1998 // USA // Terrence Malick // April 21, 2011 // Blu-ray - Criterion (2010)
When I first encountered Terrence Malick's haunting film in its theatrical release thirteen years ago, I didn't quite know what to think, but I was certain that I had witnessed an inimitable species of war picture. I had never seen a Malick film before, and was somewhat unprepared for the signature elements of his style: the brooding voice-over narration, the rapturous regard for natural beauty, the curiously reflective and philosophical tone. Released around the same time as Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line perhaps unavoidably prompted comparisons to Spielberg's ode to the Greatest Generation. In 1998, I emerged from Malick's film appreciating it as an admirable and unconventional entry in the genre, if a little too unconventional for my tastes. However, its potent visuals left an unforgettable stamp on my consciousness, exemplified by the underwater shots of Melanesians swimming in painfully blue Pacific waters. With a decade's worth of hindsight and broadened cinematic experience, it's obvious to me now that The Thin Red Line is the superior World War II film of that year, a work of genuine cinematic art compared to Spielberg's reverential but problematic R-rated Veterans Day fairy tale.
Indeed, revisiting The Thin Red Line on the stupendous new Blu-ray from Criterion, I'm prepared to call the film a stone-cold masterpiece. Three years ago, I was confident that Malick's The New World was the obviously finer work, but now I'm not so sure. In telling (loosely) the story of the Guadacanal campaign, and in particular the Battle of Galloping Horse, The Thin Red Line effortlessly blends two seemingly contradictory currents: novelist James Jones' profoundly contemptuous stance towards modern warfare, and the director's own euphoric wonderment at life itself, in all its manifestations. The result is undeniably a towering achievement, a tone poem to the cosmos' twin mysteries of cruelty and splendor.
Malick's The Thin Red Line is unfailingly affecting on its own terms, but Jones' pessimistic ethos lurks like an enormous, slouching beast in the film's long shadows. Criterion's liner notes include an essential 1963 essay by Jones, "Phony War Films," in which he excoriates well-loved works such as The Guns of Navarone, Bataan, and Men in War. Jones dismisses Hollywood's war features for their brainless lack of realism; for their trite plots and stock characters; and for their contemptible romanticization of individual heroism in an age of ruthless, mechanized horror. The essay provides valuable context for Malick's adaptation, offering a glimpse of the caustic antiwar sentiment that underlies the source material and compels the film's bleakest sentiments.
Malick strives for authenticity in his depiction of contemporary warfare, with its unpredictable violence and cold disregard for the enlisted man's humanity, but his perpetually awestruck sensibility permits a more sweeping gaze than does Jones' lacerated cynicism. The Thin Red Line regards the massacre of soldiers by pitiless machine gun fire as but one movement in the symphony of the universe. In Malick's hands, such brutality harmonizes with the silent gliding of a viper through rustling grass, or the feeble struggles of a dying nestling. This approach is not without risks, as pulling back too far from the twentieth century's paramount cruelties can diminish them into mere amoral events to be admired for their own dark beauty. And in truth, one of the film's most strangely lovely sequences is a fogbound assault on a starving Japanese jungle encampment, which John Toll's photography and Hans Zimmer's tremendous score transform into an operatic whirl of surreal horror.
However, a filmmaker as adroit as Malick is attuned to his work's inherent risks. Crucially, he establishes within The Thin Red Line a dialogue between the dour pragmatism of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) and the ecstatic hopefulness of Private Witt (James Caviezel). This dialogue is conveyed both through explicit conversations between the two men--where Penn's bitter edge seems dominant, but can never quite find an opening in Caviezel's agreeable evasions--and also through the film's narrative events and luscious visual language. Neither worldview "wins" this duel, of course. Malick parries each desperate lunge of hope and despair with its complement, resulting in a sweat-soaked poetic melee of mutually annihilating questions and answers. I think it is telling, however, that the film ends with joyous Melanesian chanting and the indelible image of a lone, sprouting coconut in the receding tide. The mere endurance of life amid the worst atrocities humankind can muster, Malick suggests, is itself an argument for the blessed character of existence.