What I understood best from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was not a narrative idea about WWII soldiers at Guadalcanal, though that is the film’s story. What was most present in my mind after seeing this film was an idea about nature, beauty, death and how war destroys all of those sacred things.
Putting this film next to Saving Private Ryan is night and day. While SPR brings out patriotic ideas of duty, sacrifice and living on for the future, The Thin Red Line is like Ryan’s poetic cousin who got drafted and shipped out toward the Pacific and spaces out in the jungle. I like this kid, but I doubt he can make it home.
Rather than the color being drained away like in SPR, The Thin Red Line embraces it. Many times we look away from the soldiers just to see some tropical birds, a beautiful lizard or the sun beaming through the tree tops. I was reminded that this natural world is a bigger than these tiny men and their war that only destroys. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film does not involve any of the men, many of whom we see die horribly, but a suffering baby bird with a broken wing. Am I alone or wrong to find that withering little bird covered in gunpowder the most poignant image in the film?
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t as attached to the soldiers in the film. One major problem I had was keeping each man in line with his voice-over. On the outside, each of these men is basically a plain soldier, like we opened up a pack of those plastic army men from the dollar store and distinguished them by rank and what actor they best resemble. Each of them have a disembodied voice, some of them accompanied by visual memories, and all of them more heartfelt and poetic than we assume these pack of soldiers to be. However, remembering which guy on the battlefield has the wife and which thinks about the kids swimming kept me confused and at a distance. I may be alone with this problem, but I doubt it.
With these explosive war battles set in such naturally beautiful places, things feel very surreal. The scenes in the tall grass are especially mind-warping. One moment we are to marvel at these beautiful hills of tall waving grass that change to a golden color when the sunlight pours over, and the next moment bombs are going off. Dust, smoke and bodies fly into the air and all we can do is flee through that majestic grass. Then there is one shot where blood is thrown on a single blade. I could not tell you which men died in that battle, but that grass was the star.
That’s just how the whole film feels, like you’re on a drug where the people around you are only flimsy figures, but you really focus on the little details of your surroundings and you ponder the big unanswerable questions in the universe: “Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature?”
Whoa man, are we talking about death being the big natural power that man cannot conquer? But how natural is death in war? It’s certainly less peaceful. Is it less beautiful? Meaningful? Is it possible to bring the natural order and beauty to death in battle? Can we give these gruesome war-zones some dignity? Maybe all it takes is holding a dying man and noticing the lovely atmosphere, the sunlight through the trees. I don’t know, it’s hard to do, and to explain, but The Thin Red Line is trying and making my mind ponder some wonderful ideas.
“What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring?”