The Wars on Film: THE THIN RED LINE

Diving in to Terrence Malick's trance like meditation on warfare

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about cinematic storytelling is the belief that plot is the be all and end all when it comes to the success or failure of a film. The idea behind this seems to be that if one cannot chart out a clear protagonist, antagonist, and overarching narrative of a film, that the film itself is a failure, and that a poorly structured plot dooms a film, that a film is about what happens as opposed to how it happens. This notion is however a fundamentally flawed one as it discounts factors such as script, character work, theme, technical proficiency, visuals, tone, and last but not least the performances of the actors. In reality many of the great films of all time have fairly weak or maybe even non-existent plots, but we fail to notice this as they are full of characters we love, stunning visuals, achieve strong tonal consistency, and contain themes that resonate with us. The truth of the matter is that what happens within the narrative of the film is often the least important and most overrated aspect of said film. If after watching a film your only thoughts are about the plot of said film, it is likely that it holds little other redemptive value and more importantly is unlikely to hold up in subsequent viewings as the unfolding of the narrative no longer surprises you. This line of thinking has resulted in a long string of filmmakers and writers who rely on storytelling gimmicks and twist endings to sell their work. These directors are all about the “What” and often struggle with the “Who”, “How”, “Where”, and “Why” of storytelling. These films rarely hold much of a shelf life as a result. All of these other elements are what combine to truly elevate a film and are the difference between a George Lucas (early years) or a Steven Spielberg, and an M. Night Shyamalan.  They are why we still talk about the characters and the technology, and the worlds of Star Wars 40 years later, and only talk about the twist ending of The Sixth Sense now (spoiler: Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time). “What does this have to do with this week’s entry?” you might ask. It’s quite simple, The Thin Red Line doesn’t have a plot, and it is a masterpiece not only in spite of, but arguably because of this.

The Thin Red Line, in as much as it is about anything, is about the Battle of Guadalcanal, however in reality the battle is more of a setting than an actual plot point. We are given no outside context about the battle, and the film ends before the battle is finished. It merely serves as the backdrop against which Malick can meditate on the horrors and glories of war. We are introduced to many characters throughout the film played by an all-star cast of actors, including John C Reilly, Sean Penn, Jim Caviezal, John Cusack, Nick Nolte and many others, all of whom came to play, yet you would be hard pressed to identify a protagonist. Instead narrative duties are handed off to various members of the cast in turn, as the film often allows a monologue to ease in over the action onscreen as the various characters muse on the events and realties of war, narrate their letters to their loved ones, and ponder life when they return home. Each of these monologues provides the viewer a brief insight into the mind of the soldiers, allowing us to momentarily see the events through their eyes. Some view the war as merely a trial to pass through on the way back to their loved ones, some as an opportunity for advancement, some brim with optimism, some are consumed with a detached cynicism that leaves them concerned only with themselves, others have a deep love for their fellow soldiers and will shoulder any cost to keep their fellow men alive. Some are old, some are young, and some are in between. We experience the horrors and triumphs of war through their eyes and Malick plays with these varying perspectives to lay out the reality of war. We see the enlisted men fighting and dying on the front lines, existing in a state of constant terror, with their immediate superior officers trying to simply keep them alive, only to cut to a hill miles away where a high ranking officer barks out orders mercilessly, treating each man as a an expendable pawn, useful only to the extent at which they further his objective and by extension his career. We see the clash of wills between the field officers and those at the command post as they verbally spar over the best course of action. At one point a captain defies the order of a colonel who is overseeing the battle, refusing to put his men in harm’s way, only to later be stripped of his command for daring to threaten to impede the colonel’s career. Throughout the film the paradigm is clear; it is the officers that give the orders and it is the enlisted men that die. This reality pervades every action taken on screen and it’s weight is seen on the face of every man. This is their Hell and the only way out is through. We see men rise to great heights, and sink to horrible lows, and each time the triumph or horror is told on the faces of their fellow soldiers.

The horrors of combat are ever present within The Thin Red Line. Battle sequences make up more than half of the films run time and each and every one of them is glorious. One of these sequences, occurring about a third of the way into the film, becomes almost a character unto itself as it stretches uninterrupted for more than 40 minutes, taking up more than a quarter of the film’s run time. As it unfolds we are given a unique insight into the chaos of battle as each side takes and gives ground as the American forces attempt to seize a heavily fortified hill controlled by the Japanese. It is characterized by fits of terrifying violence followed by distressingly calm lulls in the action. The sequence has its own pulse narrative and lays bare the totality of war as it plays out. The action sequences in The Thin Red Line are some of the finest committed to film, burgeoned by a stunning realism. Within them we see moments of heroism, bouts of cowardice, and actions that threaten to degrade the very souls of the men who commit them. At no point during these sequences does Malick glorify war, instead he seeks to lay it bare as a dark creation that cuts to and reveals the very core of a man, showing the heights to which he may ascend and the depths to which he may fall. And throughout all of this the film is exquisitely shot each step of the way by cinematographer John Toll. Whether the chaos of battle, the grace of ship cutting through the ocean, or the beauty of a peaceful island community, Toll’s camera presents it in stunning clarity with each shot expertly crafted and designed to serve a specific narrative purpose. There is a true mastery of tone on display in The Thin Red Line and much of this is due to Toll’s ability to instill powerful emotion in the viewer with a single shot, and the craft with which he doles out visual information. Each step of the way he guides the viewer through the chaos and the calm in turn allowing them to take in and experience the narrative which Malick is seeking to craft.

The Thin Red Line exists as a stunning counterpoint to plot-driven storytelling. With each line, shot, and sound Terrence Malick takes the viewer on a journey into the very heart of the darkness that is warfare and forces them to confront its ugliness head on. At the end of the film one would be hard pressed to point out a moral, define the narrative, or even to identify a hero or villain of the story. As the film ends neither the war nor the battle is over. Some live, some have died, all are changed, yet the war continues on. It is a true masterpiece of military cinema, and one that must be experienced by any with a fondness for the military genre.

  • An excellent write-up of one of my favorite films. It’s just a gorgeous, fantastic film. I still think about that shot when the Japanese soldiers emerge from the jungle, stalking the trio of Americans. It’s amazing. Great job!