• The Thin Red Line:
    This Side of Paradise

    By David Sterritt

    The Thin Red Line, arguably the greatest war film ever made, ended two decades of silence from Terrence Malick, cinema’s wandering auteur. The silence wasn’t entirely self-imposed, since during this time he tried to launch a few productions—including a tale of nineteenth-century psychoanalysis and a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic—that didn’t reach the shooting stage. But mainly he appears to have bided his time, gathering ideas and inspirations while living in Paris and Los Angeles, then rejoining the industry for his most ambitious project to date—a World War II epic as poetic and philosophical as his previous pictures, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and larger in scale than both of them combined.

    By all accounts, it took long negotiations for a team of producers to get Malick back behind the camera. Hollywood had gone through drastic changes while he walked the earth for twenty years, and the new corporate chiefs preferred market-friendly blockbusters to offbeat art pictures. With support gathered from Fox 2000 and some independent production companies, Malick started shooting in June 1997, wrapping up a hundred days and more than a million feet of film later, on time and on budget. The result is a masterpiece—a Malick masterpiece, telling a powerfully written, superbly acted story that casts new light on his characteristic themes of nature and culture, thought and language, humanity and inhumanity, paradise lost and tran­scen­­dence found.

    Malick’s legendary refusal to do interviews or comment on his work makes it hard to answer certain basic questions, such as why he wanted to film James Jones’s 1962 novel to begin with. Based on Jones’s own experiences, The Thin Red Line takes place on Guadalcanal, the strategically located Pacific island where Allied troops confronted Japanese forces by land, sea, and air between August 1942 and February 1943. This was a costly but pivotal campaign, marking the transition to offensive operations that brought victory for the Allies in the Pacific theater. Taking a grunt’s-eye view, the novel follows a company of infantrymen who arrive as reinforcements when the fighting is well under way. The story is long, dense, deterministic, and grim, combining realistic descriptions of combat with intimate accounts of soldiers’ thoughts and impressions. The first time I read it, I found it more cumbersome and conventional than Jones’s earlier and better war novel From Here to Eternity (1951), and although its psychology seems truer and more complex to me today, its major differences from Malick’s previous pictures—including its faraway setting, historical background, and large cast of characters—make it an unexpected choice for such a quintessentially poetic filmmaker.

    It’s likely that a couple of key factors drew Malick to the novel. One was his fascination with ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Many critics have discussed Malick’s intellectual bent, his training in philosophy, his study of German thinker Martin Heidegger, his brief professorial career. What rarely get mentioned are more routine parts of his biography—playing high school football, working as a farmhand, writing for popular magazines like Life and Time—that reflect an interest in unremarkable folks. Almost every man in The Thin Red Line is an everyman, lost in the bewilderness, struggling to survive under conditions as baffling as they are horrific. Among the most important to the film are Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who hopes the fighting will get him a promotion; First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), a battle-weary man whose pragmatism borders on cynicism; and Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), whose perception of a transcendent spark in even the most hardened and afflicted people is at the narrative and philosophical center of the film. Malick’s sympathy goes out to some characters more than others, but his sensitive portrayals testify to his profound engagement with all of their lives.

    I think Malick was also intrigued by the tremendous contrast between story and setting in the novel, where savage combat rips bodies and minds apart on a tropical island of stunning beauty. The book and film both contain hard-hitting battle sequences, especially during the company’s protracted effort to take a hill protected by a heavily armed Japanese bunker, but where Jones concentrates on naturalistic military and psychological detail, Malick gives full play to philosophical ideas as well. Opulent nature imagery is his most recognizable cinematic trademark, but crucially he finds human personalities and behavior no less “natural” than their surroundings—a fact that’s especially resonant when the environment is a jungle, where life and death, creation and destruction, are continuously and ubiquitously intertwined. At times, The Thin Red Line seems pessimistic, sug­gest­ing that forces of degeneration and regeneration are “not one power but two,” as Witt puts it, forever battling each other, with humanity caught in the crossfire. The film’s first image is of a crocodile slithering into concealment, signaling the danger and violence that dwell in nature whether or not “civilized” intruders add to the fray with murderous mechanisms of their own. Yet in the end, Malick puts forth the optimistic belief (with an almost gnostic tinge) that the cosmos is essentially harmonious, in its spiritual wholeness if not its material par­tic­ularities. “Darkness and light, strife and love,” a voice-over muses in the final scene, “are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

    Malick’s answer is yes. The crocodile reappears only once, as a harmless captive of the soldiers, and while military violence is the narrative’s driving force, sunstruck images of grass, trees, magnificently colored birds, and idealized native Melanesians recur throughout the film as well. Neither darkness nor light can be said to win the day. Malick respects and reveres them both, regarding them less as categories of physics, biology, and art than as transcendent realities that abide within and beyond the world of appearances we inhabit. Malick agrees with Heidegger that humanity’s fundamental mistake is to use intellect and technology as means of controlling the world rather than dwelling organically with its mysteries, the most daunting of which is death. With this in mind, he weaves conflicting impulses toward nature—to harmonize with it and to prevail over it—into the very fabric of The Thin Red Line. His great creative passions—nuances of light, subtleties of camera movement, rapport between word and picture—all reflect his conviction that cinematic reality is reality, and that film, treated with due reverence and expertise, is able to absorb not just patterns of luminosity but also the transcendent essences of people, places, and things.

    Malick’s devotion to cinematic sight and sound is equaled by his commitment to the aesthetics of language. The Thin Red Line is about words as much as it’s about anything; more precisely, it’s about the intimate interconnection between word and image, which Malick explores in truly audacious ways, especially in the scenes with voice-overs. The more I’ve watched The Thin Red Line, the more unsure I’ve become about how some of the voice-overs correspond with the people on the screen; so many characters have similar accents, speech patterns, and tones of voice that even a key passage like the “darkness and light” soliloquy is impossible to pin with certainty to a particular speaker. This isn’t because Malick wants to separate the characters from their words—just the opposite: he wants to underscore the fact that human beings are bathed in language at every moment, and that language may ultimately be the best, most lasting facet of human experience, able to glide and soar even when the bodies associated with it are dying and decaying in killing fields below. “Everyday language,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, another modern philosopher Malick takes to heart, “is a part of the human organism and is no less complicated than it.” Taking this unity as a given, Malick explores not only the social functions of spoken dialogue but also the meditative functions of unspoken inner speech, often heightened and expanded by music that privileges emotional depth over linear, logical meaning.

    Malick accomplishes this most movingly when words, music, and cinematography unfold in counterpoint, contrasting and con­verg­ing in polyrhythmic waves. As the film approaches the two-hour mark, for instance, a relatively minor character named Private Dale (Arie Verveen) threatens a traumatized Japanese prisoner with brutal treatment. The captive, who doesn’t understand a thing Dale is saying, speaks a few soft phrases in Japanese, and in the background, Hans Zimmer’s magisterial score quotes the interrogative trumpet line of “The Unanswered Question,” the 1906 tone poem that composer Charles Ives described as a “cosmic landscape” echoing with the unanswerable question of existence. Another superb example comes when Tall orders Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to execute a frontal attack on the Japanese bunker and Staros refuses to obey, seeing the mission as suicidal. Their argument, conducted over portable field telephones, is filmed in a conventional back-and-forth pattern, with occasional cut­aways to other soldiers. Yet the sequence carries unconventional power, due partly to the performances—Nolte’s volcanic rage versus Koteas’s reasoning calm—but more to Malick’s superb orchestration of audiovisual details: the contrasting vocal timbres, the progressively tightening close-ups, the sunlight striking one side of Tall’s face, the bent-backed rigidity of his finger on the handset, and above all the brooding current of low strings on the soundtrack, which transforms what might have been a merely dramatic scene into something close to the musical form called melodeclamation, fusing voices and instruments into a single expressive force. Exactly when Staros begins declaring his refusal, moreover, the music relaxes its tension and moves to a higher, brighter register, again enhancing the moment’s emotional strength. This is total cinema of the highest order.

    Riveting scenes like these are reminders that The Thin Red Line is not a philosophical tract. It’s an action picture, albeit an unorthodox one where the fighting doesn’t start until halfway through and major stars (John Travolta, George Clooney) turn up in tiny roles, thanks to Malick’s apparently intentional postproduction excising, not only to reduce the running time but also to undermine the hegemony of the Hollywood star system. The film’s philosophy comes mainly through the voice-overs, which spend more time asking questions than propounding answers. Malick even takes an amusing swipe at intellectual pretentiousness. On the battlefield, Tall boasts to another officer that he read Homer in Greek during his West Point years, but Malick has made it plain that Tall is a thoroughly shallow individual, pretty much clueless about anything more meaningful than nailing the promotion he has “eaten untold buckets of shit” to engineer. He can say that eos rhododaktylos means “rosy-fingered dawn,” but he’s as philosophical as one of those buckets.

    Of the many gratifications offered by The Thin Red Line, one of the most enjoyable is teasing out the amazingly wide range of references—literary, poetic, musical, cinematic—that Malick weaves through it. Some allusions are hard to miss, such as the skulls in a ruined Melanesian village that recall avatars of insanity in Francis Ford Coppola’s very different war movie Apocalypse Now (1979). Others are oblique and ephemeral. Spend­ing time in the brig for being AWOL with the locals yet again, for instance, Witt has a fleeting vision of a metal plate dotted by circular holes with raised edges, which momentarily fills the screen. This object may or may not be part of his surroundings—it’s impossible to tell from the brief look we get—but the circular openings definitely echo the timeworn bases of age-old pillars seen in the opening shot of Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic Sansho the Bailiff (1954), another film juxtaposing savagery and redemption. If this connection seems like a stretch, recall that Malick loves Mizoguchi’s cinema so much that he wrote a stage version of Sansho the Bailiff, produced (without critical or commercial success) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993. Tracing all the connotations of this visual echo would take half an essay in itself, and The Thin Red Line bristles with such evocations, not to mention its multifaceted dialogue with Malick’s earlier films, its anticipation of his 2005 epic The New World, and its implied commentary on the war and historical-epic genres. For sheer cultural richness, it has few rivals in modern film.

    Before closing, I want to return to the often-quoted “darkness and light” soliloquy in the final scene. “Oh my soul,” it concludes, “let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” It’s a curious passage that doesn’t make literal sense. The soldier is asking to be in his soul, and for the soul to look out through his eyes, which is an impossible trick unless you do the kind of topological math that makes doughnuts and teacups identical; the statement that all things are shining seems equally amiss, considering the horrors we’ve been witnessing for almost three hours. But in this film’s context, the voice-over seems right and lucid. Purist, perfectionist, and obsessive planner though he is, Malick remains a radically intuitive artist, guided by personal visions as surely as The Thin Red Line is haunted and blessed by dematerialized voices of another kind. Neither words nor pictures can lay bare the mysteries of existence, he seems to say, but their combination in cinema can help us know the mysteries are there and sense the truths that underlie them.

    Malick’s intuitive approach explains why The Thin Red Line starts with unanswerable questions—“What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?”—and ends with a verbal paradox, accompanied by free-flowing images that frame the narrative without dictating its meanings or restricting its ideas. The final image is the most enigmatic of all: a small clump of soil, or perhaps a broken coconut shell, in a pool of calm water, holding a stalk of new life that reaches toward the sky with its shoots and toward the earth in its shimmering reflection. Is it a symbol of all things shining? An intimation of immortality in a world inundated with death? A response to the film’s opening questions, saying that nature can harmonize with itself after all? It’s impossible to decide, or even to know what all the choices are. And this is precisely what makes it one of the most intensely memorable film images I’ve ever seen.

    Writing about Malick several years ago, I quoted Wittgenstein’s observation that “the world and life are one,” which could be Malick’s motto. More than any of his peers, he focuses less on the psychological self than on what Wittgenstein calls the “philosophical self,” defined as “the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it.” Among the many achieve­ments of his towering war film, none is more enthralling than its transformation of Jones’s messy, muddled soldiers into carriers of the metaphysical “spark” that Witt sees in Welsh (to Welsh’s own amazement) and that Malick sees in all his characters, even those who look most godforsaken to ordinary eyes. The title of The Thin Red Line means a number of things. In one of the epigraphs of Jones’s novel, it’s a line of military heroes praised by Rudyard Kipling; in the other epigraph, it’s the porous border “between the sane and the mad” mentioned in an old midwestern saying. These meanings are pertinent to the film and book alike, but for Malick the phrase has deeper resonances. To him, the thin red line is ultimately the limit of the world. Film is the only medium that lets him glimpse it, and lets us glimpse it with him, as cinema enters our souls and we look out through its eyes, feeling Witt’s elusive spark within ourselves.

    David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, chief book critic at Film Quarterly, and an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

24 comments

  • By TJ
    November 04, 2010
    10:35 AM

    insightful criticism of an amazing depiction of war: brilliant cinematography, acting, script, musical score, and direction. The scene when John Cusack calls in the fire mission against the bunkers is mesmerizing: as the Japanese soldiers attack the private with the stolen pistol looks at the camera with an expression of pure authenticity leaving the audience in no doubt that self-preservation is the first and foremost instinct of the soldier in battle. His performance is sublime. John Savage is also notable, equaling his performance in the 80's gem, 'Salvadore'. The Thin Red Line is an unforgettable film which shows the cost of career strategists moving lines on a map.
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  • By Mark
    January 22, 2011
    02:04 PM

    Watching 'The Thin Red Line" in its initial theatrical release turned out to be one of those rare cinematic experiences that resonates long after. I had never seen a war film, or any film for that matter, like it before. It somehow managed to combine the sheer brutality of war with exquisite poetic grandeur in a remarkably stylized fashion. Terrence Malick examines the phenomenon of warfare from within the mind and spirit of the foot soldier. He raises existential questions and contemplates man's relationship amongst nature. Despite the star power in the cast, the film represented an extremely bold departure from the standard blockbuster fare that Hollywood had become synonymous with. In a sense, 'The Thin Red Line' represented an antithesis to its oft-compared World War II counterpart 'Saving Private Ryan' which was released in the same year. Though both films faithfully represented the war genre in all of its beauty and atrocity, the methodical distance that separated the two was rather immense.
    Reply
  • By Paul Maher Jr
    February 24, 2011
    03:57 PM

    The script and the film are two separate things. The film is what it is because Malick figured out halfway through filming that Fife (Adrien Brody) was miscast, so he used him less and less, and once principal photography ended, he took Jim Caviezel and Will Wallace and shot those AWOL scenes using Jack Fisk's recreated Melanesian village. So, in a sense, miscasting Fife made the film what it is.
    Reply
  • By Eric Peeper
    April 30, 2011
    03:20 PM

    This film, along with Days of Heaven and For All Mankind, has some of the most breathtaking cinematography in the Collection. And this film, along wtih For All Mankind and The Last Temptation of Christ, is among the most deeply philosophical and thought-provoking.
    Reply
  • By Brent
    July 16, 2011
    03:02 AM

    Sterrit's beautiful essay makes Roger Ebert's rather shallow review look like a middling book report. Thanks for including this with the DVD.
    Reply
  • By Mark
    August 12, 2011
    01:05 PM

    A beautiful piece of film analysis. Time to watch the DVD again.
    Reply
  • By Steven Kennedy
    October 03, 2011
    01:29 AM

    What does jap soldier say to wit just before he dies?
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    • By Gav Ellis
      November 04, 2011
      08:27 PM

      he is telling wit to put his gun down, very moving scene, wit sacrificing himself so that his comrades can escape
  • By Gav Ellis
    November 04, 2011
    08:32 PM

    The Thin Red Line is just the most beautiful film about the horrors and senselessness of war. The all star cast at no point overshadows the story, or believabilty of the individuals portrayed. I love absolutely every aspect of this film, the cinematography, score, story and acting. It really missed out at the Oscars, which is criminal
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    • By Kit Caruthers
      May 20, 2012
      07:46 AM

      ...I read a review at the time of the film's release that said it was simply too good to win an Oscar.
    • By M_Mayer
      May 21, 2012
      10:12 PM

      It's more important for a film to earn a spot on the Criterion Collection than to earn an Oscar. People get to realize how great a film is with fine essays like this one, rather than see the whole production crew just walk on and off the stage with a doll.
  • By Mostafa Tamer
    May 17, 2012
    05:36 AM

    Never seen a better film, never will see a better film .. Greatest of all time in my humble opinion ..
    Reply
  • By Brevity
    November 24, 2012
    08:52 PM

    Too long, didn't read. The review is longer than the movie.
    Reply
  • By Jakob
    December 29, 2012
    09:12 PM

    There is scene just before staros get the news from the lietunant, saying that he Will leave this war and getting medals and stuff. There is dieing jap soldier and an american soldier speaking to each other while the american is being quiete rude, im very curious what the jap actually are saying!
    Reply
  • By Fin C
    January 03, 2013
    10:41 PM

    I have probably seen this movie 30 or 40 times. It's that impactful and important. To represent a shocking conflict such as WW2 as a conflict in nature is well, genius. The cinematography conveys all of this madness, brutality, nature, humanity and fear so wonderfully. The script is tight none of the voice-overs or the interaction between the players is superfluous. Who could forget "what is this war in the heart of nature" "the world is blowing itself to pieces just as fast as it can arrange it" "just how many men are you prepared to lose Styres...one, etc". So many memorable lines - and the action scenes are probably the most scary I've ever seen. Not because they are particularly explicit but because they convey the confusion, fear, randomness and madness of combat. Quite simply the best movie I've ever seen and I go back a while. Saving Ryan's Privates? Not a patch....
    Reply
  • By Fin C
    January 03, 2013
    10:55 PM

    PS....Spielberg (a brilliant man) must look at TTRL and shake his head in disbelief...it's what distinguishes craft from genius. How did Hans Zimmer know what buttons to press at the climax of the camp invasion scene as the music soars to an almost transcendental level? Quite astonishing.
    Reply
  • By KJM
    March 17, 2013
    12:07 AM

    Lousy movie. Broken, disjointed, disorganized. Looks like the director wanted to do a prequel to Apocalypse Now with all the existentialist BS. At least AN had Brando while here we get Sean Penn.
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    • By Andy
      October 08, 2013
      12:37 AM

      You've never seen combat... It won't speak to everybody...
  • By Jake McB
    March 17, 2013
    01:46 AM

    Blows Apocalypse Now out of the water. The most emotionally devastating war film next to All Quiet on the Western Front.
    Reply
  • By BobbyCee
    March 24, 2013
    01:05 AM

    As someone who fought in the Vietnam war and experienced the inner questioning of the nature of conflict, violence, love and life, I found this film to be transcendently mesmerizing, capturing some of the more profound dimensions such a confounding tragedy as war is. A remarkable achievement in film as it draws the viewer into a more meaningful reflection on life and death than most other " war " films. David Sterritt's essay was insightful and put into words much of what I thought and felt about the film
    Reply
  • By Edwin Swan
    October 08, 2013
    01:11 PM

    “Oh my soul,” it concludes, “let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” ruminating on this line in the context of the movie (and really Malick's whole catalogue) is the closest I've ever come to understandng Heidegger's theory of being.
    Reply
  • By ColumbusFilm
    November 20, 2013
    11:22 AM

    This is Terrence Malick's masterpiece. The most beautifully shot war film ever contrasts with the horror of war in each soldier. The film explores the human condition and gives a sense of the differences each soldier had towards the war itself. My only negative on the film, is that its not historically accurate in places (Japanese mass surrender on Guadalcanal? ..etc etc.) But that isn't the film's purpose, its not a history lesson. Its focus is on the soldier and his mind. Its a shame the movie was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan (another great film) , because it should have won more awards. This combo of The Thin Red Line/Saving Private Ryan is the best in war films since 1970's combo of Patton and Tora, Tora, Tora. An Excellent cast was put together for the film. The funny thing is that George Clooney gets a high billing, even though he's in the film for 1 minute and its at the end. John Travolta gets about 5 minutes of screen time. Nick Nolte for me, steals the show. And has the best lines in the film. He was perfectly cast as the hard ass who watches Staros (Koteas) every move. "You don't ever have to say that I'm right Staros, we'll assume it"
    Reply
  • By Redhorse71
    March 18, 2014
    12:57 PM

    I'm a Vietnam vet who considers this the best war movie ever made. Have watched it literally dozens of times (as I have Stone's "Platoon"). It captures the fear, the shame, the guilt, the exhilaration, the noise, the confusion, the brotherhood, the introspection, the frustration of the enlisted against the officers. Only thing missing are the smells of war and Malick did what he could with the cigarettes in the nose.
    Reply
  • By agkort
    June 23, 2014
    04:13 PM

    "BEWILDERNESS" was an interesting term used by David Sterritt in his review. "GLORY" was an interesting choice of words by Terrence Malick in his film.
    Reply

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