‘The Thin Red Line’ Retrospective Review

Milo Garner revisits Terrence Malick’s 20-year-old war epic.

The opening shot of The Thin Red Line (1998) features a crocodile dipping into water and submerging itself. The image connotes nature as much as it does violence; a hidden threat, designed to kill. The following shots, overlain by voiceover, maintain a similar visual tenor. They peer up into the canopy, capturing great trees strewn with hanging vines. This vision of nature is then replaced by that of civilisation, a primitive Melanesian village entering the frame. Caught initially through exquisite underwater lenswork, these people and their land seem to reflect perfectly the Arcadia Joseph Banks had thought he found in Tahiti, when voyaging with Captain Cook. A place free of violence, a refutation of the ominous reptile that began the film.

The eye we peer through is not, however, one angled objectively. Witt (Jim Caviezel), an American soldier gone AWOL, leads us into this world, one with which he is clearly besotted. But soon a US gunboat appears off the shore, to a frenzied furore of the native people, set on retrieving Witt and returning him to his post. With this a schematic for the film’s structure begins to become apparent. Two extremes, wild nature and mechanised man, caught in an endless cycle of violence: the way of nature, as Malick would later develop in his filmography. For some this leads to a common criticism of The Thin Red Line, suggesting its celebration of the ‘noble savage’ in its implication that the inhabitants of Guadalcanal, more than their immediate surroundings, have discovered a certain truth in their way of life. But, like all the paradises of Malick, this one, too, is fallen.

That we see it through Witt’s eyes is indicative – he is spellbound, and wont for viewing the world through a theological lens. He often speaks of ‘the glory’, and of a paradise awaiting: he knows it exists, it’s just a matter of finding it. But a small montage of shots at the centre of the film throws the subjective presentation of these people into question. Intercutting between Witt and some villagers we see them beset with strife and disease. Many have interpreted this to represent the almost trite suggestion that the armies of advanced civility have infected this hidden Eden, but the final shot of this montage, of skulls lining a wall, contradicts this assessment. These people, like the Tahitians that Banks was so enamoured with, have been warring with each other long before foreign intervention. While the incursion of the Second World War may have led to further degradation – we see villagers recruited into the US army, wearing their uniform – it was not the corruption of an ideal world. As beautiful as it may be, this idyll cannot escape the nature lurking in the hearts of men.

But Malick poses a counterpoint to this nature throughout the film, often drawing reference to a flame within, the suggestion of an immortal soul. That we might be capable of love, a love beyond that of nature and unique to mankind, threads its way through the many barely-distinguishable voiceovers of the film. Witt is at the centre of this dialogue, but his position is not taken as inherently true. Against him is Welsh (Sean Penn), an atheist and a cynic, but by no means an evil man. He is forgiving of Witt despite his desertion, but he doesn’t share his optimism. He can’t see any hope in an afterlife, and considers the war a vain quarrel over property, not morality. The spark that Witt speaks of – the soul – seems to him a grim contradiction of the world around him, a world imbued in the same nature that Malick constantly refers to. The birds of paradise featured early in the film are quickly replaced by birds of prey, with cruel scavengers circling the skies where battles once raged below; but just as they set to purloin the corpses lying still, so too do the American soldiers, ransacking and looting the Japanese camps as they break through. Malick does not abandon hope, keeping alive the spirit of grace throughout the film’s extensive running time, but neither does he let up on his bitter repudiation of war.

In this way he has constructed an anti-war film in a sense that so many others fail in. The obvious comparison might be in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which released within a year of The Thin Red Line. Spielberg’s film, while not intending to be overtly jingoistic, valorises war and glorifies its combatants. It wants us to weep for their tragedy, but remember it as worthy. This is naturally related to the specificity of the films – Spielberg intended his to be about the Second World War and so directly appeals to the supposed morality of that conflict, whereas Malick’s could be set in any war to similar effect. Nonetheless, that the sombre military horns of Williams are replaced by the questioning and unsure brass of Ives is, alone, a telling account of how the two films differ in purpose. By the end of Saving Private Ryan, one might well find themselves in a recruitment centre, ready to fight the good fight. By the end of The Thin Red Line, there doesn’t seem to be one.

This is also evident in the battle sequences themselves. Most war films, as Sam Fuller astutely noted, often fail for the excitement they imbue in these scenes. In Saving Private Ryan we can’t help but cheer on Tom Hanks and co. as they seek to kill the German sniper that hunts them, or revel in a grim satisfaction as an American offers Nazi soldiers no pity: “Let ‘em burn”. Lesser filmmakers, such as Gibson, push this envelope even further. His ostensibly pacifistic Hacksaw Ridge indulges in the blood, gore, and heroism of battle. The slow-motion shot of an otherwise unseen Japanese general committing ritual and explicit suicide encapsulate this feeling – we are meant to glory in his graphic defeat. Malick’s film does not cast violence aside, but it also resists its dramatic lure. His battle scenes are captured with virtuosic poise and movement, with Toll’s camera often sweeping over vast plains, capturing the sheer expanse and expense of the war effort, both physically and psychologically. Yet he rarely encourages his audience to cheer on for the American soldiers, instead capturing the conflict a step removed.

The decision not to reveal the Japanese enemy for at least the first third of the film is essential in this. We follow the Americans stalking an enemy we cannot see and do not know. Maybe twenty minutes in their existence is confirmed by a POV shot situated in a bunker, but we can only see a gun pointed against the Americans, its swivel the only evidence that a man sits behind it. As the battle for the ridge opens in earnest only gunshots can be seen and heard, with faceless artillery pounding the field. The first full image of the enemy comes with the sight of stretcher-bearers silhouetted in the distance – an image of military care often refused the Japanese in war films – who are then promptly shot at by an American soldier. The faces of the Japanese foe are not seen until much later in the picture, after a group are captured following an American attack. While their words are untranslated, besides a telling (and perhaps imagined) monologue from a dead soldier, their faces speak in lieu. We see them as angry, afraid, sorrowful. The stoic samurai these are not; instead, soldiers. They are not all innocent or vulnerable, with a suicide bombing eluding to the fanaticism that captured many of the Japanese in the Second World War, but they are, essentially, human. That flame at the heart of men burns just as strongly in them as it does the Americans, so the film suggests.

This offers the film’s final set piece, in which the American soldiers raid a Japanese camp, particular efficacy. In this sequence the camera charges in with the soldiers, permitting an intimate perspective not offered in the former, more long-range battles of the film. Witnessing the American soldiers fall upon an often hapless, sometimes disarmed enemy does not suggest the glory of most war films, but rather an upsetting and incredible image of violence. Accompanied first by Zimmer’s effectual (and best) score, and then Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the tone achieved is unique. As much now as the first time I saw it this sequence remains incredibly moving, and, with some irony, one of the finest battle scenes put to celluloid. A monument both to Malick’s thematic integrity, and his unassailable filmic talent.

But these battles don’t last the film’s entire runtime, and I remember on first seeing the film a disappointment in its apparent trailing off towards the end, failing to build to a final set piece as might a standard war film. Yet in being more aware of Malick’s filmography and of the film’s dramatic arc, this issue quickly dissipated on second viewing. I found that it is often in the quieter moments The Thin Red Line speaks the loudest. This is partially achieved through its characters, who are often criticised as either cliched or hopelessly thin. A common example is of Staros (Elias Koteas) and Tall (Nick Nolte), who represent the noble and ignoble extremes of military hierarchy. Tall initially comes across much like the generals in Paths of Glory – a medal-chasing coward who is more than willing to sacrifice his men for a chance at recognition. But some depth is suggested in his portrayal, especially through Nolte’s admirable performance. He talks about how he had to bootlick his way up the ranks, how he is too old – how he missed his war. He feels, or perhaps knows, that he was overlooked, and sees now as his last and only chance to receive the credit he feels he deserves. Nolte betrays a certain regret in Tall, the idea that he knows what he’s doing is wrong, but feels compelled to do so anyway. When talking to John Cusack’s Gaff he sees himself in that young soldier, only with the opportunities he pined for. Risking his own glory he allows the soldiers an hours rest, if only to sate this younger version of himself, who demands a morality that perhaps he would have called for if stood in his place.

Staros, on the other hand, is also offered some complexity. While he is noble in fighting for his men, and protecting them against unnecessary sacrifice, he is imperfect. When Tall tells him that he’ll be sent home, with a desk job and a silver star for his trouble, Staros is clearly taken aback by the corruption at play. But he does not resist, or complain at this fate Tall is forcing on him. While he can clearly recognise the immorality of the act, the offer is too enticing to refuse, and he ultimately abandons the troop he (genuinely) cares for with this personal benefit in mind. Resistance would have been futile, and likely damaging to himself, but just as likely the right thing.

But despite these generally downtilt observations, Malick’s film is never lost in its grimness. Through Witt it engages with a hope, and while not a hope that can be believed in without question, it remains a consistent theme. Witt tells a story at one point, the reactions of two men to a dead bird. One sees something lost, forever disappeared; another, what comes next. This story recalls an earlier shot in the film focused on a dead chick, fallen from its nest, and will later reflect one of the film’s final shots in a more metaphorical sense. In Witt a hope lives on to the end, with the crashing of waves, and a memory of beauty. Or perhaps, not a memory.


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