“The Thin Red Line” is a war story told with images. There is a difference between that and a movie. It is a bold piece of film-making, especially for a war film, yet it makes all the same statements only without the stereotypes. If the creators of those dumb spoofs made “War Movie,” it would be hard to make fun of this one. It’s not the most engaging of films, but once again, it’s more art through images and narration than a film.
The plot is more like loosely combined narrative threads, a structure akin to a piece of music like a suite or symphony. There are distinct movements but everything is tied together with narrated reflections that repeat throughout. First there’s Pvt. Witt (Caviezel), a soldier who’s gone awol in the South Pacific, living in a kind of paradise on an island until a military ship comes along and he feels obligated to join up. The other story lines are different soldiers in the unit of young men. The island is Guadacanal and it represents a key turning point in the war against the Japanese.
The cast boasts a lot of prominent actors before their prime such as Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly, but a lot of staples such as Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and Nick Nolte as the war-mongering Lt. Col. Tall, whose life devotion to the army clouds his judgment, particularly when he orders Cpt. Staros (Elias Koteas) to lead his men on a sure suicide maneuver — the film’s most “standard” dramatic moment.
The beauty of “Red Line” is not only John Toll’s moving cinematography or some of the most memorable film editing, but also its ability to be a war film despite not acting like one. I love a war film that makes a particular choice about how it portrays “the enemy,” which director Terrence Malick certainly does. For much of the film the Japanese are faceless enemies firing from a far, but as the fighting heats up, suddenly we see them, we recognize their humanity and how war has affected them too. We see the soldiers grow closer and without any extended obligatory booze, cards and cigarettes scene.
Malick’s film does what good poetry or music ought to: It uses its method of consumption as a means of affected people, of getting an emotional response. Sometimes that response is “bored,” especially considering film is not the entertainment media of the patient person, but many times it’s surprisingly effective. The cutaway flashbacks to one of the soldiers with his girlfriend or wife on numerous occasions that are set simply to music and narration are so much better than a dramatic flashback where a scene plays out, so much better at communicating the feeling of longing.
“The Thin Red Line” has some tough competition when it comes to aiming at being one of the best war films ever, but it stands out as different among the pack, which might be the more impressive feat.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Written by Terrence Malick, James Jones (novel)
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas