Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line

Every man fights his own war

I feel sorry for you kid. This army is going to kill you. Your smart, take care of yourself, nothing you can do for anybody else. You’re just runnin into a burnin house where nobody can be saved. What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness? If you die its gonna be for nothin, There’s not some other world out there where everything is gonna be okay. There’s just this one. Just this rock.” – Wells

I recently re-watched The Thin Red Line and decided I wanted to write something about it, but I realized I didn’t know how to approach a movie that is likely, outside of cinephiles and enthusiasts, unknown to movie goers or movie fans in general.

A story about the Battle of Gaudalcanal and adapted from the book by James Jones, TTRL has no real narrative structure, and is so unconventional in so many ways that its difficult to get a grasp on, even now, having completed my fourth viewing.

Without having seen director Terrance Malick’s other work prior to this writing, I get the feeling that all of his pieces are and will be like this, but to understand TTRL, I think its important to say something about Malick, who by all accounts is eccentric and elusive and only works when he feels like it or has something to say.

When TTRL came out in 1998, it was only the third movie from the director, and he hadn’t crafted anything in 20 years. His debut was 1973’s “Badlands”, followed 1978’s “Days of Heaven”, both of which are treated with the kind of reverence usually associated for virgins and saints.

Having never seen them, I can imagine they’re interesting and powerful, because TTRL has yielded something new and fascinating with each viewing.

I saw it originally in 1998 at the United Artist theater just off 38th Street in West Indianapolis, and I went not so much because of Malick (I had heard the name, didn’t know anything), but because of “Saving Private Ryan”, which had been released four or so months prior.

Aside from the setting of WWII, the two movies couldn’t be more different, and I think the TTRL suffered, at least financially, from being released in the same year. I can say I had no fucking clue what I was watching back in 1998, but it was interesting, if not forgettable when I walked out of that UA theater (which, btw, my dad says is now a refuge for gang activity and parking lot shoot outs, sad face here). TTRL is, without a better description, the anti-Private Ryan.

Having revisited it three times since, most recently last week on a phenomenal looking Criterion Blu-Ray, I think the best way to describe it is as a nearly three hour visual poem, but even with that vague description, its difficult to convey what the movie is trying to say, or review it in any conventional sense.

There are long moments with no dialogue, and no action; characters often just stand around and look, or react to things off camera, before the scene dissolves into a slow tracking shot of sunlight shooting through tropical foliage in dramatic columns, or a gator sinking in the murk, or native children playing on the beach.

Voiceover is strongly used, and the viewer hops in and out of characters heads with no rhyme or reason, as each character pontificates on the nature of man, of war, of their own issues that led them to become a soldier in the first place.

You could literally watch the movie with no sound and still get the same effect, I think, despite the voiceover or dialogue or on screen action; I’m not sure what that says about Malick’s style or the movie itself, but it takes a while to get used to, and threw me off upon first viewing. There are battle scenes, like most other war movies, but they are almost incidental; the movie’s best moments happen between the gunfire.

There are also a number of huge stars in the movie, some of which just pop in or out for a few minutes, stare blankly into the great horizon, and then vanish altogether. If you don’t believe me here’s a list of some of the people who appear in the flick: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Savage, John Travolta, Thomas Jane, Nick Stahl and Miranda Otto.

I decided, eventually, the best way to talk about the movie itself would be to talk about a few of the characters, at least those that drive the narrative in some form or fashion. Keep in mind there is no main character, so here goes:

Jim Caviezel as Witt: Caviezel is the closest thing to a main character in the movie, but he’s no more a main character than the two dozen or so recognizable actors that pop in and out through the movie’s  nearly three hour run time. He begins and ends the movie, so you could easily make the claim that The Thin Red Line is Witt’s story, but that would be too conventional, and the film is annything but.

When the movie opens, Witt and his budddy are in fact AWOL, living and playing and learning from some indigenous tribe on some island in the South Pacific. They hunt and fish and swim and play with the children, and if you just happened upon this scene, you wold have no clue it was a war movie.

Witt is soon taken back into Uncle Sam’s fold, thrown in the brig, and made a stretcher bearer by Sgt Wells, played by Sean Penn. The scenes between Penn and Caviezel, there are three of them, make up the movie’s moral center, if you will, sprinkled in each of the movie’s three acts.

Witt is soon begging his Captain, played by Elias Koteas, to be let back into Charlie (or C) Company, calling his fellow soldiers his “family”. Witt is then thrust right into the middle of battle, as Charlie Company tries to take a Japanese bunker at the top of this sloping, grassy, dream-like hill.

The real drama of the movie, at least the drama that I feel carries the heaviest message, is the conflict of ideaologies between Witt and Wells, with each man trying to impose each other’s world view on the other. The real struggle of the movie is here, and is actually the most conventional relationship, if you could call it that. Witt has not been ruined by war, only made confused by it, and he struggles to not only retain his moral center, to but to try and inspire his fellow soldiers in the process.

Caviezel is absolutely awesome in the role, doing everything with his eyes and his mouth. That is a weird thing to say about an actor, but reaction is everything in this movie, and the actor does a great job of going from awed and innocent, to despondant, to horrified and then back through them again. The actor was made more famous by getting beat to a bloody shit heap when he played Jesus, but this is really the finest I’ve ever seen him do, at once haunting, haunted, and heartbroken. Without Witt, and Caviezel, the audience really has nothing to cling to.

Sean Penn as Wells: Wells is what Witt, and all the soldiers, will become if they survive long enough. Wells isn’t jaded, per-se,  but he is a little too wise for his own good, and you get the feeling that he does know more than everybody else around him. That’s a bad thing, especially when your job is to carry out someone else’s orders, without question.

The scenes between Penn and Caviezel are really very strange; you never really get a handle on what it means, but its clear that Penn sort of, longs, for what Caviezel still has, but he also pities him, because he know what’s coming for the kid, for all of them.

As usual, Penn is excellent, and like Caviezel, he conveys much of his performance without really saying anything, using his eyes to express feeling. One other thing clear about Sgt. Wells, however, is that he truly has no one to look to for guidance or leadership, and I think he craves that, much like Witt craves something from Wells. The scene between Wells and Capt Staros, after Wells tries to save someone dying on the battle field, makes me wonder if he even respects the ideaologies he’s supposedly fighting for.

Elias Koteas as Staros: Koteas said in the Blu Ray bonus material that when he first read the script, he thought it a rather thankless role, but it really is one of the more important and complex roles of the movie.  The Captain, I believe, is another threat to Witt’s evolution, because the captain is too soft, to idealic, and not cut out for war or death or real responsibility. 

Its baffling how someone so high-minded could have become a Captain in Uncle Sam’s Army, because there’s nothing to indicate he’s leadership material. I wonder if Malick was speaking to something else entirely about the country’s military leadership in WWII, but if he is, I don’t know what it was exactly, nor do I know enough about the war to speak about it in any historical context. Like other characters, Staros comes and goes, and is essentially out of the movie by the last third.

Yet, his turning point is when he openly and blatantly ignores his commanding officer’s (Nick Nolte) orders, his indecision getting more of his men killed in the process. Following this, Staros is essentially decomissioned and kicked back to the US, but with medals and accolades he didn’t even earn. He lives, while others die, and is really the greatest tragedy in a movie full of them.

I’m obviously encouraging you to see this flick. Its highly rewarding, as long as you have the patience to stick with it, and aren’t expecting some conventional, rip-roaring war tome heavily steeped in patriotism and the American Way. 

Also, if you have the technology, seek it out on Criterion’s Blu-Ray. Its so damn beautiful to look at, and each shot is captured with skill and love. Simply gorgeous and highly recommended.

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