’s relentless insistence that even in the middle of a ridiculous and nightmarish conflict, there is something redeeming to be found; there is nowhere in this world that is separated from God’s presence and signs of his beauty and influence and grace.

Malick actually goes to great lengths to deny the usual signs of hope. Remember Tom Hanks waxing eloquent in Saving Private Ryan about how his hope was in returning to his wife? The most shattering scene in Thin Red Line involves the exposure of the frailty and fragility of such hopes. There must be a greater hope than trust in fickle fellow human beings.

While Malick does not stoop to preach through the film, which would have compromised the integrity of the characters and turned the film into a “message” instead of a mysterious and provocative work of art, he does provide us with a panoply of different perspectives to help us sort out the madness, and he does not exaggerate the ugliness of war by banning all signs of beauty from the landscape.

Thus the audience is compelled to ask good hard questions as they reflect on the film. Will we choose the harder road of fighting for love, beauty, and honor in the face of darkness? Or will we let ourselves go numb and become animals, violent beasts that only look out for themselves? The movie does not exist to give us the answer. It exists to present us with the question, and give us some examples of what consequences we will find if we take this path, or that, to find the answer.

If I may quote Philippians 4:8, the same verse raised by Mr. Elliot, I find that Malick’s considerations lead me to things that are true; I find the portrayals of war and of human nature in this film to be honest. I find much of the cinematography to reveal things that are, in the midst of trouble, lovely. And in some characters there are startling examples of virtue.

Thus I encourage you if you see this film, and “let your mind dwell on these things.”

Director/writer – Terrence Malick, Based on the novel by James Jones
Director of photography – John Toll
Editors – Billy Weber and Leslie Jones
Music – Hans Zimmer
Production designer – Jack Fisk
Producers – Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill

20th Century Fox. 166 minutes. This film is rated R.

STARRING: Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), Bill Pullman (McTae), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).

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