Terry Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) is a war film about the battle for Guadalcanal. War films, whether they focus on a battle, a war, or a patrol that is a minor piece of a war, have a beginning, middle, and end. The end or resolution addresses whether the main character survived or did not. The tone of such films usually varies, ranging from patriotic films such as Guadalcanal Diary (1942) to the antiwar polemic of films such as Too Late the Hero (1970), a Pacific war film made while the United States was fighting the war in Vietnam. Forty-five years after the event, Malick's film is quite different from either of these extremes. In addition, rather than having a beginning, middle, and end, it is nonlinear in its presentation.
The film's nonlinearity is defined by its conscious attempt to sidestep linear structure. If the film were linear it would follow a land-on-the-island, battle-for-the-island, and win-the-island structure. Instead, Malick opens the film on a soldier, Private Witt, who has gone AWOL to another Pacific island. There he and a few army friends collude with the natives. They try to be part of the native community as opposed to that of the U.S. soldiers. When they are taken by U.S. Forces, we have no idea how much time passes before they are shipped to Guadalcanal. Certainly this soldier's outfit is shipped to Guadalcanal for the upcoming conflict. His sergeant, Ed Welsh, reluctantly takes him back into the company. From here the narrative progresses not on a time line but rather through a series of incidents: the landing; the first encounter with the enemy; the struggle to take an enemy bunker high atop the American position; the departure from the battlefield; the capture of a native village occupied by the Japanese; a patrol on which Private Witt sacrifices his life to save his patrol. But these incidents focus on the inner thoughts of a variety of soldiers in the company as well as their behavior. It's as if these inner thoughts create the private world of these characters. Rather than deal with the battle and the camaraderie that battle forges, their inner thoughts fragment the sense that the company is a unit. Instead it becomes a collection of individuals with distinct and differing goals.
Colonel Gordon Tall, who commands the company, is concerned only with the injustice of having commanding officers who are younger than he. For him the battle is an opportunity to secure the promotion that for too long has eluded him. Captain Staros, who answers to the colonel, is totally different. He is consumed by guilt and responsibility toward his men and their well-being. Captain Gaff, who is also responsible to the colonel is not racked by anything but doing the job that needs to be done. He is brave to the point of foolhardiness. Moving down the chain of command, Sergeant Welsh, who works most directly with the soldiers of the company, is survivalist and cynical. He has been disappointed in his superiors and consequently works to help his men deal with the threat of the enemy as well as the threat of the chain of command. Above all he wants to live, and he wants to help his men live.
The film focuses on three privates in the company, Private Witt, whom we meet at the opening of the narrative and who dies at its close. Witt is concerned about his place in the world. He feels he belongs in the outfit and has a responsibility to his fellow soldiers, as well as to his family at home and to the natives he meets on the Islands. This is a man looking to define his place in the universe. Another soldier, Corporal Fife, has a narrower field of focus: he looks beyond himself only to look at death in the universe. He is fearful and obsessed by the meaning of death. Yet another, Private Jack Bell, thinks only about home, specifically about his wife. He yearns for her, reveling in memories of his recent marriage, bathed in the recollection of the aliveness of her sexuality. Unfortunately, his feelings are not shared by his wife. Late in the narrative he receives a letter from her; she writes that she is leaving him for another man, an available States-side man.
Each man acts as a narrator, giving voice to his inner thoughts. The multiple points of view push the experience of the film as a nonlinear discontinuous experience. Together with an episodic structure, The Thin Red Line in fact becomes an impressionistic tone poem rather than a polemic putting forward a particular position on a particular battle in a particular war.
In order to give the film shape Malick poses a series of relationships, keying in on those relationships to break down the geography and the chronological progress of a significant World War II battle. Private Witt in the company relates to humanity in general, as we have seen. He relates to the native islanders as he does to his own comrades; he relates to them as people, as a part of humanity rather than as the enemy separated out of humanity. He even relates to the enemy, who in the end will kill him. Private Bell, on the other hand, relates more to the home front than he does to his comrades or to his presence on the island. American soldiers are not the only relationships Malick explores. Enemy soldiers when captured express the pain, the unbearable pain of losing their comrades. This particular scene humanizes the enemy just as the later death scene of Private Witt humanizes Witt as well as the enemy. Throughout the narrative Malick humanizes and individualizes so that the soldiers become individuals and people rather than soldiers. Each of the relationships portrayed mitigates against the solidarity of viewing the company of man as a war machine. Malick views the enemy, the U.S. soldiers, and the natives as individuals, as human beings. But humans are nothing more than part of the natural order, a part of the natural world. Consequently, his film nature, whether it be birds or bats or overgrown fields and outsized trees, plays an omnipresent role, as if to say that nature will endure, whatever man does to his fellow man. This is the voice of Terrence Malick. Relationships are the vehicle for this meditation. The war story is the genre he has used to explore these ideas about man and nature.
Voice can be genre specific, but many filmmakers challenge genre expectations in order to strengthen their voices. The Coen brothers, for instance, use satire to undermine the expected realism of the police story in Fargo (1996). Martin Scorsese uses a dark hyper-realism to undermine the heroism of the sports film in Raging Bull (1980). War films tend to realism, although Agnieszka Holland has used satire to make Europa Europa (1990), a child's nightmare come true. In Come and See (1985), Elem Klimov also takes the point of view of an adolescent's experience of war, but he creates a more intense nightmare. Terry Malick sees war differently, more philosophically. The tone he chooses for The Thin Red Line is poetic, stirring, and yet never nationalistic or patriotic. Malick is interested in questions of life and death, questions of friendship and of love. He is also concerned with man's place in the natural world. Consequently he doesn't see the battle for Guadalcanal in political, military, or economic terms. The result is an unhurried meditation on human behavior as well as of human behavior during unnatural events such as war. If there is antagonism here, it is also philosophical—what is death? What is life? What does it mean to help another or to empathize with another? These questions consume the narrative, influence behavior, and generally drive the shape of the narrative. This is a war film, but Malick had made it the most unusual of war films—a meditation rather than a melodrama. This is Malick's unique voice in The Thin Red Line.
Malick has supported that voice by changing the balance between plot and character layers in The Thin Red Line. For the most part the war film is a genre dominated by plot. The patrol to find Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan (1997), the attack on the Ant Hill and its aftermath in Paths of Glory (1957), the attempted escape through the sewers of Warsaw in Kanal (1957), are all plot-driven narratives. That is not to say that the character layer isn't important in the war film, as it is in all the above-mentioned films. But plot dominates the war film. The Thin Red Line is an exception. Malick raises the character layer of all characters thereby downgrading the importance of plot. How this works is that the plot of the attack on the bunker, for example, is undermined by the elevation of the relationship stories of the Captain Staros and the Colonel Tall. The colonel will sacrifice any relationship to advance his ambition. His unwillingness to provide water for the company attacking the bunker supports his lack of care for others. The captain on the other hand, refuses to send his men into battle. He cares too much. In both of these cases, the scenes highlight the nature of each character, as opposed to the progress of the battle.
A similar result is created in the attack on the village on Guadalcanal. Rather than detailing the progress of the attack, Malick focuses on the feelings of the captives, the Japanese, their pain, their sense of loss with regard to dead comrades, their fear about their own fates. Instead of demonizing the enemy, Malick humanizes the enemy, thereby undermining the sense of victory for the main characters. This upgrade of character layer and downgrade of plot undermines genre expectations and accentuates Malick's voice.
Besides changing the balance between the plot and character layers, Malick uses narrative detail that pushes voice forward is his emphasis on two extreme states: living and dying. Particular sequences engender both phenomena. Movement through the tall grass convey the awareness that in one instant you are totally alive but in the next instant you could be dead. Living soldiers came upon the dead, or at least parts of the dead. The sequence of moving through the fog has a similar feeling—a heightened sense of the danger that brings death. During the battle for the bunker, Sergeant Keck falls on a grenade that accidentally explodes. Malick lingers over his dying. So too the death of Private Witt, who dies to save his patrol. But here Malick moves away from the moment of death to the elements of life dear to him: nature, the island natives, and animal life. These elements live on while he dies.
In this latter scene we see a recurring theme for Malick—the natural order. Although there are war films that embrace technology, such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Malick's narrative seems the opposite. It is environmental in its concerns rather than nationalistic or technological. It should come as no surprise that he ends the film with three shots of nature rather than of characters or machines.
Malick also uses narration to give voice to his philosophical concerns. "Who's killing us, robbing us of life and light?" "Is this darkness in you too?"
"You are like my sons. My dear sons. I'll carry you around wherever I go." "War turns men into dogs. It poisons the soul." These words are spoken by a variety of characters who probe for meaning. They are both personal and poetic. These are the deep issues that Malick associates with war.
Malick's nonlinear approach to the narrative means giving up the natural strengths that plot and a main character yield: involvement. To do so means finding other means to energize the experience of the narrative. What alternative technologies does Malick use to energize the narrative? The first strategy Malick uses is to provide contrast between sequences. As mentioned earlier the sequences are not organized in a progressive or linear fashion. Although they generally follow the time line of an invasion, neither the proportion of film time spent on each sequence nor the narrative approach to those sequences, builds progressively to a climax. Indeed, the focus in the scenes will vary from pain and loss among the enemy in the taking of the village to the opposite goals of a captain and a colonel as they face the challenge of capturing a hill dominated by an enemy bunker. The contrast at times is so great that the viewer is faced always with the unexpected.
More conventionally but no less effectively, Malick relies on the moving camera, particularly in the military movement through the fog, the advance through the overgrown fields, and the attack on the bunker as well as the village. Subjective movement places us with the soldier Corporal Fife as he advances. The anticipation and the anxiety are captured by the moving camera. As much as possible the pace of the movement simulates human movement, resulting in an identification with the feeling level of the soldier in each case.
Malick also relies on close-ups to intensify the emotion and the energy in particular scenes. Sergeant Welsh talking to his men, whether it is about belonging to the company or carrying morphine to a dying man on the battlefield, is presented in close-up. So too is Private Bell, who is obsessed with his wife at home. When the flashbacks occur they contain movement as well as off-center framing, as if the soldier struggles to contain the memory and also to possess the sexuality, the life force, he associates with his wife. Close-ups intensify his desire to hold on to those memories and to that desire.
Finally, Malick uses cutaways to remind us that there is a world beyond the battlefield—a world with families and with children, and a world where nature not only exists but where it prevails. Again and again Malick cuts away to images of that natural world, the context for his soldiers' story.
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