Thoughts on The Thin Red Line (1998)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival.

After a 20-year hiatus, Terrence Malick came roaring back onto the scene with The Thin Red Line (1998), a transitional film in terms of style between his early, more conventional work and his later, more experimental films. He takes the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal as the basis for musings on all facets of war, battle, and soldiery. I was fortunate to see a digitally restored version on the big screen, and the colors and images were nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Many critics, having yet to experience Malick’s late-style films, such as Knight of Cups (2015), had trouble with the now-signature Malickism of the vague, floating voiceovers. By process of elimination, Roger Ebert calls them the musings of Malick himself. I think a more accurate interpretation might be that it matters not whether actual soldiers had these actual thoughts, for Malick chose this battle, almost at random, to explore the meanings and psychological layers of the entire battlefield milieu, untethered by such mundane concerns as point of view. In fact, some reflections would be impossible without plumbing the psyche of multiple characters. We even get the meditations of a Japanese corpse. The subject matter is a microcosm of life itself, a connection made more explicitly in The Tree of Life (2011).

As such, The Thin Red Line might just be the greatest war film ever made. Critiquing the mythmaking of a film like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), including but rising above the neorealistic violence of Saving Private Ryan (also 1998), and penetrating deeper into the mysteries of war than Apocalypse Now (1979/2001), Malick turns his disinterested yet passionately empathetic gaze toward both the victors and the defeated: The attack on the Japanese mountaintop camp is as harrowing as the frontal assault of the ridge bunker, maybe even more harrowing, for entirely different reasons.

This film was also the first time the world got to see what Malick would do with a big budget—basically, more of the same. I’ve talked about his shooting methods before; here’s a piece that covers his editing methods. Nobody should be surprised that he edits without the soundtrack and only keeps dialogue when he feels it’s essential. More surprising is that he’s a fan of the band Green Day. Wonder what they think of that?

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