The Thin Red Line’s Agony of Downtime in Wartime

One of the most moving war epics ever made.

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This article originally appeared in February 2015. 

Our film staff counts down to this year’s 88th Academy Awards ceremony, which takes place on February 28th, by revisiting some of the Best Picture nominees that time forgot. Today, Collin Brennan revisits Terrence Malick’s war epic, The Thin Red Line. 

It would be difficult to turn any 700-page novel into a film that satisfies on more than a surface level. To attempt to do so with Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, as director Raoul Walsh did in 1958, seems pure folly. So it’s no surprise that history has largely forgotten Walsh’s film, which blunted the sharp edges of Mailer’s war epic and altered its plot to satisfy the demands of Hollywood. One can hardly blame Walsh for his crude adaptation, as cinema simply wasn’t ready to tackle a novel with the thematic scope and postmodern leanings of The Naked and the Dead.

Forty years later, Terrence Malick took on a similarly unwieldy project when he agreed to adapt another powerful war epic: James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Unlike Walsh, however, Malick seemed to hardly care about issues such as plot. Instead he focused on capturing the thematic content of Jones’ work, which paints war as a theater of loneliness suffered by men on a personal level.

Malick’s lack of regard for story didn’t make everyone involved in the film happy. Several members of his all-star cast were controversially reduced to cameos (John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrian Brody) or edited out entirely (Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, etc.). But Malick’s willingness to hurt a few high-profile feelings only proved his conviction in crafting a film that would be more than a summary and certainly more than the sum of its parts. This conviction paid off: The Thin Red Line is in fact one of the most moving war epics ever made, a by-turns-poetic, by-turns-brutal meditation on human nature that was absolutely robbed of 1999’s Best Picture Oscar.

Unlike that year’s winner, the well-crafted and perfectly unexceptional Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line is a difficult film to watch. Clocking in at just under three hours, the film demands complete attention from its audience even as it darts around without settling on a uniform tone. It is at times contemplative and at times visceral, interspersing its episodes of violence with philosophical vignettes that may come across as heavy-handed to viewers of a certain mindset. This is, of course, a deliberate choice. War itself requires a great deal of patience, and it provides far fewer answers than questions. “Hurry up and wait” is a phrase commonly used among military men to describe life in battle, and Malick’s film places an extra emphasis on the “wait.” It might be enough to send some viewers running for the exit — turrets be damned — but it’s a richly satisfying experience for those open to it.

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Though The Thin Red Line can seem at times surreal, no other war film in recent memory can rival its ring of authenticity. War is itself a surreal, chaotic, disorganized experience, rather than some clear-cut contest between forces of good and evil. Where Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg would be tempted to depict men of unquestionable valor, Malick instead chooses to let his characters act chickenshit and question their commanders in the heat of battle. There are no heroes in war, he seems to say in an echo of Mailer, only the naked and the dead.

Contrast that with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, 1999’s other big-budget war epic and another Best Picture nominee. Though not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, Saving Private Ryan succumbs to all of Spielberg’s worst instincts, including his tendency to let the onscreen violence do all the talking. In that film’s opening scene alone, we see limbs fly across the battlefield, heads get blown off, and a slew of other images meant to horrify and disgust.

On the other hand, one of The Thin Red Line’s most emotionally affecting scenes finds Woody Harrelson blowing his own ass off with a grenade. We don’t see the moment of bloody impact; only the gut-wrenching aftermath and the look in his eyes as he realizes his sex organ is toast. Part of what makes this scene effective, of course, is how absolutely embarrassing it is. There’s no honor in pulling a grenade on yourself, and Harrelson’s character even calls it a “recruit trick” before begging that nobody tell his wife. It’s a shameful scene, but it rings truer than the slow-motion charge of the proverbial Light Brigade.

By now, Terrence Malick is no stranger to almost winning an Oscar. 2011’s The Tree of Life proved an equally challenging experience for its audience, and that’s probably what caused the Academy to eventually give that film the cold shoulder. But the truth is that nobody makes films quite like this man’s, and The Thin Red Line finds him very close to his apex of creativity and soft experimentalism. Maybe the world still wasn’t ready for a war film like this in 1999, but it damn well should have been. Chalk up one more instance of the Academy playing it too safe.

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