Back in 1998, two notable films about World War II were released within several months of each other. The first was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which grossed almost half a billion dollars in its first six months, and, for its depiction of the U.S. landing in Normandy, won plaudits as the most realistic battle scene ever produced. The second was The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick, his first movie in two decades.
The two films have little in common. Spielberg’s movie is broken into distinct sections. Act One: the heroic securing of the beachhead. Act Two: A mission to locate a missing private whose three brothers have already died. Act Three: a firefight in a village in which the unit’s heroic commander (Tom Hanks) is killed. The movie ends with an image of Private Ryan as an old man, weeping over the grave of the man who saved his life.
Malick’s film, which is nominally about Guadalcanal, the pivotal battle in the war in the Pacific, is the visual equivalent of a tone poem. Time is disjointed. It appears that the film’s central character, Private Witt, played by Jim Caviezel, has deserted and is living among the natives. Edenic images abound. Angelic children swim naked over coral reefs. Witt helps out with tribal tasks, such as basket-making. Sunshine slants through the jungle canopy. In a voice-over, Witt comments, “I asked my mother if she was afraid of dying, and she just shook her head. I wonder how it would be when I died… I just wonder if I can make my death mean something.” When he sees his ship offshore, he hides.
Most war movies can be sorted as anti-war or pro-war, but this is not the case with The Thin Red Line. It is true that the Sean Penn character, a jaded, weary sergeant, remarks of the war, “It’s all just real estate.” And there is a good deal of cynicism among the soldiers, understandable given the circumstances. An ambitious colonel (in a manic performance by Nick Nolte) is more concerned about winning medals and advancement than sparing his men’s lives. In a key scene, Witt refuses to obey orders, which the private correctly understands will lead to unneeded casualties.
The death scenes in the film–and there are many–are also notable, both among the Americans and their Japanese adversaries. You can hear the screams and confusion of the wounded and the dying. One solider vomits, and the Sean Penn character sharply admonishes him. In a convincing cameo role, Woody Harrelson plays a dying soldier who bares his teeth in rage and, to his horror, muses about not being able to “fuck anymore.” (The wound is below the belt.) He dies staring blankly at the sky, in the arms of Witt. A much younger soldier, more a boy than a man, dies in a way that suggests Christian iconography, a beatific glow on his pale face.
Much later, Witt stares down at a dead Japanese soldier and then sees an apparition of the Buddha, posing the question: “Are you righteous and kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that, I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness?”
Good question. The movie also includes a number of flashbacks to Witt with his wife stateside, in foreplay. But these pleasant memories collide with a terrible letter: His wife has fallen in love with someone else, and demands a divorce. Presumably, the news is the final blow to Pvt. Witt’s overburdened psyche. The logic of the movie demands that he will not survive.
An honest war movie is almost impossible without a clear-eyed understanding of the passions that combat releases, and Malick’s film does not flinch from the brutality. The author of the novel on which the movie is based, James Jones, fought in the Guadalcanal campaign, and I suspect that the depiction in Malick’s film of U.S. soldiers’ treatment of malnourished Japanese prisoners is close to the historical truth.
But this is no anti-war movie. The comradeship among the soldiers feels more genuine than in any other film I have seen, including Saving Private Ryan. I regard The Thin Red Line as a work of existential philosophy, depicting complicated quandaries.
There is, of course, a reason that war films (and war literature, going back to antiquity) remain relevant: They depict the imminent threat of death. Most of us benefit from the luxury of time, whether we are conscious of this bounty or not.