The Thin Red Line
I have never seen a war film like “The Thin Red Line.” Or any film quite like it.
I have a difficult time imagining there ever will be.
Terrence Malick’s return to film after a twenty-year absence is one of the most beautiful and thoughtful works collected on film. That it comes in the form of an endlessly philosophical and imaginative scroll of war poetry that questions the elusive boundaries of man, nature and the endless battles waged between them further confirms its maker’s standing as one of the world’s great living auteurs.
The film opens with an image of a crocodile descending beneath the surface of a lush bog in the islands of the south Pacific. In voiceover, a device rarely deployed with this ambition or magnificence, comes the first of many questions that frame Malick’s themes:
What’s this war in the heart of nature?
Why does nature vie with itself?
We do not know the speaker. We do not know, specifically, his circumstances. “The Thin Red Line” is not a war movie concerned deeply by those engagements. Certainly it captures combat on Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater of World War II in 1942. We meet Charlie Company – a battalion of American soldiers brought to the island as reinforcements. We come to know its men. Their fears. Their motives for staying alive. Indeed, Malick does not shy away from the horrors of war. But his fascination lies within the larger truths the act of war suggests and the personal consequences that result. He sees Charlie Company as one man, its disparate parts contained in one form. We experience true collective terrors. Of death. Nature’s awesome power. Their fear of abandonment, their own violent potential, the shame their failures cause. Each is painfully real. Each a part of all men.
Malick holds his gaze as this war inflicts the promised tortures of battle. Men kill and are killed indiscriminately. That terror informs every breath. It is made more awful juxtaposed against the impossible beauty of the landscapes, the poetry it unearths in the men and the haunting clarity with which they express it.
Why should I be afraid to die?
I belong to you.
If I go first, I’ll wait for you there
On the other side of the dark waters.
Be with me now.
There are many accounts of how this hugely ambitious, equally evocative screenplay came together. None, certainly, supplied by Malick himself. But the rumblings that he spent more than a decade working on it do not seem a stretch. The Criterion Collection’s edition of “The Thin Red Line” offers a glimpse into Malick’s method of shaping his script. Actors share their memories of the director spontaneously rewriting scenes on the spot during filming. They recall that the version of the script they received at the beginning of shooting featured Fife (Adrien Brody), a skittish, untested corporal, as the film’s central character. Ultimately, he receives little screen time at all.
We meet a great deal of men, all of them authentic. We relate to them.
We see traces of ourselves in even their darkest deeds.
The principal, if there is only one here, is Witt (Jim Caviezel). A private. When we first met him he’s gone AWOL – idly enjoying the warm Pacific sand, immersed in the simple pleasures of life among the indigenous Melanesians. Gentle and spiritual, he is not compelled to fight by duty or patriotism. He answers to something that resonates deeper. The men he fights alongside see it. Many will fight to protect it even when they do not understand it. Only that type of brotherhood makes Witt capable of war.
Welsh (Sean Penn) is the company’s First sergeant; he is cynical but noble and focused, too. Staros (Elias Koteas) is an empathetic captain. He does not lack grit. But when he will not order his men to besiege a crucial checkpoint some question whether his compassion masks a cowardice. Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is approaching the end of a long, peaceful career. His first taste of action may be his only chance to earn a hero’s decorations. Captain Gaff (John Cusack) is precise and smart – qualities that aren’t assets in every battle. Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) is savvy and strong but, he too, is capable of a fatal error. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) dreams of reuniting with his love in America. Every action is driven by the promise of home. Chaplin plays him perfectly; smart, motivated and exposed. Private First Class Doll (Dash Mihok) begins upbeat because he’s oblivious. But he will remember what happens here. Famously, John Travolta and George Clooney also lend their names to small roles as commanding officers. Both are necessary. But no more than any of the privates; some of whom we ultimately study closely while countless others we learn about. In war, every man plays the part of a man in war.
Each of these men wages a private battle against something in themselves.
Some see the lines. They all feel them.
Casting director Nancy Crittenden says the film features 126 speaking parts. Criterion offers us a glimpse of the audition tapes. The actors must blend together naturally. John Savage, Tim Blake Nelson and Nick Stahl each do. We see how Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hartnett, Stephen Dorff, Johnny Galecki and Neil Patrick Harris do not. Viggo Mortensen appears to earn a part but ends up on the cutting room floor. Mickey Rourke is shown performing an emotional deleted scene with Caviezel on Guadalcanal. It’s impressive work. But quietly echoes a moment in the film featuring Thomas Jane. There are so many exemplary actors and roles and supporting extras that the film achieves the virtual anonymity of real warfare.
One of the most incredible insights Criterion lends to “The Thin Red Line” shows Malick’s penchant for re-shooting his scenes without dialogue. Actors initially perform the scenes as written, sticking exactly to script. Then Malick has them replay the same moments in silence. The result is a wealth of non-verbal acting that allows Malick incredible freedom to add layers of voiceover which he uses to share the characters’ inner narratives. It distinguishes “The Thin Red Line” from all other war films. Further stretching the voiceovers across his breathtaking nature scenes is yet another masterstroke. Poetry set to living art.
We learn Malick would break from daily shooting schedules to capture other scenes in daylight and darkness. This allowed him to re-order the scenes during editing without disrupting the film’s continuity. To wit: Sean Penn claims he had no idea what he was watching the first time he saw “The Thin Red Line.”
It is truly an extraordinary feat that the film came together on time and budget. It had to be distilled from more than a million feet of film. The first cut was five hours long. Editor Billy Weber says he doesn’t think Malick ever watched the final film from beginning to end. Composer Hans Zimmer manages to create music to suits the myriad moods of this epic piece. His insistent percussion counts the fate of Charlie Company. It is his greatest work.
Malick spent two decades removed from Hollywood before embarking on “The Thin Red Line.” How he carried out this achievement of timeless beauty and collective spirit is one of modern cinema’s great mysteries. It is assured and complete. Yet we sense the presence of chance endlessly. We accept nature but stand paralyzed before its awesome power. The pain it generates and the respites it offers. The way living a life shapes the life of every man.
There’s only one thing that a man can do
Find something that’s his and make an island for himself
If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack
A glance from your eyes
And my life will be yours.
We learn the fates of some of the men. Hear questions go unanswered. The voices we hear throughout are never clearly identified. There is no need. They are together the voice of Charlie Company, Malick and, ultimately, all men.
What is this great evil?
How did it steal into the world?
From what seed, what root did it spring?
Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us?
Robbing us of light and life.
Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.
Few great films possess the visual poetry to dress the majesty of their words. “The Thin Red Line” is the exception. It concludes in one of the great closing shots of our time. A budding tropical stalk emerging from a mound of earth on the ocean’s edge. Waving in the gentle breeze as the tide reaches out, touching its soil lip so softly.
Jim Caviezel – Pvt. Witt
Sean Penn – 1st Sgt. Welsh
Nick Nolte – Lt. Col. Tall
Elias Koteas – Capt. Staros
Ben Chaplin – Pvt. Bell
John Cusack – Capt. Gaff
Woody Harrelson – Sgt. Keck
Dash Mihok – Pfc. Doll
Adrien Brody – Cpl. Fife
John Savage – Sgt. McCron
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
From the novel by James Jones
Running Time: 171 Minutes.