After a second viewing, I've decided that the easiest way to describe Terrence Malick's 1998 film The Thin Red Line is that it's an anti-war movie. In focussing directly on the frontlines of the Guadalcanal campaign of WWII, Malick leaves little room for moments of valour and heroism on the battlefield, much less gesticulating speeches about them. Whether out of a sense duty or fear, American Army personnel charge uphill through the thick grass as fortified Japanese soldiers rain down on them with machinegun fire and artillery rounds, some missing by mere inches, many others felling man after man. A seething undercurrent of contempt develops for the chain of command that too often mistakes mercy for honour and futility for sacrifice. He's not breaking any new ground here but Malick's vision of battle in the Pacific theatre is uncompromisingly grim and makes no attempt to justify the violence, giving only the barest of context as to why the Americans and Japanese were fighting in the first place.
It's fitting the film was released only 6 months after Spielberg's more widely recognized Saving Private Ryan because unlike most counter-programming (Deep Impact vs. Armageddon, Dante's Peak vs. Volcano), comparing the two films highlights their starkly differing takes on the war genre. Whereas Saving Private Ryan had a small but well defined group of soldiers on a clear mission, The Thin Red Line's characters are as numerous as they are thinly-sketched. Just looking at a poster will give you an idea of the quantity of big name actors Malick attracted to the project, with even more being completely excised from the first cut's 6 hour length. But beyond a rank and a last name, few of the characters seem like actual, well, characters. It's understandable since much of the cast is first introduced mid-combat and what few meatier parts exist, such as Nick Nolte as the glory-hungry Lt. Colonel leading the attack, stand out because of actual dialogue as opposed to the tactical shouting of the battlefield.
In terms of plotting, Saving Private Ryan falls more in line with traditional war films, sandwiching character building between more action-oriented and emotional first and third acts. The Nazis were clearly defined enemies and the path of destruction the protagonists followed as they went deeper and deeper into Europe reinforced the notion that their cause was just. The Thin Red Line meanwhile opens with the peaceful idyll of a tribe in New Guinea, filled with a rich cinematography and score that's all-but contrarian to Spielberg's D-Day landing sequence. It takes a solid hour before any shots are fired, followed by an hour of unrelenting battle in a cycle that repeats itself a couple times before the film ends. The mismatch between the Pacific's beauty and the frenzy of combat serves as a poignant contrast, initially, but although Malick's battle sequences are impeccably staged, desensitization becomes a serious factor given the film's sprawling 170 minute length. It's hard to identify or even root for the soldiers given their lack of development and without providing greater purpose as to why taking Guadalcanal was so important, the countless deaths on both sides lack the catharsis of knowing that this had to happen for the greater good.
Saving Private Ryan plays safely within the tropes of the genre which is probably why it's the more well remembered of the two pictures, yet although The Thin Red Line lacks many of the features found in previous great war epics, that's sort of the point. The Thin Red Line isn't just anti-war, it's the anti-war-movie. Over the course of his twenty year hiatus from filmmaking, it's clear that Malick has been doing some heavy thinking. Whereas the most revered of war dramas pry at the lingering feelings left over from wars of the past, Malick's scope goes beyond any single conflict, or at least, any physical ones. It doesn't take long, but once the viewer realizes that Malick has crafted an existential wrestling match disguised as a war epic, TheThin Red Line reveals itself as a contemplative and introspective meditation on the meaning of life and war. What the film may lack in character and narrative focus, it tries damn hard to make up for in ambition. Nature, love, and spirituality are among the heady topics broached via cryptic (and frequent) narration from the various soldiers, and when it's in step with John Toll's striking cinematography, the film gains an almost poetic flow. By sacrificing specificity for scope, the choice of character quantity over quality gives a notion of universalism to the film's themes, so it doesn't really matter that most of the soldiers are indistinguishable from one another and the absence of a clear dichotomy separating the "good guy" Americans from the "bad guy" Japanese sets up some of the film's more thought-provoking moments.
To a point, The Thin Red Line's focus on thematic depth instead of story can be entrancing, but due to his lofty aspirations, Malick's riddles understandably offer little in the way of answers, and given the film's exhaustive length, it eventually becomes easy to tune out. The narration often walks a fine line between enlightening and rambling and the existential overload can make it easy to grow apathetic towards entire themes of the film. The flashbacks of a lovelorn GI are more darkly funny than they are insightful and it can be jarring to listen to the high-brow philosophizing creep into the character dialogue.
Would it have been better cut down to a leaner 2 hours? Maybe, but if this is only half the movie that was originally assembled, I'm inclined to think that perhaps reworking it into a miniseries would have yielded better results. It's doubtful we'll ever see the full story that Malick wanted to tell and I've spent a great deal of this review talking about what the film isn't because it so deftly defies expectation. While by no means a re-invention of the genre, The Thin Red Line brings an unprecedented thoughtfulness to the already bursting catalogue of WWII films, and though it's ultimately a victim of its own ambitions, the sheer audacity of Malick's vision makes this a war movie unlike any other.