The Thin Red Line (1998)

Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Adapted from: The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Dash Mihok, Woody Harrelson, Miranda Otto, Adrien Brody
Nominations: Picture, Director – Terrence Malick, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score (drama), Sound

What’s this war in the heart of nature?

In his review of Terrence Malick’s first film twenty years, Roger Ebert commented that The Thin Red Line “has no firm idea of what it is about.”  I wouldn’t say that that’s the point of the film—although, like much of Malick’s work, duality and opposing perspectives plays heavily into the themes of The Thin Red Line, so it could work—but this isn’t a film that’s really designed to have answers as much as it’s designed to prompt thoughts, questions, and discussions.  What is the meaning of war?  What end does it serve?  Why are the ones sent to fight not the ones deciding to fight?  Why isn’t more effort taken to avoid war and comes to terms peacefully?

While there are action scenes and soldiers and the other trappings of a war film present in The Thin Red Line, it’s a tough call to actually label it as such.  It’s a film about war more than it is a war film.  And it’s more about the emotional and psychological toll of being in war than it is about the visceral violence of going into battle—this isn’t a “John Wayne basking in the glories of war” picture: it’s a devastating look at being asked to fight a fight you didn’t start, sending people you care for into the battlefield to die, and trying to find satisfaction in what is ultimately an unsatisfying pursuit.

I was a teenager when I first saw the movie, and completely identified with Witt.  This life is a struggle to begin with, why make it worse with war?  There’s peace and tranquility more worthy of our attention than trying to kill the other guy before he kills you.  Unfortunately, in a world built upon the blood and bodies of young men, it’s difficult to see, let alone look at, the possibility of serenity (Welsh’s jaded cynicism is a prime example of that difficulty).  Witt’s final sacrifice releases him from the earthly binds of war and gives his colleagues the chance to live another day, but for Welsh, it was meaningless, because in the end, what goodness can come from losing the lone piece of hope Witt represented?

Re-watching the film, I found myself relating more with Captain Staros on a personal level and Colonel Tall on a professional level.  Being a father, I fully empathized with Staros’ confliction about being a leader with orders to follow as well as having a vested interested the men you’ve lived with for so long and being tasked with sending them to what will most likely be their deaths.  We can see early on when Staros walks through the sleeping quarters that he cares about those under his command.  Of course, any doubt of that is erased as he refuses Col. Tall’s order to take the hill—essentially a suicide mission.  It’s not easy to hurt anyone, most of all someone you know personally; as Staros says as he leaves, his men are his sons and he will always remember them.

Tall’s frustration about being passed up for promotions and honors is trivial in the grand scheme of life as well as when placed against the battle he’s soon to send his battalion into.  However, it’s something anyone trying to succeed in their career can understand: we can work hard, go above and beyond, improve procedures, etc., yet not get recognized for that work.  We’re left to question if doing more is worth the effort if it doesn’t lead to anything we can find satisfaction with.  Hopefully, though, most of us aren’t choosing between, say, working some overtime on a project and winning a hill with minimal casualties.

Overall, the beauty of The Thin Red Line is how honest it is with its thematic intent.  It might not know what it’s about specifically, but it’s confident in what it’s trying to say.  The film succeeds not necessarily as a whole, but as a sum of its parts.  Everything works well that even if its theme a bit messy, it still leaves a lasting effect—much like war itself.