The Thin Red Line (1998)


Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

Director of Photography:
John Toll

Running time: 163 minutes

The most distracting thing about Terrence Malick’s longest film is not the length, nor is it the extremely slow pace of the narrative or the reflective, fragmentary voice-overs we are treated to by many different characters. No, it is the number of celebrities, almost all of whom unfortunately draw our attention away from the film’s desire to approach the characters of its soldiers as intimately as possible. Forget Grand Hotel; this film features Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Tim Blake Nelson, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Nick Stahl, John Cusack, George Clooney and a few more. It is ludicrous to pack a film as sensitive as this one with names like these, and while the celebrities almost certainly secured Malick the budget he needed, the effect on the appreciation of the film is devastating.

If you’ve ever heard of Terrence Malick, then you shouldn’t be surprised that The Thin Red Line is not your average war epic. Malick’s voice-overs fill the soundtrack as much as actual dialogue, and despite the battle waged between the Americans and the Japanese, nature is the real character of the film. Set almost entirely on the island of Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, it focuses on the experiences of a group of soldiers who are fighting the Japanese and coming to terms with formerly abstract terms such as “death” and “danger”.

One of these soldiers is Private Witt, who went AWOL and is living on an island with native Melanesians when his country tracks him down at the beginning of the film and makes him join Charlie Company, an outfit whose mission it is to take out the Japanese on Guadalcanal. His idyllic life on the island had been beautiful and carefree, but he is about to be confronted up close with the loss of life and the loss of natural innocence, as a streak of blood on a blade of grass subtly informs us early on.

Nature, interior reflection – in the form of voice-overs – and reactions to death are what this film mostly concerns itself with. As Private Witt, Jim Caviezel delivers a performance that draws the viewer like a magnet. He is cool, calm, and wise, with a spirit much older than his youthful face could ever reveal. Witt is one of the few characters that we can hold on to while others slide in and out of view, without reason. Admittedly, Malick does make an explicit point that it is possible for all men to somehow share a big spirit, and that we, like nature, are all connected by a spiritual thread we fail to recognise. But very little is done to develop this insight, which quickly disappears.

There are many voice-overs, always delivered dispassionately, but since the story is not tied to a particular individual, it is often very difficult to establish whose voice we are hearing; sometimes, the speaker doesn’t even appear in the scene. In this way, we hear the disembodied voices of (at least) Privates Witt, Bell (Ben Chaplin), Private First Class Doll (Dash Mihok), First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) and Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte).

Some actors deliver stellar performances, most notably Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin, who absorb the chaos around them without being overly shaken by it and yet portray absolute humanity and a dignity that is beautiful. I also want to acknowledge the strength of Elias Koteas’s character, Captain Staros, who seems to possess divine force when he speaks his native Greek, and Nick Nolte’s Lieutenant Colonel Tall, who is euphoric at his first taste of real war and doesn’t flinch even while grenades explode around him. Some actors are quite bad, such as Dash Mihok (an actor who has played wonderful roles in other films), who seems to be scared when he is not shocked and who never loses his slightly childlike demeanour. And then there are many actors who were not given any opportunity to develop their characters. Adrien Brody, always wide-eyed in this film, is seen but almost never heard, and George Clooney pops up in an interesting role… in the film’s final scene.

As usual for a Malick film, the audiovisual elements are simply stunning, and the director has included a romantic angle, which in this case does not serve the film well. One feels slightly embarrassed when Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) receives a letter from his wife, the context having been sketched previously with simple flashbacks that do not present us with a concrete picture, but Chaplin copes exceedingly well. For all the weaknesses of the screenplay (the entire plot can be summarised in a very short paragraph), the camera does some amazing tricks with its pitch perfectly coloured images, and the Melanesian choir music is unforgettable. Look out for an early scene, after the death of two soldiers, when sunlight turns the grass from dark-green to yellow.

Malick gets at the complexity of war and there are many interesting moments scattered throughout the film, including a captain’s desire to see his men protected, no matter what the effect on the battle, the awkwardness of battle depicted by soldiers running into each other while fleeing gunfire, and the universality of suffering, when a Japanese prisoner cries for the dead friends around him. But these moments, while rich and insightful, do not cohere into a strong narrative and ultimately we get the sense that Malick is meticulous but unable to move beyond the abstract and give us a physical experience of his world. The film has an abundance of water and greenery, and a sharp eye for human emotion, with some strong performances, but these are lonely elements in a film that gets caught up in its own rhetoric.

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