I love Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line so much. It’s one of the best World War II films, and considering how deep that genre is, that’s saying something.* This is probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve seen it. I remember the first time. It came out a few months after Saving Private Ryan. Everyone thought it would be the Pacific Theater version of that. But unlike Spielberg, who combined 2 great battle scenes with 2 hours of utter schlock, Malick made a brilliant film that transcends James Jones’ source material into a beautiful mediation on life and death and honor. Of course, when I saw it in the theater, all the meatheads who wanted to see tons of blood were bored silly by the meditative parts. Toward the end, one started even shining a little pocket laser light at the screen. That was great.
Of course, it’s a far better film that Saving Private Ryan. Malick’s reinterpretation of a story of how soldiers deal with the likely fate of death in war (specifically Guadalcanal in 1942) melds nearly perfectly with his vision of people as part of a beautiful natural world, alienated from that world through the difficulties of being a human. As always, the cinematography is gorgeous, but the story flows well too. For all the meathead dislike of this movie, the battle scenes are also brutally real, nearly as intense as Saving Private Ryan. Except that whereas Spielberg’s goal was to honor the sacrifices of his father’s generation in a time of national worry over the loss of the World War II generation, Malick wanted to show how even in the thick of battle, human concerns, kindness, and ambition are at play. Elias Koteas’ refusal to risk the lives of his troops, Woody Harrelson’s sacrifice (and then that of Jim Caviezel later), Nick Nolte’s frustrated ambition and desperation for a promotion that also was useful for winning the battle but that’s barely the point, all of this makes human beings the center of a great war film.
Sure there are some problems. Too many big star cameos, though I imagine it was easier to fund this by saying Clooney and Travolta were in it, even though Nolte and Penn had major parts. Many of the actors look fairly similar, lot of square-jawed dark haired young men, so at times it’s a bit confusing which voice-over belongs to which person. Evidently, the original cut of this film was 6 hours. While I’m awful curious to see what was cut out, I imagine it’s for the best, especially given the extreme self-indulgence of later Malick films.
In any case, the brilliance of this film makes up for its small problems.
* Worth noting how many great WWII films there are compared to the striking lack of great World War II novels.