The Thin Red Line (1998)

D: Terrence Malick
S: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte

Micro history of the Second World War focusing on the experiences of one Company during the battle for Guadalcanal, turning point of the Pacific conflict. Released in the same year as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, the film failed to capture the imagination of the paying public to quite the same extent, but is far more than just a companion piece or a footnote.

The term 'poetry' is too liberally applied to films which are visually powerful or stylish, cheapening the value of a film like The Thin Red Line, which is truly poetic. This is an almost non-narrative meditation on colour, texture and the elements in which the story of human conflict unfolds. It deals with the adventures of several individuals, beginning with an extended AWOL sequence in which Private Jim Caviezel contemplates his relationship with the world and the people in it and speculates on the futility of war. Though the scene is obvious in sentiment and style, it is hypnotically shot and edited and immediately disarms our expectations, taking us into a poetic frame of mind rather than a literal one. This leads into a sustained build up to the landing at Guadalcanal in which characters played by Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin and John Savage participate, climaxing with a surreal, quiet invasion which contrast with the horrifically violent Normandy sequence which opened Saving Private Ryan.

It takes some time before combat action occurs, and the film is not structured around a series of engagements leading to a climactic battle as it normally the case. Malick's concern here is not so much with the mechanics of the genre, or with the expected portmanteu of characterisations which reveal to us different ideas of the nature of war and of the behaviour human beings in times of conflict. Instead the dialogue is almost incidental, vague, often simplistic ramblings which provide barely enough motivation to hold together what little plot there is.

The film concentrates on mood and tone, crafting a world which alternates between light and darkness, fire and water, earth and air, and in which the rituals and dramas of battle are seen as an unholy disruption to the natural order which shatters man's relationship with the environment (and, by somewhat pantheistic inference, with God). Man is insane, ripping himself and his world apart for reasons which are insignificant when compared to the eternal questions of life and death for man, plant, and animal which they raise.

"There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad" explains the saying which gives the movie its title, and it is on this line (the front line of the battle for Guadalcanal), that most of the action takes place. War is likened to the tortured trashing of a maniacal beast, ripping itself apart in madness while others look on in dumbfoundment, and the film does its best to suggest that the physical world exists outside and beyond this ephemeral chaos. An aboriginal man wanders past a squad of soldiers in the tall grass, marsupial animals watch wide-eyed from trees as American troops slaughter the Japanese, tall plants sway in the breeze unaware of what goes on around them until the earth is scorched by gunfire and shell explosions: Malick consistently reminds us that human beings occupy a place in the order of nature rather than dominate and control it. When soldiers die they return to the earth. The purpose of their deaths is not the winning or losing of the war, but part of the natural course of the madness burning itself out through suffering and destruction.

It is a unique and powerful film, as might be expected from the director of Badlands and Days of Heaven (his first in two decades). Based upon the novel by James Jones (author of From Here to Eternity), the story has been filmed before (in 1964), but this version could only have been made at this point in film history, when generic boundaries have been sufficiently and consistently transgressed to the point where a war movie can become almost abstract art. The Thin Red Line goes much further than any previous film of this type (it does have a pedigree including the likes of Cross of Iron and Full Metal Jacket), abandoning even the more traditional speechmaking for the most part, substituting the eerie sounds of battle and the rich colours of grass, sea, sky and fire for traditional warscapes and vistas. In a sense it is just as well that the film followed Saving Private Ryan, because the sheer convention of the former film allows audiences reminded of the conventional formula to see beyond it here, and indeed, The Thin Red Line makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Sands of Iwo Jima in terms of philosophical sophistication.

It is not without its weaknesses. What dialogue there is is frequently old hat, it is somewhat pretentious at times, and as an anti-war movie it has nothing to add on the level of text alone. Its non-narrative style makes it difficult for casual viewers to follow, and it seems to meander along for over two hours with no definite structure or sense of when to quit.

On the level of performance, each of the actors deliver authentic characterisations, with Nolte and Penn particular standouts in a large cast which includes cameos from John Travolta, John Cusack and George Clooney. Caviezel gives his character an internal calm which works well amid the eventual chaos, and the film moves between individuals with little concern for star status or narrative significance. Rather each character becomes important when the philosophical discourses seems to require them, and it moves back and forth at will bringing only some of their stories to a resolution. John Savage is particularly peculiar as a shell shocked Squad Leader whose men have all been wiped out and who spends most of the film babbling to himself without anyone taking notice of him. Nolte is given the most sustained development as a frustrated Lieutenant Colonel driven by his own personal and political demons to press the invasion even when his men are tired and thirsty. His relationship with Captain Elias Koteas is the only genuine dramatic component of the film, and it does not provide it with a significant centre. It is really only one in a series of confrontations and crises faced by the individuals involved, but it is the one given the most effective exposition.

For many people this dramatic weakness will scuttle their enjoyment of the film, but for those willing to abandon their traditional fondness for a story well told in favour of a visually remarkable (photographed by John Toll), thought-provoking conceptual study of war as a process of human endeavour -- a destructive, divisive, pointless one, but nonetheless real and terrifying -- it should prove a rewarding experience. It is certainly deeply poetic, a meditation which uses the capacities of the medium to represent the form, colour, and texture of reality to stretch the limits of perception. It challenges its viewers, and though the challenge may be struggling with boredom for those unable to tune in to its unique vibe, it is certainly a worthwhile contribution to cinematic art in the late twentieth century whose flaws may dim with time but whose beauty and majesty can only become greater.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.