The Thin Red Line (1998)
The year that was dominated by Steven Spielberg’s unflinchingly realistic, highly intense & genre-defining cinema known as Saving Private Ryan also saw the release of another war film from a notable filmmaker who returned to film directing after 20 years of absence. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line may not be as graphic a depiction of war & its brutality as the above mentioned film but the manner in which it approaches its genre is far more philosophical than other films dealing with the subject of war usually dare to. The Thin Red Line isn’t just about war but the fear & moral complications a soldier faces in the battlefield and the film as a whole is a deeper study of war’s devastating effects on not only human soul but nature as well.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name, The Thin Red Line is a fictionalised depiction of the Battle of Mount Austen on Guadalcanal between the American & Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. The entire film, however, concerns five major characters & is observed from their viewpoint. It opens with the introduction of Pvt. Witt, who has gone AWOL from his unit for he has no interest in serving the army anymore. The second character is Sgt. Welsh, a cynical officer not interested in any acclaim. Third is Lt. Col. Tall, who was passed over for promotion & now sees this war as his last chance to prove himself. Fourth is Sgt. Staros, who cares about his soldiers & refuses to march them to certain death. And finally we have Pvt. Bell, who keeps thinking about the woman he wants to marry.
The direction by Terrence Malick is impressive as his remarkable & unique method of crafting a film is very much visible here. The ugliness of war is contrasted by the beauty of nature. The beauty & cruelty of nature is compared by the good & evil faces of men. And the surreal imagery, visual poetry & symbolism it presents is nicely fused into its narrative from the very beginning to the very end. The script features less dialogues related to the plot & asks more philosophical questions that are not easy to answer. The cinematography is absolutely dazzling for there is beauty in every single frame of the film, even the ones that display the horrors of war. Editing trims the film to 170 minutes of runtime but there was still room for further improvement as it kept jumping to different scenes before a fine rhythm could be established. Finally, the music composed by Hans Zimmer, John Powell & Klaus Badelt is truly soul-stirring, heartwarming & near perfect.
Coming to the performances, The Thin Red Line features a pretty huge cast though major contribution comes from mainly five actors. Jim Cavaziel stars as Pvt. Witt & his performance isn’t only the most impressive of all but is also the soul of this film as he carries the film for the most part. Next up is Sean Penn who chips in strongly with his cold-hearted but human portrayal of Sgt. Welsh. Nick Nolte impresses as Lt. Col. Tall, a commander obsessed with accomplishing this mission without caring much about the number of casualties it’ll take but still can’t be labelled as the antagonist of this film. Elias Koteas plays Sgt. Staros, who makes an ethical choice to save his men from slaughter by disobeying Tall’s orders. Ben Chaplin plays Pvt. Bell, in love with a woman (Miranda Otto) we keep getting a glimpse of throughout the film. Other notable cameos comes from Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, John C. Reilly, John Cusack & others.
Even after getting a lot of things right, that too in a fascinating manner, there are certain issues that turned The Thin Red Line into a slight disappointment for me. The battle sequences are absolutely thrilling & suspenseful, the actors are able to make you genuinely care for their characters’ lives and the moral complexities of human beings is nicely presented on-screen but there is also no denying that it is meant to & most probably will confuse a lot of viewers as many will have a hard time figuring out what exactly is this film about. It’s not a film for everyone. It’s too high-minded to appeal to everyone’s taste. And yet, it’s tough to not accept it as a work of stunning art, no matter how pretentious this film may seem. Overall, The Thin Red Line is an intricate human drama set in the backdrop of a war which provides Terrence Malick an ideal environment to skilfully explore the themes of fear of death, detachment from reality & search for wisdom that deserves to be seen by admirers of Malick as well as die-hard fans of art house cinema.