It would be easy - and glib - to stake a claim over which of 1998’s big World War II movies is “better,” Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, but the truth is that as moviegoers and (presumably) people with some modicum of respect for the sacrifice of our service men and women, we need both of them. Steven Spielberg’s film offers as unflinching a depiction of the conditions of battle - much less from a very real one - as audiences have ever seen, while Terrence Malick’s film is lyrical, uncommonly philosophical, and ultimately morally outraged at both the loss of life and the ongoing practice of violence that the filmmaker believes undermines glory and “poisons the soul.” But even if Spielberg’s film provides a more clear-eyed and sentimental tribute to military heroism, Malick’s portrayal of WWII may be the one we more badly need right now, given a depiction of events that highlights the inhumanity, and eventual futility of war itself, at a time in history where conflict persists - and intensifies - across the globe while the stakes of victory and defeat become less and less clear, except in the mounting numbers of lives lost.
Contemplative perhaps to a fault, Malick’s film resonates even more strongly today than it did 20 years ago when it was first released. It shares in common with James Jones’ other famous film adaptation, From Here to Eternity, a persistent ambivalence about the routine and responsibility of military discipline and preparation to and for those who are sent into unimaginably dangerous conditions facing death or debilitating injury in order to accomplish dubious goals and to serve leaders whose aims are often more craven or egocentric than principled. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) survives these horrors only by accepting the impermanence of life and choosing to marvel at the beauty of the natural world. Other soldiers bargain, deny, or steel themselves for violence, trying to protect not just their bodies but their hearts from the devastating losses that they are forced to witness and sometimes participate in. Meanwhile their superiors, like Colonel Tall (Nolte) dream of glory, ignore the horrifying realities they order their men to face, and rationalize the choices even they aren’t convinced are the right ones.
The conflict in the film is based upon a real one from WWII - the Guadalcanal campaign - but it also serves largely as a backdrop for Malick’s ideas about the relationship between nature, humanity and war’s all-consuming, destructive power. Its characters all operate on the same spectrum - believing what they need to in order to prevail, or maybe just survive each new ordeal they face - and some are more honest with themselves than others. Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welsh repeatedly challenges what he perceives to be Witt’s disobedience and obstinacy, but he clearly admires it, and his questions seem to search for the answers that will hopefully unlock his own sense of inner peace, buried beneath a no-nonsense veneer. Private Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin) builds his emotional well-being around the security blanket of his marriage to his wife Marty (Miranda Otto), but it also makes him more vulnerable - he fears leaving her before he’s ready. Bell eventually faces that reality in a different way than expected, and the loss somewhat ironically makes him a more centered and confident soldier.
Private Doll (Dash Mihok) is thrilled to earn his first kill - a shot fired at a target too far in the distance to see his adversary’s face - but soon finds himself confronted all too vividly with the bloody and dehumanizing realities of gunfire when he volunteers for a deadly mission to take out Japanese bunkers that have pinned down and decimated his company. Similarly, Sergeant Jack McCron (John Savage) rallies the men around him to race into the fray, growling and screaming, but loses all sense of motivation after the first firefight kills all twelve of the soldiers under his command. Meanwhile, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) occupies a sort of remarkable and unique place in the pantheon of cinema’s military leaders, a middle manager of sorts caught between his unrealistic and volatile commanding officer Tall and the young recruits whose lives he recognizes are not fodder for some fleeting victory but a responsibility he does not take lightly.
That he not only questions but eventually refuses Tall’s orders creates kind of an unprecedented portrait because he is so responsible with his actions, accepting the repercussions if it means his men aren’t sent off against insurmountable odds; but the fact that after being relieved of his command, he seems grateful to go home, gives him a singular moral code that speaks less to a boilerplate sense of duty to one’s fellow soldiers than the simple recognition of one’s own human needs - first professionally, and then later, personally.
Despite the storied process of whittling down this star-studded film to a manageable length, resulting in much of the dialogue being excised and major characters being reduced to mere cameos, Malick guides his ensemble through unilaterally powerful performances. He seems to have insisted that the actors always look one another in the face, whether they’re talking or not, which makes their exchanges so riveting, getting at how these people truly feel. Koteas’ sensitive, questioning looks stand in stark relief with Nolte’s bombastic gruffness, for example; though Staros communicates uncertainty about the company’s path and Tall insists he knows it’s right, what lies behind both of their eyes heartbreakingly suggests the opposite. Of course, it’s also a hierarchy where direct questioning of orders is considered insubordinate, but there are so many incredible moments where one character’s thoughts or opinions are met with another’s stony silence and it says more about both - and what is really at stake - than reams of dialogue ever could.
For a filmmaker who hadn’t “directed” in 20 years, Malick seemed surer than ever what he wanted to communicate, even if his approach was infamously diffuse, causing rifts with producers and eventually presenting his editors with more than a million feet of film to get into shape. Now that it’s been another 20, and Malick has made enough follow-ups to suitably demystify his own body of work, this film feels like a high-water mark for both his idiosyncratic process and an end result that works both viscerally and thematically. Because in the film, as in actual war, each victory gives way to a different defeat - if not one that’s physical then emotional or spiritual, as these men wrestle with their own humanity, eroded and eradicated by witnessing and participating in acts of violence. And no matter what geographic borders are crossed or changed, who “wins” and who “loses,” or how well they can understand each other’s language, orders or intentions, the opponents share one common, self-perpetuating language - death.
Ultimately, and in a genre that’s famously bombastic - a living, vivid, detailed account of man’s aptitude for both adversity and perseverance - The Thin Red Line remains a breathtakingly beautiful, meditative and mesmerizingly formless account of pain inflicted, and in a few lucky instances, survived. Decades later, its power lies - and resonates with ever greater strength - in acknowledging the simple, bitter and inescapable truth that no matter what the conflict or who the players are, the only thing that prevails in war is conflict itself.