Directed by Terrence Malick
Line that stays with me: “How did we lose the good that was given us? Let it slip away—scattered, careless?”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
I remember when Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” was released. His film was constantly compared to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Both films were released in 1998. They were the new war films on the block. Before these two films were released not many war films were being made. The fact that both films were financially successful changed that and brought forth an excitement in Hollywood to create more war films. Now there’s a new war film every year. But back in 1998 what a pleasure it was to witness two of cinema’s biggest directors bring the war genre back to life and in completely different ways. The summer of 1998 belonged to Steven Spielberg. Cinematically speaking it is impossible not to appreciate “Saving Private Ryan’s” grand opening sequence presenting the true hell war can be. I will never forget how that sequence floored me. I was amazed by the skill of the filmmakers, and was left petrified by the images I saw. Yet, gradually with the passing of time that sequence got drained of its magic as I started to hear “film-nerds” say how “cool” that scene is, even though those were real soldiers who died on that battlefield. So almost 15 years later “Saving Private Ryan” can only be categorized as amazing propaganda. A great lead in to games like “Call of Duty” that also just basically profit from war. I don’t mean to sound like an uptight prick but I can’t help but feel odd now at the fact that we want to make games from experiences that haunt people and destroyed families. What do we value? “The Thin Red Line” doesn’t want to impress us with violence. It wants to reach your soul, remind you that you are human, fragile, afraid, and hungry to enjoy life. We are all like that one way or another but in today’s “I got to be HARD” generation, the soul is forgotten and left yearning.
Watching “Saving Private Ryan” the first time definitely left me with that fan boy rush of “Wow that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen”. Now that that luster is gone I believe it’s a well done film with a lame duck story. It is a film that holds up thanks to the good actors and great production values. “The Thin Red Line” has aged much better and as you get older I believe you will continue to find greatness in the film. Of course this all depends on what kind of entertainment experience you desire. In the sense of longevity that’s where I think “Saving Private Ryan” falls short and “The Thin Red Line” excels. I mean if you want to watch soldiers getting shot and blown up plus a decent story you might as well play a “Call of Duty” game instead of watching “Saving Private Ryan”. But what videogame can tug your heart and mind the way “The Thin Red Line” does. “The Thin Red Line” is classic Terrence Malick and you either love his style by now or you don’t. I love it! He is one of the few directors’ that has dedicated his career to better understand our hearts and souls. Every film he has made is so human yet without censoring the dark side of human nature. Terrence Malick might go down as the best “One Trick Pony” director of all time. Almost every film of his has the same approach. Beautiful yet intricate shots followed by sweeping music and voiceovers. I fall for it every time. This simple approach is perfect for creating the most amazing thing films can do which is putting you in someone else’s shoes. Those 2 or 3 hours of separation from our minds into another can enlighten people like very few mediums can. I believe this part of cinema is very important. It leads to understanding each other, adds patience to your heart instead of just giving us the standard thrill of watching a stunt man do a full flip because he got hit by a grenade. Even a scene like that in the “The Thin Red Line” becomes a completely different experience as we watch Woody Harrelson’s character die without warning.
For years I’ve thought of what “The Thin Red Line” means and how it makes me feel. The opening is very powerful as Terrence Malick never neglects nature but makes nature an integral part of his films. The opening shot as we watch a crocodile sink beneath the surface says so much about our duality with nature. How we stand apart from nature at times and how it can engulf us. Dust to dust we all return to sand so it is a wonderful connection to try and discover; Are wars plainly evil brought upon greed and social misunderstandings? Or is our thirst for war part of our natural human state of mind? Maybe we haven’t evolved to the point where we find wars to be a complete waste of human life and energy. Unfortunately, we don’t get to decide what kind of world we are born into. Throughout the film we see shots of animals being born into a crazy world that’s in a middle of a war. No matter how big the internet balloons people’s heads (in this country at least) we are no different than those hatchlings. We all walk out of our homes everyday just as fragile, Hurricane Sandy proved this to many people. “The Thin Red Line” elaborates on the odd battle of right and wrong many human beings face since WW2. What is right and wrong when a nation of people can look the other way when an atom bomb is dropped? The ideology set by that generation is alive and is one of the reasons current moral standards are questioned. The scene with Nick Nolte telling John Cusack how he has been waiting forever for this war is a perfect example of this. John Cusack’s character remains silent in disbelief, wondering why any man would have such lust to be part of any war. Near the end of his speech Nick Nolte slowly realizes that he is in the wrong, but manmade glory can so easily makes us forget how precious someone’s life truly is.
The film concerns itself with Private Witt due to the fact that he seems to have a deeper understanding of life than his comrade’s. Early in the film we watch him live in harmony with some friendly natives. Love those scenes, hypotonic with lush beautiful images that resonant with our hearts. That sequence reminds us that we don’t need much to live a peaceful, enjoyable life. Soon after that sequence a battleship arrives from a much more technologically advanced society, dragging Private Witt back to war. That pretty much sums up one of the main themes of the film. Sean Penn’s character makes this clearer through dialog when he says “And there ain’t no world but this one”. We are all forced to maintain moral balance in a world that never draws the line. This leads us to create our own personal thin red lines. The fear and the effects of crossing that line is the film’s focus. Everyone’s line is different and once you cross it you have to deal with it for the rest of your life. In the film you see a worried solider disturbed by the fact that he killed someone. He just crossed his line, that line of clear right and wrong. Now, unless a higher being comes down and tells him what he did was just, he is going to be haunted by that moment for the rest of his life. War is the perfect setting to bring further understanding on this issue. During wartime human beings feel forced to do unimaginable things to survive. The real war takes place within us every day. Every day you should congratulate yourself for not crossing that line, because in all honesty it doesn’t take much to find yourself in such a situation.
One of the astonishing achievements of the “The Thin Red Line” is how it emulates LIFE itself through its structure. Just like most lives the film starts off peaceful. Half way through the film gets intense (mid-life crisis) and near the end we begin to fear death. That’s because our hero Private Witt is about to meet his end. I can honestly say that I have not watched a better scene that conveys death with more absolute truth than the death scene of our hero Private Witt. He continues to run for his life just like we live through our days knowing we will one day run out of time. It is a perfect visual metaphor that has yet to be topped. When our hero stops and we see the enemy soldiers surround him, we can only think of one thing, INESCAPABLE. The fact that Private Witt’s THIN RED LINE is death itself makes the scene transcend sadness and lets the undying curiosity of the human spirit shine for a brief a moment before our hero is sent to the unknown. I love that moment when Private Witt takes in a full final view. That moment to me is scarier than any horror film can be. We are watching a man that knows he has reached the end of the line. When you watch that scene you can’t stop yourself from thinking that one day that moment will happen to you. The power of that scene is not tragic, it is a revelation that only your soul can understand.
ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow"