Treading the thin line between a gruesome depiction of war and an art piece on the very meaning of life, The Thin Red Line (1998) is one of the most capable preventative measures against combat that has ever graced the silver screen. Terrence Malick, the maestro behind it all, practically embodies the proven approach whereby critical thinking and contemplation can save entire nations from engaging in hellish battle. Malick’s filmography, spanning from the 1970s icons Badlands and Days of Heaven to more spiritual pieces like A Hidden Life and my all-time-favorite The Tree of Life, has cemented his status as one of the greatest living directors.
The Thin Red Line certainly lives up to the grandeur of Malick’s vision, with Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) serving as the main outlet for a romantic, transcendental perspective that pervades even amidst the grim reality of war. Malick builds upon this vision by utilizing a star-studded cast including, amongst many others, George Clooney, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, and Tim Blake Nelson. Despite these actors’ overqualified résumés, however, they are ultimately incapable of stealing the show away from Malick’s true star: deep insights on war’s horrific toll. Sometimes bright, other times dark, but always pigmented with the deep hue of personal wisdom, the culmination of these characters’ worldviews make for a colorful palette full of awe and wonder.
Perhaps more shocking than the film’s ensemble is its behind-the-scenes production where those involved, and those who sought to be involved, engaged in their own infernal war of sorts. The Thin Red Line’s infamously overblown production, combined with Malick’s refusal to offer roles to big names like DiCaprio, Pitt, Depp, Cruise, Pacino, and De Niro, somehow lives up to the hype surrounding the director’s twenty-year return to cinema. The film, an adaptation of James Jones’s novel, derives its title from the permeable partition between the sane and the mad, capturing both the deterioration of man’s soul in wartime and the chaos that ensued during the film’s development. Had James anticipated the lengths Malick and his team would go to conceive his work, chances are the author would’ve viewed his WWII experiences as mere child’s play by comparison.
Such a bold statement may seem unwarranted, however, considering that Jones personally witnessed the horrors of war at the Battle of Guadalcanal, eventually mustering up enough strength to memorialize those mindless killings on paper. One might suspect that a film based on a novel based on one man’s recollection would deviate significantly from the truth, but the historical record suggests otherwise. The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first major ground attack by American troops against the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean, yet its historical significance is vastly underrepresented compared to Normandy or Iwo Jima. The Thin Red Line owes much of its explosiveness to its unusual treatment of this relatively unfamiliar campaign, eschewing traditional cinematic tactics while reproducing the sustained combat that devastated both forces alike.
In a film where the setting is the story, the necessity of portraying the dense, exotic landscape ridden with an uninviting Axis enemy is paramount, and The Thin Red Line proves more than capable. Malick creates a hyperreality where viewers can imagine themselves in the boots of perplexed soldiers wading through unforgiving waters and facing a second, more merciless enemy: mother nature. In this malarial no man’s land, the butterflies in the stomachs of American troops, undergoing a perverse metamorphosis, become moths in their bellies. No wonder the opening shot is of a crocodile slowly descending into a swampy lagoon – these young men are about to witness life-ending moments of heightened agony.
The Thin Red Line is thus faithful to the bloodshed and man’s submission to the environment, but Malick takes liberties in enlightening audiences on what he believes is a glimmer of hope amidst the violent deaths at Guadalcanal. For those with firsthand experience, this battle was everything but the sunshine of the Solomon Island chain – if anything, they were blinded by the pitch black darkness. The film distills this into one horrid image of a Japanese soldier’s face half-buried in soil, bearing an uncanny resemblance to an actual still taken from a beach at Guadalcanal. Here, Malick suggests that darkness did not discriminate against the Japanese. Nor did the light, however, as he creates flashes of human decency on both sides, unscripted in the historical narrative but wholly necessary in the grand scheme of things.
If war is hell and light is always examined in a context of darkness, how does Malick’s vision of idyllic flashbacks vis-à-vis picturesque battlefields remain true to the spirit of Guadalcanal? Such questions point to The Thin Red Line’s success at sparking in audiences the same contemplative thoughts ruminating in its characters’ minds. It is this rhetorical battlefield that eventually brings about an end to all wars. Such an eternal understanding flows from the sublimely poetic montages of Witt living a life of pacifism on a South Pacific island – a calm before the storm of battle. Equipped with Malick’s approach to sight and sound, viewers slowly but surely piece together his portrayal of nature vs. human nature and, finally, the overarching presence of God over all.
Thanks to Malick’s underlying inspiration, cinematographer John Toll’s frame-worthy imagery feels both aesthetically pleasing and true to the mountainous topography. In fact, The Thin Red Line owes much of its breath-taking sequences to the photography’s journey into the heart of nature. All beings are united in this epic film, and one cannot help but burst out in joyous song upon hearing “Jisas Yu Holem Laef Blong Mi,” Hans Zimmer’s collection of Melanesian chants. Alas, wars have continued to plague our world since the release of Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but it is never too late to reflect on the film’s message and see where awe and wonder can take us.