Classic film review: ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)

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“What’s this war in the heart of nature? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power…but two?”

Homer-esque musings of an unseen soldier begin Terrence Malick’s masterly cinematic foray into war in The Thin Red Line, loosely adapted from James Jones’ novel of the same name, with weighted resonance against a backdrop of the Guadalcanal jungle.

The audacity of Malick’s approach to storytelling has always given him a strong reputation for polarisation. His first two films—Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)—took well over a decade to gain the historical reverence they’re known for today. They eventually culminated with a 20-year hiatus to give him something of a phantom mystique, propelling him to the ranks of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs without so much as an interview. His return to the director’s chair was then met by eager studio executives out to make a mark on the 1998 award season, granting him complete creative control and budgetary freedom. Anything, anywhere or anyone he wanted for his vision, he was given.

The result? A profound modern allegory on war and one of the most important pieces of American cinema ever produced.

Released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, the two films couldn’t be more contrasting of one another. The Thin Red Line is, comparatively speaking, very challenging viewing—something made apparent from the start. Scenes are disconnected and characters are often disposable and narratively removed, and there’s no clearly defined story arc. Extensive voiceovers that may provide insight are generally mumbled and overtly abstract, and flashbacks often confound more than they provide any exposition.

It’s a bold, daring piece of cinema that unapologetically ignores convention. And it’s infinitely better for it.

Set in the World War II conflict between incumbent Japanese forces on the Guadalcanal Islands and an advancing US battalion, Malick serves as a tour guide to the internal and external tribulations of warfare. He draws parallels to nature and wants us to consider the significance war has for our species. What does it say about us, about men?

While less concerned with destruction than the bulk of the war genre, the battle scenes are as compelling as any I’ve seen. Long panning shots take us deep into the thick of violence, gliding in and out of smoke and gunfire alongside frantic soldiers more desperate to survive than to kill.

In an especially resonant sequence, two Americans advance up a hill to scout an area and are suddenly killed by an unseen enemy. Once they fall, everything goes statically quiet, and the rest of the troops look on with an intensely fearful apprehension. With little sound but the wind against the long-grass, cloud cover clears and sunlight slowly creeps across the hillside where they were standing moments earlier. It’s scenes of contrasting beauty like this that magnify the film’s core morals and help elevate it to greatness.

Malick is equal parts filmmaker and philosopher. Some may find difficulty in accessing the full scope of his message on a first viewing, but it’s hard to deny the emotional power and beauty of his presentation. Removed from plot, the mix of narrative lyricism, visual poetry and Hans Zimmer’s powerful score makes The Thin Red Line feel more like a meditation than a movie.

“What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?

Sergeant Welsh’s poignant speech to Private Witt on a desecrated battlefield is perhaps the most telling of all.

Malick shows us that conscripted warfare wasn’t fuelled by cigar-smoking patriots with a fervour for violence; rather it was attended by fearful and psychologically conflicted everymen facing their own mortality. The accumulated imagery of soldiers in the grips of fear snowballs a powerful statement on humanity and suffering.

The Thin Red Line is a meditative commentary on our darkest behaviour painted over a canvas of naturalist terrain and human existentialism. Aesthetically beautiful, emotionally charged and thematically profound, it’s more than a cinematic masterpiece; it’s a masterpiece of our culture.


Note: this review was originally posted on my journal site.

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