Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
When I first saw The Thin Red Line it must have been on a VHS tape on my family's old 31” CRT television. My parents had taken me to see Saving Private Ryan a few months before and that opening scene was burned into my mind forever since. I remember a friend’s mom saying she refused to take her kids due to the violence, never considering that maybe that’s why they should see the film; to understand the horrors of war, so often missed. It was a film that achieved the amazing feat of remaining apolitical. It’s equally a celebration and caution, exploring sacrifice and bravery, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Similar to 2008 with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Saving Private Ryan had a brother. Although many sources say 1999, The Thin Red Line premiered on Christmas Day, 1998. I recall being a twelve or thirteen year old as the nonlinear narrative began, with scores playing throughout scenes that were cutting back to flashbacks and giving us random exchanges between soldiers, who often never returned to the story. I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it.
I’m not sure when I returned to the movie, but like all my favorite films (ex-Jaws), what began as a misunderstanding evolved into a deep love affair. Bit by bit I began to understand what Malick was doing. The older I became and the more I read and learned the more I was beginning to understand what the film was trying to explore. As in any Malick film, there’s no one idea or theme. Rather it’s a symphony of meditations, allowing the viewer to take and reflect upon whichever moment strikes them hardest.
I believe it was the third or fourth viewing that I realized that I was watching one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. As the men work their way through the weeds, which expand like water across the steep hills, with the wind and sun swooping across the grass. Similar to the alligator in the film’s opening scene, which drops beneath the water, waiting to strike, the men sink below the grass, hardly seen, inching forward. It’s after the first shots break out that some of the most intense action of any war film takes place. I recall watching it during this third or fourth time and feeling fear, imagining being in the soldier’s situation, not sure where the enemy is, forever nervous that they’ll be called to lead the way, knowing they’re essentially bait for the men in the rear. By the fourth or fifth time I watched it this effect wore down a bit. It was though I was recalling the feeling rather getting the feeling; the sad sign that a movie’s power to transport you was fading as you realize there’s nothing more you can do. I believe I was in college when I first noticed the movie’s brilliance. Since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to see the film in theaters and have Zimmer’s score, Toll’s camera, and Malick’s direction transport me as I was meant to be transported. It’s films like these that make you understand the need for movie theaters, as it’s not so much that you can’t experience the same effect at home, so much as you wouldn’t be able to - there’d be a wife or kid, or you’re in an apartment, or you can’t get the room dark enough. The Thin Red Line demands a black room with amazing sound. After ten years of waiting, I finally got to experience this and it was one of the finest moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Nick Nolte plays one of my new favorite characters of all time, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, who has found the politics of military promotion frustrating. His immediate superior is Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), who for a moment is a friend and then backhandedly compliments Tall for refusing to enter into the politics toward becoming a general. Without having to dive into the details, we get a taste of the military where, similar to civilian life, there is no escaping the ruthless tenacity in being so close to that first star. We want to think of Generals as beyond politics, and yet some are ruthless in the pursuit. It’s easy to miss the scene’s details as you’re so enamored with the beauty and voice over. Malick provides us with a man who is putting on an act as a deferential second to Quintard, proactive in lighting the man’s cigarette, even after having his leadership questioned. When the movie ends you recall Tall’s shouting commands, with every iota of energy, his neck veins popping, sweat pouring out of his head. Contrary to his introduction, we see a man that is willing to expend any man to achieve his mission. Later, we discover that he felt overlooked; that victory on this mission could finally get him the star he coveted. We see that contrary to the other soldiers he’s a man that seems to have no empathy or concern for his men. Fortunately, his Platoon Leader Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) eventually refuses to follow his orders, knowing that to keep on pushing will come at great expense to the men he has trained and cared for, each realizing the vast unlikelihood that they’ll make it out alive. Quintard is speechless, and yet Nick Nolte is such a master, able to communicate supreme frustration and empathy, while also knowing that he can’t show too much of the latter, returning again to the act as leader. More simply, we get to watch Nolte create a character that acts as a leader, all while overwhelmed by the terrors around him. In one of the most revealing moments, after the film’s most powerful scene, we see Quintard break down, with the reality finally catching up to him, though only for a moment.
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