Some people can start conversations with “I rewatched Titanic last night …”
I am not one of those people. When I’ve watched a film, I’m done with it and on to the next thing. If it was any good, I’ll be able to talk about it adequately for the rest of my life.
Among my keepsakes, you’re more likely to find my 1990 ticket stub from seeing Dances With Wolves with my grandmother than the DVD, though I did once own it on VHS. The Thin Red Line, however, I now own in three formats.
I need to sit down with this film every so often to reset myself. I’ve watched it perhaps ten times in two decades. Why? Well, here goes.
This movie asks some eternal questions about our existence – and hints at some answers – that I can only ever grasp, never really hold onto. It’s like somebody wrote them down for me, Memento-style, to check when I need some guidance. Director Terrence Malick has always examined the human condition while telling stories, and in this movie, he makes progress.
Perhaps it’s because he took such a long run-up. The already-famous Malick disappeared from public view for two decades before making The Thin Red Line. In 1978 he had released Days of Heaven (which I also love), winning the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, along with Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.
Then he kind of dropped out, moving to Paris and writing screenplays, but directing nothing more until The Thin Red Line in 1998. It scored him another seven Oscar nominations.
Based on the novel of the same name by James Jones, The Thin Red Line is set during the Guadalcanal campaign of the Second World War, in which Jones took part. “Every Man Fights His Own War” was the movie's marketing tagline, but it's more than that.
I must confess a sin: I’ve never read the book. By now, obviously, I should have. But I think it’s what Malick did with the source material that appeals to me. That’s one of the most important things going on here.
Along with an adapted story and anti-war sentiment, the two share some quirks. For example, almost every character has a one-syllable name: Witt, Train, Welsh, Fife, Bell, Doll, Tall, Witt, Gaff, Keck. No one ever remarks on this. It’s just the way things are.
Sometimes the characters are in a scene, at other times they’re just a voice, narrating. At first you need a good ear, or good subtitles, to know who’s talking. But it’s what they’re saying that matters.
Before the landing on Guadalcanal, untested young southerner Private Edward P. Train seems terrified. On board a stifling troop ship, his nervous, rapid-fire questions irritate veterans. Yet his voice also offers the calmest, most profound, poetic narration.
"This great evil – where’s it come from?” says Train’s voice over the ugly aftermath of a battle. “How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known."
And earlier: “What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”
Through a war movie with outstanding battle scenes, Malick asks: why is there such destruction and such beauty in the world, all at once? Why does peace not remain? Are those caught up in it to blame, or are such events also part of nature, as inevitable as waves crashing against the shore?
Sometimes there’s a shot of some long grass in the wind, a crocodile in the water or a bird. Beautiful scenes from the island on which two sides are tearing each other apart. Are these contrasting existences alien to each other or parts of a whole?
The movie opens with two deserters living a carefree life among the local Melanesian people. When US troops land on Guadalcanal and move inland, an older Melanesian man wanders past them as if they do not exist.
“I seen another world,” says recaptured deserter Private Witt. “Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.”
These jarring switches between battle and serenity, between people living in peace and those at war, are also happening to the characters, as if invisible forces are “mocking us with the sight of what we might have known” (in Train’s words above).
Each character deals with this in a different, but memorable way. For example, the awkward friendship between the engaging but rebellious Witt and grim realist First Sergeant Welsh will probably stay with you after the movie.
”Still believing in the beautiful light are you?” Welsh asks of Witt. “How do you do that? You're a magician to me.”
Witt ponders. “I still see a spark in you.”
You may also retain Private Doll’s confronting thoughts as he ascends a hill, firing at Japanese troops for the first time and seeing one fall: "I killed a man... Worst thing you can do... Worse than rape. I killed a man and nobody can touch me for it.”
You might initially despise him, for this and his earlier theft of an officer’s pistol, until his character turns out to be one of the bravest soldiers on the battlefield. Again come the big questions: how are we to understand the forces at play in each person? Everyone experiences life differently, and there’s much worse than Private Doll.
I think you’ll also recall how this movie looks at love, the forces that play on it, and the depth of emotions around it.
"We together. One being. Flow together like water. Till I can't tell you from me," recalls Private Bell of his lover, in his head, as he faces death in battle.
Apart from an ethereal Miranda Otto and the actors playing Japanese soldiers, the cast is like a who’s who of Hollywood white guys who weren't in Saving Private Ryan that same year. There are memorable roles from Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok and a young Thomas Jane (now starring in The Expanse).
George Clooney and John Travolta appear briefly. Bill Pullman and Mickey Rourke filmed scenes that were dropped, as was Billy Bob Thornton’s lengthy narration.
INTERVIEW: THE THIN RED LINE PRODUCER GRANT HILL
Malick’s return to filmmaking accelerated from here. Seven years later, he directed The New World, an acclaimed interpretation of the story of Pocahontas, which confronts some similar questions to The Thin Red Line, pitting brutality and tragedy against peace and love. And then after six years came The Tree Of Life, portraying a struggle to reconcile love, mercy and beauty with illness, suffering and death. Then he began to really churn them out, with releases in 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 and another on the way.
I have another sin to confess: knowing that The Tree Of Life is probably what Malick was trying to make all this time – and knowing that it met with mixed reviews – I’ve never actually seen it. I’ve been too afraid that it will spoil what I've found here, in my favourite rewatch.
Okay, okay, I’ll go track down The Tree Of Life now at SBS On Demand. Maybe I’ll even catch up with his more recent, less acclaimed films. I might even get around to reading The Thin Red Line novel. But I could just as easily watch this movie for an eleventh time.
Watch 'The Thin Red Line'
Friday 4 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte