“The only things that are permanent is dying and the Lord”
Pure, unfiltered, raw emotion. That is what’s front and center in Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’s autobiographical novel The Thin Red Line. The term itself may describe a thinly spread line of defense holding position in war, but I think the metaphor towards a man’s tenuous grasp on humanity is also apt. It’s a battle for Guadalcanal during World War II, an island being used as an airstrip by the Japanese and a crucial piece of property for the Allied forces to halt the enemy’s Pacific advancement. Property becomes a key term amongst what occurs in the almost three-hour film sprawling forth. The men in charge see a target and they see an endgame, the cost of getting there never much more than an afterthought. Every solider running through the jungle with machinegun fire raining down knows how important the mission is; some take it with courage while others in fear inducing stomach pains. Most of these men are young, unaware of the life awaiting back home or the future they are paving for generations to come. It therefore falls on the officers to lead them into the abyss and the men to risk everything in order to climb out.
One of the more important dynamics at play comes from James Caviezel’s Pvt. Witt and Sean Penn’s 1st Sgt. Edward Walsh. Here are two men on opposite sides of the psychological construct of what they are doing. Witt is a free spirit, willing to go AWOL in search of the joy life can bring, finding indigenous people to live amongst without the worry of the destruction not far enough away. Walsh, on the other hand, knows his role and knows his men. To him, one man will not win or lose this war—victory or defeat rests on the shoulders of the collective. When he finds Witt on his most recent sabbatical, Walsh realizes court-martialing him will do no good. His absence from the front lines won’t sacrifice success, but his inclusion in the force at a lesser position could bolster the whole. So, Witt becomes part of the medic team to sew stitches and help when needed, but he is too proud and strong-willed to settle for that. He never left the men as a way to desert, or save his own skin; he has a bond with the boys and he wants to stand by them in the fight to not only prove to Walsh he isn’t a screw-up, but also to show himself there is still hope to be found amidst the vacuum waiting.
When you have a Lt. Col. itching for a win after fifteen years rising through the ranks only to stall out because there was never a fight to earn further advancement, the men become numbers, statistics of a fight destined for heavy losses. Nick Nolte’s Gordon Tall has something to prove to the younger superiors bossing him around and causing him to kowtow and serve without a voice of his own. Safe at the bottom of the hill fortified with Japanese fighters mowing down anyone who advances north, he can scream and yell all he wants for his men to fall off the cliff with a bullet to the head. When there is no one to stand up against him, that’s the sad inevitability of it all. So, having a Captain such as Elias Koteas’s James ‘Bugger’ Staros willing to protect the warriors he’s begun to hold dear, as sons, despite their own chatter behind his back about him being the cause of Company C’s bad luck, could be the miracle stroke of luck separating an ill-conceived frontal assault and the chance to succeed. In direct opposition to a superior’s order, risking his career for the lives he knows will be lost—on top of the many gone already—he not only gained the respect of his men, the only ones who will ever know exactly what he did for them, but also gave their squad the ability to rise up for victory in the morning.
And this is war—full to the brim with a collection of realists and idealists, fighting for their own reasons, with their own ideas on how to win, mixed together in a volatile powder keg with as much chance to implode as it has to take out the enemy. What exactly is it that they are fighting for? A piece of land to use as a pawn in a game being played offsite by men they have never met? Or are they spilling blood and risking their very existence for the loved ones they left behind, or perhaps the brothers they’ve gained standing on the frontlines to their side for the past two years? What you don’t see in The Thin Red Line, that you would in other war films, is a group of hotshots looking to be heroes, rising to the occasion with adrenaline and machismo to go out in a blaze of glory or grin at the praise lauded upon them at the finish. Every single grunt who takes it upon himself to do the right thing, the moral and brave deeds of sacrifice for one’s fellow man, either dies trying, dies succeeding, or ends up threatening anyone who attempts to bring him up for commendation with a fist to the face. One constant throughout the entire film is a sense of the unknown. Fear is present on each person’s face—tear-streaked in anticipation of the worst and tear-streaked for the fact they survived.
There are suck-up Captains like John Cusack’s John Gaff, crawling around behind Nolte’s Tall, waiting for the opportunity to make his mark. You see a good man like Koteas sit from the sidelines, unable to do anything but watch, while this upstart opportunist takes point of an ambush that would have been impossible without the former’s insubordination. You can’t help but despise him until you realize his true worth. Gaff may stay close to his Lt. Col., but only to earn a voice. His success was never to receive a Silver Star or other accolade, he did it to put himself in a position to ask for water—to speak on behalf of the men relying on his leadership as well as the men he’d be nowhere without. In a very brief story arc, we witness a complete evolution of a character based on preconceptions versus reality. This is what makes the film so brilliant, telling the story of war through the men being ravaged by all they see and do. Throw historical facts out the window and look into the eyes of these men. It is in their souls that the true battle is fought. All that pent up rage mixed with the mystery of whether they’ll ever return home—will it be released upon the enemy or will humanity prevail? Sometimes, unfortunately, these soldiers only realize how much a human life is worth after they’ve taken it away.
Malick has brought to the screen the religion of destruction. Between the voiceover narrations, spanning a large number of characters, speaking pithy statements as gospel; the elegiac imagery of tall grass blowing in the wind, the camera always close to the ground amongst the crouching soldiers moving through; and the words to God, whether by prayer in the case of Koteas or in the ramblings of a lost soul by John Savage’s broken Sgt. McCron, Malick has become an expert at speaking the truth through emotion. When he shows the enemy shaking with the same fear we see etched on the faces of the ‘protagonist’, we discover how similar we all are. By putting a face to the villain, he allows his heroes to show signs of their own evil lurking within. The images of these men screaming, as the world around them falls apart, are not easily forgotten. But neither are the idyllic, colorful memories of Ben Chaplin’s Pvt. Bell and his wife, played by Miranda Otto, shot in soft focus with only voiceover and Hans Zimmer’s profound score as backdrop. These are the close-up, abstract details Bell holds onto in order to brave the fight he was forced into by bureaucratic vengeance. Filmed at odd angles, their framing and color is the only thing separating them from the rest’s gray on green darkness—a nightmarish counterpart of unknown sorrow.
The lush visuals bring a lyrical poeticism to what is shown; turning one battle into a complete existence for a group of men wrapped up into a war that would shape our planet. With static glimpses at the wildlife looking on as its land is blown up and torched to juxtapose with the seemingly domesticated mammals intruding in order to find a foothold against the other, it becomes hard to tell exactly which is more feral. No one gets pacing like Malick and in lesser hands The Thin Red Line would be just another over-bloated work of anti-war propaganda. But that is not what is portrayed here at all. Instead, it is a glimpse into mankind’s capacity for hope and life against a solemnity of bloodlust. I have never seen Nolte as good as he is here, a man so wrapped up in his legacy that an eventual breakdown becomes so much more emphatic; Koteas and Chaplin take their roles and run with the compassion other films would cutout and replace with stern focus and calculated precision; and Caviezel plays Christ before Mel Gibson ever plucked him to star in his own film of sacrificial piety. Pvt. Witt is the complete embodiment of selflessness, using his willingness to help others as his way to find happiness. He proves, time and again, that one man can make a difference. Sacrifice may be a solitary act, but its result sustains the group. Much like Malick and his team, showing that a twenty-year absence only made him better and cinema itself richer.