The Thin Red Line


The jungle covered island is Guadalcanal, the year is 1942. The savage beauty of God’s creation left untouched. Hills covered with tall, sunstruck grass. There are trees everywhere, all sizes and all kinds. There’s the Pacific ocean, and there’s the beautiful skies. Curious animals and colorful birds abound. And then there’s the natives, uncivilized but pure, who live in huts and take it easy. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel, simply fantastic) has grown close to them, who became like a second family to him. Witt’s a contemplative, spiritual man, more preoccupied with searching his soul and trying to find serenity and peace of mind than with his job, which he indeed deserted. But now battleships are approaching, and Witt will have to get back to his commanding officer, Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn, in a superb, finely controlled performance ). Because by the way, this happens to be World War 2, and the Japanese have settled on Guadalcanal. The US army hopes to conquer the island from them; a victory could be a turning point in the war. Witt and Welsh are very different men. Witt tries to find the glory of God in everything, and he believes in another world where things are better. Welsh is kind of troubled and questioning too, but he’s more resigned and tries to get used to the madness that is war. If only he could numb himself and not feel a thing…

By now, you must think that I’ve just summarized the whole plot of the film, but you couldn’t more wrong. This is actually just the five or ten first minutes of the film, which clocks at almost three hours! To write about all the thoughts, all the subtleties and all the wonders that form this picture, it would take dozens of pages. The Thin Red Line is the triumphant return of Terrence Malick, the legendary filmmaker who made two masterpieces in the 70s, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”, and then reclused himself and didn’t make any more film for 20 years. He’s now back, starting from where he left. Malick has a unique style which defies any pigeonholing. His cinema is not about storyline, acts, structure, distinct protagonists or whatever. “The Thin Red Line” is less a film than a mesmerizing impressionist painting. It ain’t about military strategy: war is just the extreme circumstances in which Malick experiments and explores. You could say that the film is about how war is against nature. This is like Man’s fall from grace, as savagery replaces humanity. Malick lifts out the meaning of war to show the horror that it really is. War ends up being just about men who, for no apparent reason, go at each other and kill and die.. It’s fascinating how Malick never stops amazing himself at the sight of the beauty around him. Usually, directors show an establishing shot of the environment, then they focus on the action. But Malick, a born poet, never gives more importance to the characters than to, say, the trees and the birds, as if to show that nature always remains beautiful; it’s indifferent to the war raging.

The film mostly revolves around a battle for a huge hill on which the Japs built a nearly invisible bunker. Countless soldiers are sent up the hill to a certain death because the high graded feel like they must win it over, no matter the casualties. Colonel Tall (interpreted with astonishing intensity by Nick Nolte ) is certainly of that opinion. He waited long to have “his” war, and he won’t waste the opportunity. What’s a few privates death? Tall sees the big picture, the victory. This impressive piece of bravado filmmaking packed with slaughter and despair has nothing to envy to the D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, a much lesser film. Malick’s relentless camera seems to be everywhere at once. Catching the death of barely grown-up soldiers (Nick Stalh and Jared Leto). Watching as a small troop lead by John Cusack give all they’ve got to take over the bunker from Japanese snipers. Or what about Captain Staros (Elias Koteas, a great character actor who reminds of De Niro) refusing the orders of the Colonel because he cares too much about his men to send them to their deaths, or seemingly macho Woody Harrelson, terrified and pitiful after a grenade mishap, or John Savage, losing his sanity and turning into a maniac who thinks he’s invincible, or Ben Chaplin keeping his mind together by thinking of his girlfriend…

The Thin Red Line is as rich a film as you could imagine, filled with unforgettable imagery matched by philosophical interior monologues by the various characters. I would never dare pretend that I understood all of its layers and got all the symbolism, but I do know that this is one of the most brilliant films I’ve ever seen. Both brutal and poetic, it never ceases amazing you. It’s an instant classic, right up there with “Apocalypse Now”.