To use Private Witt’s own words, each soldier in Terrence Malick’s World War II film The Thin Red Line is “a coal thrown from the fire”. Some men, although weary and isolated, still retain a spark, a remnant of a flame that once burned strong. It smolders within questions about life and death, or glows out of the idealised images of loved ones. Other men are long burned-out, despairing and stone-cold. Their spark has left them long ago, and they either envy or disdain it in others. And yet in battle each man is dirtied the same and faces the same horrors. Whose spark will fade? Can one man ignite hope in another? Where does the light go once it has left the soul?
These are among the questions which Malick most definitely does not answer. And so he shouldn’t. Instead, in this dream-like Hollywood war film with no heroes, the viewer is faced with a strange juxtaposition of violence and nature. Blood is often upstaged by grass. The enemy is swallowed by the scenery. The Japanese on the top of Hill 210 are absorbed by the fields, until it seems the Americans are fighting the hill itself, shot at from nowhere only to fall down to the dirt where other bodies shuffle along aiming bullets at the sky. Cinematographer John Toll captures quiet images of animals, trees and sunlit leaves, that interrupt moments of intense action; bats hanging from branches are unnervingly indifferent to the plight of the soldiers beneath them. At times these shots undermine sentimentality, or are a reminder of the pointlessness of brutality. Other times they seem to suggest the presence and passage of the soul (or the desire to understand it), with light washing poetically over the landscape directly after death, or silhouetted birds soaring to somewhere unknown above a wounded boy. Internal monologues on life, love, fear, and ambition are like the murmurings of ghosts, echoing long after each character is gone. Their angst-filled questions are painfully unanswerable.
What is perhaps most remarkable about The Thin Red Line is its careful reduction of a star-studded cast to an ensemble of suitably minor characters. Nobody takes center stage, and yet nothing feels out of place, not even John Travolta appearing in a single scene as a parodic brigadier general, or George Clooney ordering the soldiers at the end. Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt is as close as the film gets to a “main” character, with his philosophical musings on the afterlife providing a narrative thread for others to follow. Sean Penn as first sergeant Edward Welsh can be seen as the antithesis to Witt’s optimism – the dark stone against the spark – and the two provide interesting discussions on death and the nature of man. Nick Nolte is war incarnate as lieutenant colonel Tall, bloodthirsty and desperate for promotion, and is perhaps the most present in the battle scenes. His screams down the telephone at captain Staros (Elias Koteas) telling him to send his men on what is essentially a suicide mission reveal his inherent selfishness, and yet even he can shed a tear. Every soldier in Malick’s war is full of deep words and deep thought, persistently pondering and meditating when it could be argued that in reality they would be doing little more than wondering what to do and where to go next. But perhaps this is the point. Each man with his particular concern is like a fragment of one soul, the collective soul of every man sent to war. Faith and immortality (Witt), lust and desire (Bell), crippling terror (Fife) fatherhood and brotherly love (Staros), greed and wrath (Tall), numbness and indifference (Welsh, Storm): the audience are made witness to each character’s burden, and are left to ponder the meaning of such suffering.
For a largely philosophical film, there isn’t a lack of tension. The taking of the ridge is quite possibly one of the most intense and heartbreaking war scenes that I have ever come across. The claustrophobic chaos of it all is almost unbearable, as explosions are followed by characters disappearing into the tall grass like toppled scarecrows. Bravery and heroics mean nothing in the carnage, there is only standing in the right place at the right time, or not, as pointed out by John C. Reilly as he stares at injured soldiers with an unfeeling eye. War is death and life played against each other in a game of chance, and it drives men to madness as they search for something above and beyond their reality.
In Malick’s film, words are poetry. They exist apart from (and at times out-live) the body and become something transcendent. When Private Edward P. Train, a relative nobody, closes the film by questioning whether “darkness, light”, “strife and love” are the “workings of one mind”, “the features of the same face”, he is becoming something larger than his character; his speech connects the fragments and concludes on one soul, on “all things shining”. In The Thin Red Line, in this environment filled to the brim with blood and horror, only words have the power to to connect or disconnect, to offer peace in the pandemonium, and they stay hovering in the mind long after the film’s close.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2