The Thin Red Line (Spine #536) is a 1998 ensemble war film directed by Terrence Malick and based on James Jones’ 1962 novel of the same name. Malick has two other films in the Criterion canon: Badlands (Spine #651) and Days of Heaven (Spine #409).
World War II is a veritable fountain from which filmmakers have been drawing ideas since the war itself actually happened. Whether it be The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan, or Inglorious Basterds, it seems that artists never grow tired of the grand narrative of the Axis versus the Allies. However, Malick’s The Thin Red Line is one of the very first films to cover the story of America’s involvement at Guadalcanal, particularly, the Battle of Mount Austen. Here, Malick follows a group of soldiers as they prepare for a near impossible battle with the Japanese at Mount Austen.
Malick has never been one to follow conventional tropes. Despite working with such oft-trodden ground as the war genre, he makes the material feel as fresh and different as ever. The Americans are the main characters here, but that does not mean they are portrayed as heroic and flawless, like flat white hat cowboys of old B-westerns. Every character here is deeply frightened and Malick understands this better than few filmmakers before him ever could. He dips into each soldier’s point of view and shows the audience that no one here was really sure of themselves. The Lieutenant with the long and storied career (played by a very gruff Nick Nolte), the man who is supposed to be leading everyone, is deteriorating from the inside. He quotes from the classics, putting on a false air of sophistication and knowing. It is all theatre. In Malick’s films there often seems to be a struggle with some outside force, both divine and natural. For example, the plague of locusts in Days of Heaven or nature itself in The Tree of Life. The soldiers, American and Japanese, somehow seem almost fatally locked into battle, despite how they feel inside. As if drawn by some magnetic force of history, they engage in the bloodshed, no one wanting it, yet, everyone taking part. The island on which they fight seems a character on its own, itself a victim of the horrid war. Alligators are killed by the soldiers and the beauty of Earth is seemingly ripped apart. Yet the final shot shows nature at peace. The waters flow and the beaches return to their initial state of Eden-esque perfect. The Earth has healed from the violence. Humanity, though, is another matter.
The extras on the Criterion Blu-Ray edition are somewhat what one would expect for this type of film. It comes with some very telling extra scenes cut out of the final theatrical product that are worth a watch. It also has an audio commentary (unfortunately, Malick is nowhere to be heard on this) and some decent interviews with the cast and crew. The supplements as a whole are okay, but it is the fantastic restored digital transfer, overseen by Malick himself, that makes this really worth purchasing.
The Thin Red Line is an excellent war film, both harrowing and beautiful, that poses intense philosophical questions while probing the human consciousness in the face of abject suffering and terror, and undeniably essential viewing.
Film Grade: A+
Criterion Grade: B+