“What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness? If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this world. Just this rock.” - Sergeant Welsh
The Thin Red Line is an infuriating movie to watch, alternating between flashes of brilliance and stretches of boredom. It’s either the most boring brilliant film or most brilliant boring film ever made. When it’s good, it’s boiling your eyes in their sockets with vivid imagery and the horrific nature of man, tasering your brain with a transcendental/nihilist debate on the meaning of life and death. When it’s bad, it meanders like a stoned unicyclist, weaving back and forth in no particular direction, all motion and no progress. When the good and the bad are woven together, they don’t form the typical gestalt of mediocrity, but something unsettling to the viewer. It makes you suspect that you’re just not smart enough to understand why all of the film is brilliant.
Terrence Malick has made only four feature length films in the last 36 years, making The Thin Red Line after a twenty-year hiatus from directing. The film spent almost a decade in production overall, generated an original cut that was five hours long and required thirteen months of post-production before finally making it into theaters. Released a few months after Saving Private Ryan, the film can’t avoid comparison. I remember at the time there being profound disappointment in the theater full of people thinking that they were seeing Saving Private Ryan: Pacific Boogaloo and realizing around the third time that the camera lingered for thirty seconds on a bird that they weren’t in Normandy anymore.
The film is set in Guadalcanal, in the midst of some of the most brutal fighting of the Pacific Theater of World War II, and follows the C Company along on its invasion of the Japanese-held island. The camera seems to follow characters for a while, then drops them when it finds someone or something more interesting to focus on. The actors nail their roles, each and every one, but it’s difficult to get a sense of the characters as they drift in and out of the loose narrative. The legend of Malick managed to populate the film with a spectacular ensemble of actors, many of whom (Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, amongst others) were completely cut from the final film. Adrien Brody saw his extensive role cut to two lines in editing; George Clooney pops in for a couple of minutes at the end.
The cinematography is stunning, creating a landscape that takes on as much character as any of the actors. The land is beautiful, a lush explosion of green, a paradise overflowing with life. It stands in contrast to the men stalking the jungles like packs of harried tigers, dirty and foul and carrying all the violence of civilization with them. This is not a film that could be set on dreary French beaches of pounding gray surf and forbidding cliffs. It constructs an Eden as the stage for its particular hell.
The film resonates with a struggle for meaning in the face of an oppressive and terrifying nihilism. There’s just this world, Sergeant Walsh says, this hell we’re born into that’s so wretched and violent that even God couldn’t make it out alive. We destroy everything we touch, including each other. But even as that darkness threatens to overwhelm the entire film, sparks of hope glimmer, in muted greys rather than with Spielbergian gloss. A man rocking and sobbing in the rain for the horrors that he committed, stolen teeth tumbling from his fingers. And in the end, the unwilling soldier caught like an animal, raising his rifle to draw the shot, to die with honor, the sound of his death warning his comrades of the danger. There’s a maturity to the philosophy, touching here and there on complexities without easy answers, not refuting nihilism, but embracing it to show that it doesn’t quite mean what it seems to at face value. If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.
Yet for all that, the film is interminable for long stretches. It lingers, it wanders, it has no real narrative center. It’s like that guy in the coffee shop near the university, the one who just knows that he’s the smartest thing since Einstein’s sliced bread, and feels a need to prove it constantly and vocally in order to justify why it’s been twenty years since he dropped out to write the novel he never finished. You know the guy, right? And just as you’re about to open up the can of mockery, he says something so profound it stops your sarcasm half way up your throat. It’s fucking infuriating, that glimpse of unfulfilled potential suffocated by an ego obsessed with the way the world misunderstands it. Real artists ship, the Mac messiah once said, but some get lost along the way and climb so far up their own arse that they taste every meal twice. The Thin Red Line is a manifesto of failed art: genius made apparent even as it spoils its own efforts.
“One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” - Private Witt
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.