If you follow my site you will know that one of the principles I abide by- and this relates very much to film- is to not cloud the vision of a work by ideology, or presenting some kind of political or religious message say. Vision and ideology are two very different things, and it is important to understand this because the reason some films are on this list, and others are not, come down to this distinction. With war films, in particular, it is very common to find propaganda in the form of patriotism- be it in Triumph of the Will or almost any Hollywood war movie- or stereotypical characters. If only directors would learn not to merely use characters like generals do their soldiers. Instead of having them perform a specific role in the plot, have them live and breathe- easier said than done. That is instead of having them react with fear or bravery or some other thing, give them an outlook on life as well as death. In Saving Private Ryan there is only an assortment of simplistic elements; Spielberg has no real vision and no real characters. Americans love heroes, be they super or otherwise, and this is exactly what this flick is- a typical hero flick. Characters need to be something more than marionettes and Saving Private Ryan simply does not understand this. Yes, there are moments which work, where for example there is some comedy preceding an intense action sequence, but this is not exactly great, because while there is a general understanding that people would try to alleviate tension through light-hearted chit-chat, there are no moments that give you an insight to any of the characters as individual human beings. This is the most common trait in both Spielberg’s films, but more relevantly war films, because, among other reasons, there is a tendency for the forces on both sides of the conflict to merge into either of two monoliths bashing heads against one another. Then there is The Thin Red Line, which perhaps is the only non-satirical American war film that avoids all these issues, and which actually had a vision. It is technically 2 films because there is the earlier 1964 version by Andrew Marton (an excellent to near-great film, which shows off Kier Dullea’s significant acting talent) and the Terrence Malick version, which I will be focusing on here. This is a truly great film and I would even go as far as to say that it is a perfect film.
To illustrate The Thin Red Line‘s depth, I will segue into a brief comparison. Speaking of monoliths and Kier Dullea, the film that I honestly think is the most similar in terms of viewing experience to it is actually Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey. We have here 2 prime examples of cinematic poesy, albeit different styles of such. While 2001 leaves much unsaid and uses symbolism to create the Mobius loop of meaning that ties its moments together, The Thin Red Line uses voice over. It may take some time to notice that there is actually a polyphony in the VOs given their similar cadence and propensity to blend into each other, though this was intended by Malick because it conveys the effect of each speaker being permutations of the same mind. This is an important nuance, and yet there are so many nuances of this film which can be explored relating to not what is said, but how it is said. For example, for most of the film, we do not see the Japanese army, only experience their fire, and you must suffer along with the American troops as they combat a faceless enemy. Yet when the Americans storm the Japanese around two thirds in, we see the tables turn, and it is those we were previously rooting for who now seem terrifying. There is one moment in which a Japanese soldier is talking to his American counterpart in his native tongue, and there are no subtitles. Because it is not the words but what they ‘mean‘ if you will, which is relevant. We get drawn in, listening despite the [presumed] language barrier.
We are introduced to the flaws in each side of the battle, and something which The Thin Red Line demonstrates over and over is the weaknesses of the characters. Character flaws are one thing we often hear we should take into consideration when writing. The simplistic reason for this is usually to avoid 1-dimensional Mary Sues (or Gary Stews). We need to leave room for an arc, to allow the character to change for the better by the end of the story. But Malick (since he also wrote the screenplay) installs these perceived weaknesses for a different reason, which is to in fact question where the thin line is between flaw and virtue. In one case Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), orders his troops to take a ridge despite the danger and the enemy control over the position. When Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) refuses to carry out the order we are led to believe this is about showing the error of the glory-seeking Colonel. Indeed there is a candlelit scene in which Staros prays that he will never betray his troops, and it is his mission to preserve as many of them as possible. Tall is reasonable and takes Staros’ refusal seriously, but it turns out that Tall was actually right, and the question later becomes: is the ever loyal captain taking the war seriously enough? And in the end, he takes the offer of a Silver Star and Purple Heart so that Tall can replace him with someone tougher fibred. It is clear the Colonel values bootlicking, as he himself has bootlicked his way to his own position- as evidence a subtly great scene involving him and John Travolta’s General Quintard. So we are led to constantly question good intentions in the face of realism in this way, such as is the case with Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who muses and dwells on his wife, whom he left behind to go to war, and his voice-overs about her are often very moving, adding a redemptive beauty to the quality of his life as a soldier. Here is one of his letters to her, read in the VO:
My Dear Wife,
You get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, filth, and noise. I want to stay changeless for you, I want to come back to you the man I was before. How do we get to those other shores, to those blue hills? Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it.
I was a prisoner, you set me free.
His wife’s reply:
I’ve met an air force captain. I’ve fallen in love with him. I want a divorce to marry him. I know you can say no but I’m asking you anyway, out of the memory of what we had together. Forgive me, it just got too lonely Jack. We’ll meet again someday. People who’ve been as close as we’ve been always meet again. I have no right to speak to you this way, the habits so strong.
Oh my friend of all these shining years, help me leave you.
One last example I will bring up is the idealism of our main narrator, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). He has seen another world outside of that of the war. In the opening scene, we see the tropical paradise of the island in which he resides, (in stark contrast to the clip directly prior of a Crocodile sinking into a swamp), and we want to believe in this beauty. Again, we want the happy ending as with Private Bell. And Witt Tells his ‘best friend,’ 1st Sergent Edward Welsh (Seann Penn) that he sees a spark in him, despite his lack of belief in such, or any world outside of the cruel one into which we are later introduced. The devastating turning point comes when Witt uses himself as a decoy to buy time for his fellow troops. He ends up surrounded on all sides, and one of the Japanese speaks to him- in words he cannot understand- and proceeds to shout his commands, but Witt does naught but stare on in disbelief in the face of death. He then raises his gun in a futile attempt to defend himself but is killed instantly. Upon Witt’s saying goodbye to this cruel world, we are again shown a brief clip from that other world, that haven of Witt’s now perished soul, before Welsh speaks to his buried corpse, in words he cannot hear- ‘where’s your spark now?’ This is a crushing moment, and it is followed by the final twisting of this Mobius loop of a film in the proceeding two voice-overs:
…only one thing a man can do, find something that’s his. 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.
from Welsh, &
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.
from Witt beyond the grave. The closing image is of a plant sprouting in the swamp ostensibly into which the crocodile sunk at the beginning. So there is always this interplay between the various dichotomies: loyalty and betrayal; beauty and cruelty; man and nature, which is an aspect I have not even touched upon yet. Nevertheless, the dichotomy which most war films focus upon, that between Us (or more often U.S.) & Them, is not utilized in The Thin Red Line to show their difference, but similarity. In addition to what has already been said on the matter, I will mention a scene where one of our ‘heroes’ accidentally blows his leg off with a grenade, and while what follows is one of the most competently executed death scenes in cinema as a result of this, it serves to illustrate the incompetence of those on both sides of the conflict.
A small homage to the 1964 version is when Private Doll (Dash Mihok) steals a pistol from an officer’s neglected holster, only to have this act of theft reward him later on in taking a bunker, and even saves his life. In the original, the role of the stolen pistol is much more significant, as it is what Kier Dullea’s Private Doll uses in his first encounter with the enemy, which establishes his journey into madness. The focus on different characters, and in some ways a different plot in the 1998 version is interesting, and though I am not sure which is more in line with the novel by James Jones that is their mutual source, I believe Malick makes better choices than Marton in this respect. Certainly, Malick demonstrates a better taste in music and the score by Hans Zimmer is among the most memorable and transcendent I have ever had the privilege of listening to. I guarantee whenever you hear it subsequently upon seeing The Thin Red Line for yourself, you will be hit hard by the feeling it will elicit, as it transports you back to the powerful moments I have described herein. Finally, there is the glorious cinematography, which puts the viewer alongside the soldiers, right in the thick of it. You, in fact, will feel like one of them most of the time. I wonder how much of this is due to the depth of field lens, which makes one feel much less as if they are watching a movie than actually inside the movie. This is yet another way this masterpiece has ‘depth’ so to speak.
Now, despite all of this, some critics did not seem to appreciate all that has been detailed here. One of the most common criticisms can be summed up as: why would soldiers think like this? Surely this is too poetic to be realistic. Unfortunately, the most famous of all critics, Roger Ebert himself was one of those people who lamented thus, and he ended up evaluating the film as good but not great (he thinks Saving Private Ryan is better for some ludicrous reason). A downright silly comment Ebert makes in his review is that Malick didn’t know what he was doing because he apparently couldn’t make up his mind about whether this was meant to be a realistic war move or not. Au Contraire, it is not Malick but Ebert who failed to get what The Thin Red Line was supposed to be about, as he misses the point entirely of what THE THIN RED LINE is! I do not mean what it symbolizes in the 1964 version- that between sanity and madness- but what it symbolizes in the 1998 version specifically- that between the animal and the human being. The dehumanization wrought by the circumstances and actions of our characters in the face of such is held up against the reflections and revelations of the internal mind of those characters. They become poets in a sense, which is perhaps the most richly human thing of all. This is, in other words, the Spark within us.