The Thin Red Line -
rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!
Here's a film that I rate in my hightest category, but I will say right
off that it is not a masterpiece. It is a flawed gem, but still a gem.
It is amazing that in a year which has produced 3 high-profile films
about World War II that the 3 films could be so different. One, Saving
Private Ryan , a gritty drama. The second, Life is Beautiful, a
bitter-sweet comedy, and the third, The Thin Red Line , a melancholy
philosophical reflection. Who said that all films are becoming the
same? Who said that Hollywood is so dominant that there is little hope
of seeing films which don't fit the box-office formula. At least for
now they are still being made - and seen.
The Thin Red Line is unbelievably beautiful to look at - sometimes
distractingly so. At the same time as he is giving us gorgeous pictures
to look at, Terrence Malick gives us a dense, intensely cerebral script
to digest. At times it is too abstract, too hard to swallow at one
sitting. I found myself wanting to hit the rewind button several times
during the movie, and being disappointed to miss chunks of internal
dialogue. It's a movie that you know you'll need to see again. And yet
I didn't find this difficult script annoying, as some have. I felt its
density fitted the subject - war and humanity - and what it means to be
alive. It gave the film a Brechtian touch that invites further
analysis. This is a very brainy film indeed.
It follows the story of the ground war in Guadalcanal. By the time the
film opens, the major battle for Guadalcanal - the sea battle - is
over, and the war of attrition to gain the island has just begun. This
is the unglamourous part of war - the part that's costliest in human
lives, and the part that takes the longest. So Malick stretches out the
time and intercuts it with flashbacks and daydreams, so that it takes
on a feverish tone. There's an exciting battle, there's cruelty and
bravery and there's blood and gore, but the overwhelming feeling of the
movie is that of lush green tropical beauty. Savagery, yes, but mostly
The cast is overwhelmingly male (Australia's terrific Miranda Otto is
the only woman in the cast - and she is a flashback, or, more properly,
an illusion). Malick seems to have chosen his men for the beauty of
their eyes. Most of them have beautiful dark, almost black eyes. Then
there's Sean Penn, not known for his beauty, but he does have the most
piercing blue eyes. And then there's Woody Harrelson, who can be, and
is so good. Here he has a death scene that is literally stunning, and
extraordinarily real. He captures a moment that must rank among the
greats of cinema. Unfortunately, Malick has also included a couple of
annoying & distracting cameos - John Travolta is particularly
jarring, George Clooney less so.
Apart from these distracting cameos, and the major roles, Malick seems
to have chosen men who look somewhat alike, and then he photographs
them covered in mud, so that we find it difficult to tell one from the
other. Then he mixes in about 8 different characters' narrations, so
that we become even more confused. I'm convinced Malick intends to
confuse us. I believe Malick wanted to show the amorphous mass of
humanity at war, not so much the individuals. I believe he wanted to
show the human tragedy, not just the individual drama. Maybe he doesn't
quite succeed, but he takes us quite some way towards that goal.
In Saving Private Ryan , Speilberg shows us that War is Hell. In Life
is Beautiful , Benigno shows us that War is Stupid, but in The Thin Red
Line shows us that War is Against Nature. It's a Shakespearian idea, at
once simple and profoundly moving. Malick shows us over and over again
how absurd it is that people from foreign lands should be struggling
against each other on this island paradise for a victory which is
beyond the comprehension of the island's rightful inhabitants. In one
scene, the soldiers carefully march in a line snaking along a path,
fearful of every step and watchful for the enemy, or enemy mines. Then
an old Melanesian man comes walking blithely past them in the opposite
direction, as he clearly does every day. This day is no exception. It's
a wonderful moment - a moment which asks you to recalibrate yourself.
Who's crazy here?
Another great scene illustrating the impossible logic of the
predicament is the scene in which Captain Staros, Elias Koteas (of
Crash fame, in another excellent, low-key performance), bucks against
the system and disobeys the (insane) orders of Colonel Tall (Nick
Nolte, also excellent). No sooner does he make his stand than the
circumstances change, and his moral issue resolves itself. Even
morality, even one's own standards, don't work properly in this savage
setting. Even the pure and redemptive love between Private Bell (Ben
Chaplin) and his wife (Miranda Otto) is not as it appears to be.
The Thin Red Line is a long and demanding film, but a rewarding one. It
tries to do more than thrill and move you. It tries to work on your
mind. In my case, 3 weeks later, it is still working.