It opens with visions of swimming in glaucous waters, rowing out to sea, familial bathing, running a wheel barrel race with the child inhabitants of this mercifully ignored Pacific paradise. But the voice-over narration wonders on the essential duality of man and nature that perpetuates conflict, and soon we’re gearing up for a long and arduous battle. Based on James Jones’ 1962 novel about the taking of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line (1998) is a group portrait of men at war, underpinned by, or more aptly, given an undercurrent of daydream speculation regarding mankind as a single, multifaceted soul. The collective anxiety of these men, most of them young and relatively inexperienced, as they board the carriers that will usher so many of them to their deaths is almost palpable. Time is invested in establishing rank, but when grown men whimper and cry their hierarchies dissolve. We see men shudder with panic, men sick with fear. There are plenty of great war films, but The Thin Red Line, newly available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, might be the only one I, who’s never been close to a war, relate to so fully. It’s because of its painstaking emphasis on brotherhood, and it’s because of the fear.
This was the first film from the reclusive maverick director Terrence Malick in 20 years, after having made only two films during the decade of the New Hollywood, Badlands (73) and Days of Heaven (78). Only two, yet the both of them immensely memorable and immensely individual. Malick’s return to the movies would be a far bigger production than both of its predecessors combined, yet his signature would remain unmistakable: there would be a lot of voice-over, some of it playing dissonance with the images; there would be earnest philosophical questions, often posed by decidedly credulous characters; sooner or later, something would be set on fire. But the ambitions that separated The Thin Red Line from Malick’s earlier work wouldn’t be confined to questions of scale—this new, older Malick sought to locate his poeticism in collectivity. Butterflies, birds and bats oversee the carnage and ripping of earth. The film sweeps across landscapes to light down upon varied characters and their interior voices, swooping into their consciousness in search of some unuttered emotional truth, so that each of them becomes our protagonist for a time. Yet the film’s protagonist is also some presence beyond the brutal drama unfolding on-screen, some hand guiding the camera, especially when mounted on a crane, soaring through tall grass and the smoke of freshly detonated ordinance, gliding past soldiers running, screaming, being torn to shreds, propelled upward by blasts or standing in stunned silence. The camera itself becomes our narrator, the ghostly observer that brings some supra-natural coherence to so much chaos.
To realize such a sprawling narrative required an enormous and diverse cast; to finance it required stars. So Malick chose to assemble a cast split evenly between knowns and unknowns, with the latter most often playing the larger roles. (It’s astonishing to watch the audition tapes featured on Criterion’s disc and see just how many great actors didn’t make it into the film.) If you were to make a shortlist of your favourite American actors of the last fifteen years or so there’s a good chance you’ll find a couple of them lingering somewhere in the populous canvas of The Thin Red Line. There’s Elias Koteas as the god-fearing, soft-spoken Greek captain. There’s Sean Penn, beginning by this point to look older, calmer. There’s Adrian Brody, his eyes looking wider than his narrow face. There’s John Travolta, with a ridiculous moustache. There’s John Cusack and John Savage. There’s Nick Stahl, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin. Nick Nolte looms large over the central sequence concerning the taking of a hill that incurs heavy casualties. Nolte quotes Homer though it’s really just to show off. All worked up and phlegmy, his lipless mouth a frightening maw, he narrates the slaughter like a peppy football coach. But we also hear his inner thoughts: “Shut up in a tomb. Can’t lift the lid.” He’s trying to stage manage the whole thing, sculpt the most compelling narrative, the one that’ll ensure his belated promotion.
Closest to embodying a single central character is Jim Caviezel’s Witt, the boyishly handsome, blue-eyed private thrown back into action after going AWOL. A Melanesian woman tells him he “looks army,” but to me he looks like a dreamer. Where the other men remember beautiful women and inviting houses on the other side of the world, Witt’s flashbacks are to the island idyll he was taken from only days earlier. His voice-over speaks about the mystery—or lack there of—of death, and throughout the film Witt personally oversees many deaths, peering into the eyes of his comrades as they meet their demise, driven crazy with terror. He doesn’t seem the macho type, nor dies he seem suicidal. Perhaps he just thinks he’s lucky, because he keeps volunteering for the deadliest tasks. “If something bad happens” he says, “I want to be there.” Maybe he’s Malick’s avatar, which for better or for worse will make him the embodiment of a somewhat glorified naïveté.
“Who are you that lives in all these many forms?” “We. We together. One being.” “Love. Where does it come from?” These shards of reverie that emerge from the chorus of voice-overs—sometimes it’s hard to know who is who—can seem profound or pretentious depending on your mood. Yet by the time you’ve gotten say, half an hour into The Thin Red Line’s 170 minutes, it’s hard to imagine not surrendering to it utterly. It’s a genuine war epic, elegantly staged and chillingly violent, as well as a Tarkovsky-like meditation on nature, and one of the most penetrating and immersive mega-budget movie experiences I can think of. The new sound mix on Criterion’s new edition—at least on the Blu-ray I was able to sample—is particularly enveloping, dynamic in its depth and at times bracing. The overall effect of The Thin Red Line is to leave us by its end feeling as though we’ve been pushed through something, bore witness to something grandiose that only the cinema can offer. We feel closer to a particular vision, at once infernal and beatific, at once helmed by a single and singular artist and the portrayal of a difficult to fathom experience shared by hundreds. There’s almost nothing like it.