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The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line

By Toby C Prior • December 25th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
20th Century Fox

Original release: December 25th, 1998
Certificate: 15
Running time: 170 minutes

Director: Terrence Malick
Writers: James Jones (novel) & Terrence Malick
Composers: Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Klaus Badelt

Cast: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Miranda Otto, Jared Leto, John Travolta

The Thin Red Line

1998 saw Terrence Malick’s long awaited return from a 20 year hiatus, with his ode to war and spirituality – The Thin Red Line. The film tells the story of the US Army’s 1943 offensive on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal and was adapted from war veteran James Jones’ 1962 novel of the same title. Notably, the film also hit our screens in the wake of Spielberg’s more widely recognised, Saving Private Ryan – released only a few months before.

It was Malick’s war in the South Pacific to compliment Spielberg’s war on the rain sodden beaches of Northern Europe, one would assume. Despite the similarities, The Thin Red Line was never the commercial success one would have expected on the back of Spielberg’s predecessor. Having arrived at a time when audiences were hungry for more blood soaked über realism – another precedent set by Spielberg – Malick instead embarked on a very different type of film.

Almost existential in nature, it uses the war to bring together a number of overarching themes – themes around nature, spirituality and identity. Lending itself perfectly to many a theology or film studies curriculum since its release. You only need to search the internet to find a plethora of dissertations on the subject. But it was never Malick’s intention to make just another war film. And nor was this the expectation of anyone who’d enjoyed his previous 2 outings – Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1979). As with both these films, the viewer is once again entering the dream world of Terrence Malick. When watching The Thin Red Line, I’m reminded of this Zen fable:

The Thin Red Line

A man clings desperately from an old vine on a cliff face, there’s a hungry tiger stalking him below and another tiger prowling above. The vine is about to snap but before it does, he spies a strawberry growing from a crack in the rock. He reaches out, picks it and eats it. It’s delicious, he thinks.

Not an obvious analogy for war, you might think – Instead, a cautionary tale about not fearing the future or dwelling on the past, but always to appreciate the here and now. And the film’s strengths lie in how Malick evokes these feelings within us. To borrow a line from Buddhism – that state of mindfulness. He achieves this by shooting from the hip; keeping the audience at ground level as we track the soldiers exhausting ascent to gain control of the island – outpost by outpost – and it’s from this perspective that he’s able to punctuate the feeling of impending doom with the beauty of its environment.

This, for me, is the metaphorical strawberry hanging over a precipice – those moments of unparalleled beauty, which so often go unnoticed. In fact, the scenery almost becomes a character of its own – at times powerful, at times threatening – and for extended periods of the movie where the enemy is unseen, all we have is what’s The Thin Red Linearound us to cling to. The bullets fly out from trees, there’s movement from within the long crass, quite literally a force of nature – man’s duality with nature.

“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this?”

Adopting the use of multiple voiceover narrations & backstories, Malick consequently avoids making a traditionally narrative film. Instead, it’s an episodic 170 minutes made up of an ensemble cast of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, John Cusack, to name but a few – all leading men, all instantly recognisable – and in some cases, with almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos. Take a bow Mr Clooney.

If there was to be a protagonist then arguably, it would be that of Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) – the detached observer. Of all of them, it is Witt who enjoys the most screen-time. With his soulful eyes and aura of otherworldliness, Malick uses Witt to project himself and his spirituality onto along with some of his own Buddhist ideologies. In return, these are then projected back onto us.

“I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.”

It’s also without doubt Caviezel’s compassioned performance in this role that first caught the attention of Mel Gibson when he was casting for his lead in The Passion of the Christ (2004). But none of these characters outstay their welcome. The Thin Red LineInstead, the film flits effortlessly between their stories, allowing us to accompany them on their journey and become part of their world. Between their internal monologues – back and forth – until eventually, they begin to blend into one of the same character.

Man – Indistinguishable.

Whether the actors were fully aware of the films ambition is unknown. With largely improvised dialogue and at an original runtime of over 6 hours, it’s conceivable to imagine the cast losing sight of Malick’s vision at times.

Sean Penn once famously said of Malick:

“You can ask him questions about your character, but it won’t help.”

You can believe this. If there’s a criticism to be made of the film, it’s that there seems this disconnect between the motives of the actors and those of the director. As if each set out to make two very different types of film. And it was also perhaps the film’s very ambition that polarised public opinion at the time, causing Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to outperform it by 6 to 1 at the box-office. But that’s not to say the film wasn’t well received in some quarters. Nominated for no less than 7 Oscar’s – including that of best picture – it is, to this day, credited as one of Malick’s finest achievements. Its visual style alone, inspiring a whole generation of young filmmakers. It’s also a film that improves with age and demands to be watched again.

The Thin Red Line

Toby C Prior

Toby C Prior

Having successfully dropped out of Art College after 3 gruelling months back in the 90’s; Toby used this experience to its best advantage - by becoming an Online Content & Communications Manager in London.

Toby is still very much involved in the arts, and exercises his artistic demons by reviewing most of the good, bad and downright ugly that passes through London’s galleries and movie theatres.

Although a film enthusiast by heart, Toby also cites himself as being an ‘expert’ on the delta blues and is proudly credited as the musical force behind ill-fated schoolboy band The Pilgrims of Grace — “we were too good, too soon”. You can find Toby on Twitter @2by.

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