Much can be said of Terrance Malick’s distinctive body of work. Some might consider his style pretentious, his storytelling low on substance, and his vision devoid of reason. Others, like myself, see profound beauty and wisdom in the paintings that he so meticulously brings to life. His 1998 war drama is quite possibly the best example of pure cinematic storytelling, as told by the magic of cinematography and the power of music.
The movie is an adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel of the same name, and tells the story of 1st battalion foot soldiers known collectively as C-for-Charlie. As the warriors venture deeper into the hostile war zone, they each reflect on their lives, families and strategical choices, wondering whether the fight is really worth the price of their fellow men. Because in war there is no mercy, no kindness, and no humanity to help you.
“The Thin Red Line” isn’t as loud as “Saving Private Ryan”, nor is it as patriotic as “Born on the Fourth of July”. It really exists in a category of its own, throwing away any sense of pride and glory to show us the true, tragic and gritty realism of what it means to be at war – not just with an opposing enemy, but with yourself. It dares to question the very means of warfare, which is done poetically through internal monologues and comparative juxtapositions of idyllic nature and destructive weaponry. It really is quite amazing how much can be said with so little dialogue, and Malick certainly is a man of few words. He likes to dwell on the small things, from the slow-growing plants to the mild breeze that blows across a field of wheat. At first glance, these things may not seem to hold any greater significance, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Take the opening shot of the film, for an example, which shows a crocodile submerging from a jungle river, camouflaged and ready to strike down on the next unfortunate animal that comes close to it. The casual viewer is almost guaranteed to miss out on the symbolic value here, but upon closer inspection, the observant analyst will notice that it ties closely together with the overall theme of unexplainable human hatred. Are we fundamentally part of a nature that is at war with itself? Is the act of killing just built into our genetic programming? Visual, thought-provoking storytelling such as this is spread all throughout the course of the film, creating a multi-layered experience unlike anything you’ll come across in mainstream cinema.
I’m sure by now some people will feel tempted to ask whether it really is necessary to put the entire message in between the lines, rather than giving us something we can all understand. To that question my response would be a split answer, because on one hand, I totally get that not everyone is equally inclined to pick up on the various signals sent out by the filmmakers. But then again, I also feel that just because we don’t fully comprehend something, it doesn’t mean we should dumb it down for the sake of getting the point across. Instead we should strive to promote contemplation and patience among the audience, and remind everyone that there was actually a time when the camera alone could make us feel, think and act. Today we are so used to being fed with a silver spoon of exposition, that we don’t think we can even handle something with more substance than Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”. So to everyone who says that “The Thin Red Line” is a pretentious art house picture that no one will get, I think you are underestimating the human intellect. Just listen to the beautiful score by Hans Zimmer, and tell me you don’t feel anything at all. Look at the very last frame of the film, and tell me you don’t have the faintest idea of what is trying to be communicated. The only thing keeping all of us from understanding is ourselves, and Malick knows that. He sees through the obvious and into the potential of the human mind. He challenges us to experience and feel, and then think about what we just felt. That is the quintessence of “The Thin Red Line”, a movie that doesn’t shy away from reality. It doesn’t choose a side. Nobody wins in the game of war. It just wants you to feel, think and act.