The Thin Red Line Review
So what is it that makes Terrence Malick such an amazing Director? If you’re unfamiliar with the acclaimed auteur, he’s the man who Directed the iconic Martin Sheen / Sissy Spacek flick Badlands, as well as the early Richard Gere vehicle Days of Heaven, which was shot – for effect – almost entirely during magic hour (the first and last hour of sunlight in a day), giving a dream-like quality to the sumptuous cinematography, which has possibly never been topped. More recently he did a revisionist take on the classic Pocohontas tale in his stunning A New World, and his latest project – due for release next year – boasts a pairing of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
Arguably the most visual Director that I can think of, his style is neither the frantic MTV approach of Tony Scott, nor the gritty shaky-cam of Paul Greengrass. No, in fact his style actually has a lot of substance to it – the man prefers to tell tales with visuals rather than just with words, to paint a picture for you, and give you a ‘feel’ for what is going on. It’s the antithesis of the standard spoon-fed Hollywood exposition, Malick almost staying more true to the cinematic medium, over and above many of his counterparts. You don’t watch a Terrence Malick movie, you absorb it – the feelings of the character, their journeys, their plight, the entire esoteric atmosphere – it’s so rich that it simply seeps into you, getting right under your skin and involving you in the whole enchanting affair.
Many did not realise what Malick was capable of until 1998, when he returned from his mammoth 20-year hiatus – an unintentional break he took where he simply could not get any of his intended projects off the ground. At that point – going up against Spielberg’s brutal and gritty Saving Private Ryan – he released his eagerly anticipated comeback vehicle, The Thin Red Line. Much more in-your-face, ‘Ryan stormed the Box Office, and still remains a favourite on 100 Best Movie lists, but The Thin Red Line nevertheless slowly seeped into the psyches of its viewers, gradually coming through as a subtle, almost intangible but nonetheless equally powerful snapshot of the true horrors of war, and the good and bad in each and every one of us.
“There's not some other world out there where everything's gonna be okay. There's just this one.”
The story follows a group of reinforcements sent to Guadancanal – an island in the South Pacific – to help the US forces finally overthrow the Japanese, as a pivotal part of their Pacific Campaign during World War II. The unit sent there find that it is something of a paradise, a beautiful location of panoramic vistas and peaceful Melanesian natives who play their drums and chant mellifluously. It’s another world – totally at odds with the violent confrontations that take place there, and the ensuing horror. The soldiers are all moved in different ways: some petrified, some gung-ho, many diligently following orders in the hope that it all works out, whilst others try and follow to their own moral compass. Amidst the picturesque landscapes, enshrouded in the darkness and death that surrounds them, they all still have one thing in common: they want to survive this heavenly hell.
Terrence Malick spent the best part of a decade working on-and-off on this project, refining it until his vision was perfected. He based his screenplay on the 1964 novel, of the same name, by James Jones (the man who wrote From Here to Eternity, which was also made into a critically acclaimed film), about the war veteran’s own experiences in Guadancanal. ‘The Thin Red Line’, as a title, is both a reference to a red-coated military unit facing a vastly superior force, and a symbol for the fine line between sanity and madness, and whilst Malick was not the first person to adapt Jones’ book into a film (the original was done in black and white soon after the novel was written), his interpretation took the source novel to the next level: telling more than just simple stories of opposing military forces – good versus evil – and instead also painting an evocative picture of light and dark, both in setting and in terms of the inner turmoil of each and every character.
“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.”
And Malick sure did have a lot of boots to fill in his epic ensemble production, bowing to the Studio’s insistence that certain Hollywood A-listers get parts, and assembling an eclectic cast that was unprecedented at the time, and – to this day – remains one of the grandest casts ever put together for a film. Amidst the big names you get the likes of George Clooney and John Travolta – both in tiny cameos as a result of Malick’s post-production editing – as well as John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Thomas Jane, John Savage, Nick Stahl, Ben Chaplin and Jared Leto, all on fine form (some of them at the very peak of their game), with each and every one of them given room to breathe – no matter how small their parts – within Malick’s world. Only Savage comes across as marginally typecast – after The Deer Hunter his deranged, PTSD-suffering persona feels a bit clichéd – but you barely notice it amidst a bunch of familiar faces who seem utterly authentic as soldiers in the thick of things.
There were others supposed to be involved as well: not only did The Pianist’s Oscar-winner Adrien Brody have his once-pivotal role trimmed down to just a couple of scenes, but a whole host of big actors not only tried out for, but actually filmed scenes which were left on the cutting room floor: Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke. The most talked-about of these was Rourke, who was in Hollywood exile at the time, and whose reportedly noteworthy contribution was unceremoniously removed from the film at the behest of the Studios. Long before his popular Sin City comeback, and critical acclaim for The Wrestler, Rourke had had the opportunity to show that he still had the skills back in 1998, and I wonder whether things would have been different for the man had they left his scenes in.
“What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?”
However, for the final cut, the real acting credit has to go to just four key players: Elias Koteas, Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel and Nick Nolte, who, between them, have the biggest impact on the audience. Koteas, a very underrated actor who simply shines when given half a chance (Fallen, Shutter Island), is fantastic as the battle-weary Captain Staros, who is not prepared to put the lives of his men on the line for suicide missions. Sean Penn – before he beat Rourke to the Oscar for his somewhat flavour-of-the-month performance in Milk – perfectly captures the cynical, battle-weary, role of a Sergeant who has seen too much unnecessary, meaningless death throughout his career.
Hotel Rwanda’s Nick Nolte initially comes across as a just another grizzly Lieutenant Colonel, but it soon becomes apparent that this man is just as desperate as the rest of them to get out of this hell. Having been passed over for promotion too many times, he will do anything to secure it this time – including putting the lives of his men on the line in impossible situations. But even he has some humanity, morality and conscience behind the order-barking facade, his overt pomposity: “It's never necessary to tell me that you think I'm right. We'll just... assume it.” counterpointing his inner thoughts: “Shut up in a tomb. Can't lift the lid. Playing a role I never conceived.” It’s poignantly tragic.
He plays perfectly against Koteas’ Captain’s quietly contemplative reasoning against the largely suicidal orders – he’s the antithesis of Nolte’s superior, he’s the man who will willingly put the lives of his men above the progress of his ‘career’. The pivotal sequence – the central action within the epic time-frame – involves the seemingly impossible mission to take a hill heavily fortified by gun emplacements. Only Hamburger Hill’s exploration of a similar situation in ‘Nam – another almost meaningless case of sending endless young soldiers to their deaths – comparably captures the horror of it all, with the battle between Koteas’ humane but courageous Captain and Nolte’s damaged, desperate Lt. Col drawing the pointlessness of the suicidal task into direct focus.
“I've lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years and I will not order them all to their deaths.”
The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel plays the unusual Private through whose eyes we see a very different take on things. He sees life on a more ethereal, intangible level, as he glides through the battle-field, having been previously seduced by this island paradise, and just as unwilling to submit to the threat of the horrors that surround him as he is resistant to the orders of his military superiors. And his part is perhaps the most pivotal in reminding us that Malick’s vision of Jones’s The Thin Red Line is very much one that echoes Paradise Lost, John Milton’s poetic look at Adam and Eve’s ruin within the Garden of Eden.
Malick wanted to show us the beauty juxtaposed with the horror, the corruption of Eden as man takes a bite out of the natural order of things, and loses his innocence in the process. He wants us to see not only the violence that men will commit upon others in times of war, but also the sheer randomness of some of the horror: you don’t die because you’ve done something bad, something wrong; nor do you survive because you did something right, or because you deserved to. Just another cog in an inhuman machine; a grunt who is taught not to value life (not even your own) but to take life without thinking. And you don’t realise that, in doing so, repeatedly – in an environment where you know that your enemy may, at any moment, do exactly the same thing to you – people become little more than animals, ready for slaughter. Malick wanted to capture the perpetual threat of violence that beats soldiers into submission, the horror of death from out of nowhere – the man who killed you an identity-less face amongst the crowd, who may or may not have even been aiming at you at the time, and the inner destruction this has on men’s very souls.
“It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you're at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna’ get it.”
Reflecting upon soldiers’ thoughts in soft-spoken, contemplative narration, disjointedly overlayed on the proceedings with no ostensible purpose – other than to give you a glimpse of these soldiers’ thoughts. It’s cleverly intercut amidst Hans Zimmer’s rousing, epic score (itself juxtaposed with the mellifluous Melanesian Chants) with the many contributors asking more questions than answering them, bewildered by the hell that they are in. Jones’s own novel used exactly the same method of multiple narration excerpts – based on his own harrowing experiences – and Malick expands on the idea to amazing effect. The musings – the horror of pointless death, the exhaustion of living in constant fear, the perpetual meandering between the light and the dark – help fashion what has is arguably the greatest war movie that I have ever come across.
Transcending the ever-burgeoning genre, it paints a picture – as all great Malick movies do – of far more than just a violent battle between opposing military forces, enriching the film with multiple layers about good and evil, light and dark, senseless horror within a corrupted paradise and a higher meaning in a cynical world where all innocence is tragically lost. It is filmmaking at the highest level, a seminal reflective epic that will seep into your very soul and leave you musing long after the crescendo-scored moving final battle, and long after the end credits roll. An indisputable modern classic, I cannot recommend this movie enough.
“This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too?”