The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line ★★★★★

Appropriately incendiary in its antagonism with conflict itself, The Thin Red Line still titles itself after, and identifies in, the courage of the soldiers depicted and represented. Under just slightly different circumstances of production, we might never have received this film that is so infernal yet angelic, methodical yet natural, and grand yet personal... but this seemingly contradictory film is incredibly special in how it doesn't feel at war with itself at all.

Admittedly, it did not look promising to me upon first hearing of it, seeing as the film is a star-studded epic WWII film released in 1998. I'd really thought it was something of a mimicry, but after warming up to director Terrence Malick's work, it was only chance that prevented me from seeing what eventually felt like the setup for a film I was guaranteed to like. The Thin Red Line is entirely its own thing, miraculously able to capture everything horrific about combat as well as allow Malick to take time to admire the nature around these soldiers. This film has some of the best use of lighting I've ever seen (a fantastic product of rigorous editing, for those who critique this aspect of him) and the interweaving of nature and combat serves this film's thematic strength very intentionally and effectively. There is constant discussion of "this rock" and how the world keeps pulling us down every time we try to rise above its troubles—consequently emphasizing how war does not exist in this detached, vacuous landscape exempt from the world in which we search for good. This adds unspeakable impact to every sunbeam that pierces the war zone forests, and every gaze at burgeoning flora giving these soldiers cover. The two "sides" of the world meet poetically and beautifully.

The film has a more-than-fair share of combat scenes, however—it's not all contemplative beauty-gazing—and it actually succeeds in depicting these just as well. The brutality is maintained in sequences that are easy to follow though hard to watch, and believe me when I say every death is impactful. Geography is well established even in chaos, and it doesn't feel like something you've seen countless times. I love how seriously this film takes every task it gives itself.

Granted, some are taken more seriously than others, and one aspect of the film that kind of lacks, as it tends to in this genre, is character development. There are times when some of the men can be a little flat, but when a good portion of the film covers how war transforms its fighters, desensitizing and demoralizing them in many cases, it's not a gigantic flaw. Especially when there is still quite a bit of time taken for their souls to be born to one another, most memorably in a parallelistic father-son motif. I'd also like to note real quick how crucial and appreciated Bell's minimalist flashbacks to his wife were, depicting an intimacy that penetrates all of Malick's subsequent work. "One being. Flow together like water. Till I can't tell you from me." The relationship between all of the men was both exhausted and exhausting, but necessary. When camaraderie was formed genuinely rather than for manipulation, it was an oddly heartwarming sight, and each man's valor shines through the togetherness of their cause as much as individual responsibility... in the face of most mortal terror

In my humble opinion, Thin Red Line is an essential American war film, not undeserving of ranking pretty close to (my) gold standard Apocalypse Now... but for none of the same reasons as its peers. Yet another paradox of its excellence is its ability to be so representative and still so original in its honor. It never tries to fool us into thinking good comes from war, but shines a radiant light on any good that can come despite it.

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