The Thin Red Line has been called one of the finest contemporary war films ever made, and it’s easy to see why, even if this can be a challenging and perplexing, film to watch. Famed director/hermit Terence Malick came out of a 20-year hiatus to make this story about the Battle of Mount Austen, at the end of the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II, between the United States and Imperial Japan. What he created is one of the most stirring movies about war I have ever seen.
Unlike most war movies, this one doesn’t really focus on the war so much as what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of those who are fighting it. We see endless shots of the splendor of the island environment, and how the war burns, slashes and scars it. There is a haunting and dreamlike quality throughout here as the narrative again and again focuses on what people are thinking and feeling rather than on the immediacy of the fighting itself. Even though this film has a number of well-executed battle scenes, it’s never really about about any of those battles. It’s about these people who happen to be stuck in them. So if you go into this expecting a heroic action movie, forget it. If you’re expecting a mythic take on American history, forget it. This movie is often called “philosophical” and “lyrical,” and I think that’s accurate. The Thin Red Line often feels insufferably artsy—one imagines that in Malick’s imagination, the only people who go to war are doe-eyed poets—but the more I see this movie, the more I cannot take my eyes off of it. There is an intense beauty throughout, somehow running alongside the horror of imminent death, pervasive numbness and confusion.
Featuring a cast of what feels like 10,000 A-list actors who all signed up the moment they heard Malick was making another movie, The Thin Red Line opens with the landing of U.S. Army troops on Guadalcanal to relieve the weary Marines who have been fighting there for the last several months. Most of the American troops entering the battle are new to combat, and they are tasked with making their way along the grassy hills and ridges of the island in the face of withering Japanese fire from heavily fortified positions. As the U.S. troops push up the hills, get pushed back (i.e., die in large numbers), stall, rally, and push again, we focus on individual soldiers, sometimes only for just a few seconds, to get a sense of what it feels like for them to be a part of a thing that none of them are prepared for. In one moment, we see a U.S. soldier shoot a Japanese soldier and he immediately reflects that he just killed a man, the worst thing you can do, and nobody will punish him for it. And that’s it. We move on from there to somebody else’s experience. Few stories have the narrative gumption to bounce from character to character like that, and one could say it’s probably a function of Malick’s idiosyncratic, rambling storytelling style. (which made editing this feature down to a manageable length a Herculean labor). But the result is that we almost feel like an invisible participant rather than an observer, inhabiting soldiers just long enough to get their perspective without getting tied to it.
Eventually, the U.S. reaches the top of the mountain and overruns the last Japanese stronghold there, in an extraordinary battle scene lasting just a few minutes. It begins as U.S. troops wander through the jungle fog trying to find the enemy, and without much warning, suddenly the battle begins. It is all chaos and confusion, turning into a running gunfight as U.S. soldiers race through the Japanese bivouac, with no real battle lines of any kind, just people running, shooting and falling in all directions. Hans Zimmer’s score (“Journey to the Line”) lends a somber, surreal atmosphere to the bloodshed, and what would be a moment of heroic climax in any other movie, becomes one of the saddest spectacles ever put to screen.
The moment of truth within this is a fleeting glimpse we see at one point, of a single Japanese soldier sitting on the ground in prayer meditation while people are fighting all around him. The camera doesn’t even focus on him. He just passes across the corner for maybe two seconds. But it is an image that has burned itself into my head. In the madness and fury of war, he had withdrawn into his deepest self, perhaps to find stillness before he expected to die or perhaps to flee something he can no longer comprehend. One can almost imagine that inside of his head is a Japanese version of the scene’s narration, given by one of the American soldiers reflecting on the war itself. His words, it seems, speak for every soldier on the battlefield, regardless of victory or defeat:
This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?
There are very few heroes or villains in this movie. There are just soldiers whose greatest struggle, apart from staying alive, is to understand why they are asked to do what they do. In the final shots of the movie, as the Americans leave the island—its own pristine beauty marred by the conflict that visited it—we note that many of the soldiers in this story have died in body. Others have died in spirit. None have survived untouched. Nothing in war ever does.