Staff Pick

War Inspires Wonder in Terrence Malick’s Incomparable The Thin Red Line

By Robert Silva

Twenty years after its release, the WWII epic remains an undefinable, unforgettable masterpiece.

The Thin Red Line is unlike any war movie you’ve probably seen. It doesn’t have a protagonist. It’s not concerned with history. It doesn’t have a message, except perhaps that war, besides being hell, is the purest expression of humanity.

Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line follows the brutal campaign to take the island of Guadalcanal from the Japanese during World War II. However the 1998 adaptation isn’t interested in a single story of battle, but something closer to a God’s-eye view of warfare, courtesy of visionary director Terrence Malick.

It's now been 20 years since The Thin Red Line premiered in 1998, itself 20 years after Malick’s visually overwhelming Days of Heaven (1978), followed by a Salinger-like absence from filmmaking that only intensified anticipation for his World War II epic.

The pent-up-demand led to a feeding frenzy among A-list actors when The Thin Red Line script surfaced. While big names were netted (Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta), on-set and in the editing room, the movie quickly drifted away from its screenplay. Malick reportedly stopped filming key scenes with stars to grab footage of birds. According to editor Billy Weber, the director assembled the film with the sound off, listening to a Green Day CD. In the end, some actors, like poor Adrien Brody, found themselves in the awkward position of promoting a movie they weren’t really in anymore.

Not surprisingly, The Thin Red Line was greeted upon its release with both praise and befuddlement. Roger Ebert in a mixed review called Malick’s film “sort of fascinating” while Manohla Dargis was less diplomatic: “beautiful and utterly repulsive … an amoral movie about one of the most deeply moral moments in modern history.”

Confession: I didn’t like the movie when I first saw it, either. “What's this war in the heart of nature?” is the first line, which seemed to ring the alarm bells of pretentiousness. Characters would appear and then disarmingly vanish. But subsequent viewings –– and the film rewards them -- brought me closer to Martin Scorsese’s appreciation of The Thin Red Line as “an endless picture -- it has no beginning and no end.”

Two decades later, the film stands alone, outside the lore of its making, as a kaleidoscopic look at humanity at war with itself. The things you’ll find in it, you won’t find anywhere else.

If a typical war movie is about heroism, The Thin Red Line is about being on the edge of life and death. Malick’s film floats above its sea of soldiers, observing their behavior and sometimes listening in on their thoughts. Some of them will perish and others will survive, witness the deaths of others, cause the deaths of still others. It’s a story that’s not told through plot beats, but through personalities, some only met fleetingly. Fresh-faced Pvt. Train, who speaks the film’s opening line, is nakedly introspective. Others are more cynical (“We are just meat.”), ecstatic (“I just killed a man!”) and one of the most poignant moments comes off the battlefield, from a tender, brutal letter from a soldier’s wife, requesting a divorce.

Malick finds beauty in all this. The Thin Red Line is a film wrapped in fragility and violence, with its inaugural battle scene illustrating what a field of combat truly is: a setting for a series of death scenes. As the soldiers make their Sisyphean approach up a hill, targeted by an unseen enemy, war is felt in all its volcanic confusion, humming with the presence of real lives.

If you’re open to the experience, you might find The Thin Red Line as I do, an intensely moving film about trying to endure in “a world that’s blown itself to hell.” Some will survive it. Some won’t. One can hope, as the final shot portends, that something will grow from all that scorched earth.