The Thin Red Line (1998)

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick

Leading up to the release of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s new film, I sat down to watch his previous 4 films, which span from the early 70s all the way to the 2000s. However, I stopped after the first two, not because I was turned off, but I just failed to find the time with so many other things to watch. I have made it known previously that Terrence Malick is my favorite director of all time, so it stands that this is a film which I have seen more than once and one which I have a certain affinity towards. I can just imagine in the mid 90s when Malick started approaching people about a new project how everyone just jumped at the opportunity to work with him after a hiatus of so long. How else could he have gotten the huge, star studded cast which populates the film?

The setting is the Pacific theater in the times of World War II, more specifically the invasion of the island of Guadalcanal. I always find it strange when people claim they can’t tell which war the film is set in. Well for one, it is spelled out clearly in my mind when they say Guadalcanal and that they are fighting the “Japs”, but then again my degree is in History. The second point about which war it is supposed to be is that I think it is intentionally ambiguous other than the couple context clues which, like I said, do make it fairly obvious in my mind. More on that later. The narrative of the film is fairly secondary in terms of making it overly personal when it comes to the characters. I do applaud Malick for using the lesser known actors (Jim Caviezel [at the time], Dash Mihok, Ben Chaplin) in the meatier roles and the more famous ones (George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, John Cusack) in bit parts. Nick Nolte and Sean Penn would be the exceptions.

The film follows Charlie Company throughout the assault on Guadalcanal and as a war movie is different than anything else I’ve ever seen and the reason for that is its pace, which some would call is slow, while I would simply call it reflective, which is a word which could be used to describe all of Malick’s films. He has such a curiosity about humanity and faith which comes through in the mood expressed in his films and the voiceovers he is so famous for. The war itself is the backdrop, the instigator of these thoughts. It has its fair share of battle sequence, and quite graphic sometimes, but that just serves to illustrate the contemplative characters’ thoughts.

I would have to say that every war movie I have seen is basically anti-war just based on the depiction of the gruesomeness of the circumstances, but I might call this one the most anti-war film. War is a necessary evil in many cases. While I cannot condone aggressive attacks like the Japanese and Nazi Germans in the 30s and 40s, I can condone the defense of freedom and fighting against these evils on a basis of expelling evil from the world. I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say getting rid of Hitler was absolutely necessary. That being said, the condition of war is unique and a disgusting existence. Malick seems to use the horrors of war as a way of expressing his curiosity as the nature of humanity and his many eccentricities, which includes evil. The film is painstakingly beautiful, and I use that adjective because while war is not pretty, the cinematography is.

I will say that the last two times I have seen the film I have experienced a certain loss of focus somewhere along the way, which says something to the languid pace of the film. At nearly 3 hours it is not for everyone, nor for every situation. The very abstract approach Malick takes can be seen in the editing, but the fact remains that it is a master work of art which makes me think and reflect on the world around me. The best art does that and saying that this is not a personal film would be a disservice. And on a final note I do want to mention the marvelous score composed by Hans Zimmer. It really is the heartbeat of the film which makes it tick and is one of the best I’ve heard. This film will always seem to be overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan, which was released the same year. It is hard to rank his films because they are all so specifically unique and great, but The Thin Red Line is certainly among them.

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