The initial conceit (and a problematic one, at that) with nearly every war film is that, almost without fail, the protagonist of the film will be the Hero. The Hero ranges from the obvious (John Wayne in The Green Berets) to the obscure (Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.) The Thin Red Line disregards the concept of the Hero, placing its focus instead on the act of war itself. Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) states early on that one man alone cannot make a difference – in war, and even in life. He proceeds to, heroically and amidst substantial gunfire, attend to the aid of a comrade dying in the battlefield. But Malick is quick to point out that Welsh is not a hero – when this supposed hero is confronted with the possibility of decoration, he adamantly opposes the idea. His refusal contends that his acts were not heroic. Rather, they maintain that this is duty, this is expected, this is human decency. And therein lies the problem with the Hero. Heroism implies that mediocrity by choice is acceptable, that there exists such a thing as “just good enough”, that allowing a comrade to die without aid on the battlefield is ok. Malick’s film implies that such a concept exists only in the hearts of the selfish.
The Thin Red Line opens with the focus of the film on Private Witt (Jim Caviezel); Witt narrating while images of a jungle bucolic amble on. The Private speaks of good and evil, and innocence lost. He says, “How’d we lose that goodness that was given to us?” This is the thesis of the film. The hero is absent in The Thin Red Line because the hero is absent in war, and in life; all that exists is the possibility of momentarily attaining that goodness. Witt resides in the aforementioned jungle bucolic, having gone AWOL. The peace he sees there he equates to a whole different world. This is his heaven, a place where the goodness given still exists.
The Thin Red Line also works to examine absolute power corrupting absolutely. In this case, honor = rank = dishonor. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) is strongly reminiscent of Gen. Mireau (George Macready) in Paths of Glory. Like Mireau, Col. Tall’s impetus behind his eager and strong willed military tactics is honor. That is, honor from his peers, which manifests itself as rank. If Mireau captures the Ant Hill, he will earn that second star he has been after for so long. If Tall takes the ridge, that coveted General rank will be his. Both officers demand impossible acts from their men in pursuit of personal gain. They are after honor, which only comes with rank, which only comes with dishonor. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) and Captain Gaff (John Cusack) who find their Paths of Glory parallel in Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas.) Both Dax and Staros refuse to obey the orders of their commanding officers, orders that would lead their men to certain death. Both men are tempted with medals and commendations of valor – both men realize that true valor has nothing to do with decoration. Gaff leads the band of seven men that overcome the ridge. Selflessly, he recommends all his men for commendation while admitting that he was ready to pull back. Col. Tall will hear nothing of it, and even recommends Gaff for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Selfishly, Tall knows that honor breeds honor – if Gaff did anything to deserve a Medal of Honor, it is because Tall appointed him to that position. This nearly guarantees Tall his General’s star.
The Thin Red Line is far from the average war film. Poetic in its narration, painterly in its composition, and thematically complex in subject matter, The Thin Red Line transcends the war film genre.