Acclaimed director Terrence Malick ended a twenty-year film-making silence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Based on the novel by James Jones, the film follows a group of soldiers during World War II, on tour in the Solomon Islands battling the Japanese. Among war films, it takes a more existential approach to the causes and effects of mankind’s continued conflict with itself. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay (adapted) and Best Music.
In order to properly frame a film like The Thin Red Line, it’s as important to know what it is not as what it is. Coming out so near to the other big war movie of that year, Saving Private Ryan, probably set many people up for a different type of film than what they received. The promotion for The Thin Red Line predictably focused on the long list of Hollywood actors involved (even though some barely registered as a blip in the final edit) and war scenes with explosions galore. But the two films were at best complementary opposites. Private Ryan augmented a much more traditional hero’s storyline with an almost hyper-realistic look and sound, taking you directly into the action for a first-person perspective. It was a sensory assault of accurate, but formulaic, war movie conventions.
Malick’s films, on the other hand, tend to have a distinctly dreamlike quality about them. They often feel as if they’re more about the reflection on an event than the actual event itself. Generous use of prolonged pans over nature and philosophical narration heighten this feeling. Plot point scenes within the film are often surrounded by a narrator coming to terms with their past (the events unfolding onscreen), man’s connection to nature and to mankind. Days of Heaven focused in this way on love and security, The New World analyzed ambition and conquest, and The Thin Red Line turns further inward to the dark constructs of war.
If there is a main character to the film, it is Private Witt. At the opening of the film we find Witt living peacefully amongst the indigenous peoples of the Solomon Islands. It’s a serene and beautiful opening, where a tribe is living at peace with themselves and nature, and sets up the stark contrast of violence and war that will soon follow. Witt also serves as the main narrator during the film (although there are others, as the focus shifts to other characters), but also its spiritual conscience. His thoughts veer towards the dichotomy of man’s technological progress over nature matched against the lack of peace and fulfillment he finds in this same technological world. The deadly march of war is similarly stacked against the struggle for true understanding and complicity by those who are actually ordered to carry it out.