A Week of Malick: The Thin Red Line

“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

This is Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, an epic, poetic philosophical war film. A film released twenty years after Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven. His disappearance over the twenty years was a huge loss to film lovers everywhere, yet after viewing The Thin Red Line recently, I can say this lack of output was well worth it, as the film is a true master work.

The film, set during the battle on Guadalcanal during World War Two, does not focus on one character or even one group. It shifts constantly between many people. Unlike Badlands and Days of Heaven, which featured narration from one character, here we have narration coming from many characters in the film, even if it is only briefly. Instead of these changes in perspective being jarring, Malick’s film accomplishes something truly unique, with a flow and feel unlike any other. The film has less of a story than his others, instead it is the tone and the feeling of the film that keeps us interested.

“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”

A line uttered in interrogation by Sgt. Walsh, played by Sean Penn, leads us to the main questions and themes of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a film which focuses on the struggles of man, whether it be between two soldiers; a man and his wife; or a man and nature.

These questions, based heavily on those asked by famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger, are asked by almost every character in the film. It leads to an experience that will leave you thinking far after the film is done. The philosophical nature of the film may lead you to believe the emotions will be at arms length, yet after repeated viewings, I found myself more emotionally connected to the characters than I have been in a long time. As we hear the thoughts of these characters, we grow to understand them and the pain they feel.

It is hard to comprehend the criticisms this film has received over its supposed emotional distance. There is no emotional distance in this film, we know how these people really feel, and why they act the way they do. It comes down to concentration, which is what this film requires to be fully appreciated. It begs to have no interruption, to be fully immersed in the images and thoughts presented to us.

The best example is of Pvt. Bell, played by Ben Chaplin, who is constantly thinking about his wife – how he will return to her, when they will be together again. Through flashbacks and reminiscent thoughts, we see true love between two people. Once this love comes to an end through a letter from his wife, we see a man destroyed and it is heart-wrenching. This whole chapter of the film will linger with you for a long while.

As it is with every Malick film, it is beautifully filmed. Shot by cinematographer John Toll, the film is able to capture the natural beauty of the world, even if horrific acts are occurring elsewhere on the island.

It is a film that gave me so much to talk about, yet I am unable to explain it adequately. It is a difficult film, one which demands repeated viewings and complete attention. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. It has a massive, epic scope, yet is very personal in its emotions. It will change the way you see cinema and possibly even life, Malick’s war film is a true work of master film-making.

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