Why “The Thin Red Line” Is Secretly A Great Film

1998 was the watershed year for war movies. Saving Private Ryan was released to critical and commercial success, providing a graphic view of what a war movie could be. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Saving Private Ryan. The success of the movie proved to movie studios that audiences would be able to sit through realistic and disturbing war movies, taking the genre from what was essentially a propaganda machine and turning it into a way to explore the violent and destructive side of human nature. As important as Saving Private Ryan was in its unflinching depiction of warfare, 1998 also saw the release of another war film, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Unfortunately, The Thin Red Line has never achieved the same popularity of acclaim as Saving Private Ryan. Which is really too bad, because it is a film that deserves rediscovery.

Audiences must have been confused by The Thin Red Line. In classic Malick fashion, the story is told visually and includes countless philosophical voice overs from cast members. While the movie advertises itself as a war film, it starts with two American soldiers enjoying a peaceful idyllic life in a Pacific Island village, with no real mention of the war. When they are finally dragged back to the war, these two soldiers are hardly the main characters. They appear for maybe 20% of the film. So you start with two characters and then only see them again at the end of the movie. The action picks up later, but it is told in a dreamlike state, never quite evolving into the ultra-realistic battle scenes that are showcased in Saving Private Ryan. 

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So what is going on in The Thin Red Line? It seems to be a philosophical art movie, but has bloody action scenes like a war movie. Inter-cut between scenes of bloodshed are abstract visual set pieces showcasing the natural world. And what is going on with all the voice overs?

The fact that the movie is so hard to pin down is what makes The Thin Red Line brilliant. Malick refuses to let his script solidify into something solid. Instead, it morphs to accommodate a variety of themes and ideas, basically whatever you bring into it. If you were forced to pick on theme, the movie is about human nature.

But for a war movie, The Thin Red Line stays aloof of anything political. While other war movies try to tackle the political aspects of war and whether it is justified, Malick presents war as just being a part of human nature. Is the violence caused by political machinations or the greed of evil men? According to Malick, the evil that births warfare is part of the human race. It comes from nowhere, and everywhere. You can not trace it back to any one point, for it exists in all of us.

This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known?

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But although the evil in the world is impossible to understand, Malick does not allow his film to slip into a fatalistic outlook on human nature. Instead, he allows the viewer to see and find points of light in the actions of soldiers in the movie. Whether it be a commander refusing to commit a suicide attack, a sergeant risking his life to give comfort to a dying soldier or the family ties that evolve in combat, Malick shows us that on an individual scale, human beings have light, and they can do wonderful things. But the ultimate tragedy is that they are succumbing to their evil characteristics, fighting a pointless and useless war.

The biggest conflict in the film is not between differing nations, but between man and nature. While Malick shows us that people may have light in them, the greatest source of light is the light of nature. Nature itself is the source of greatest good, not because of its choices, but because of the fact that it is completely devoid of any intentional harm. Nature evolves independently of good and evil. While nations and people may choose either good or evil, nature just exists. The best humans are those who live in harmony with nature, as we see with the Pacific islanders. Their life is in harmony with nature and is thus divorce from the intrinsic evil of the human race.

This is pretty heady stuff for a war movie, and Malick does allow the script to have more standard meditations of humans in war. Much of the battle scenes dissect the reasons that people fight and the reasons for the actions that they take. Personal glory, individual survival, or dedication to higher purpose is all taken into consideration.

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Beyond the thematic elements, The Thin Red Line is also a beautiful film. Malick has always been a visual film maker, and it shows in this movie. While the battle scenes are not particularly creative in their cinematography, the nature shots are just stunning. I do not know how he does it, but a Malick film captures beauty in a way that other film makers can only dream of doing. This talent is on display in The Thin Red Line, and the beautiful shots of nature are jarring compared to the battle sequences.

By presenting jarring visual images, Malick shows us the closest that The Thin Red Line comes to a concrete theme. Mankind is shown in opposition of nature. We are destroying the natural world that we live in. The salvation of humanity comes with living close to nature. What we have lost as the human race, what has spawned violence is being pulled from our natural state, from living in the natural world.

We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?

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What is beautiful about a Malick film is that I might be completely wrong in my outlook on the movie, but that is what it meant to me. And as long as it impacts a person for the better, who is to say what the right interpretation is?

The Thin Red Line is a movie that needs rediscovery. Compared to other war movies, it is made out of headier stuff. It is truly the only art-war film.

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