Words: Brody Rossiter
WAR WITHOUT PEACE
To return to filmmaking after a twenty-year sabbatical is a great achievement. To return to filmmaking after such an extended period and resurface with one of the most poignant and poetic war films ever made is unparalleled. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line presents a fictitious representation of The Battle of Mount Austen, a particularly gruelling clash between American and Japanese forces during Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Told through the eyes of numerous American boots on the lush jungle ground, Malick’s meditative representation of the conflict assembles an impressive ensemble of notable male actors, including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Travolta, Adrian Brody, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Jim Caviezel, and John Cusack – to name but a few.
Adapted from the James Jones’ novel of the same name, the 1998 picture acts as a primal examination of war via Malick’s typically virtuosic visual finesse. Widescreen in every sense of the word, The Thin Red Line’s metronomic unfolding of the soldiers’ experiences amidst the horrors of war manages to transform unimaginable physical and mental trauma into serene voyage deep behind enemy lines. Unlike Malick’s recent devisive offerings The Tree of Life and To the Wonder the gift of Jones’ semi-autobiographical novel (Jones fought in several conflicts including The Battle of Mount Austen) provides rigidity to Malick’s meandering style of filmmaking – locking the focus upon a series of profoundly personal explorations undertaken by his weary warriors.
After experiencing the overwhelming tragedies of war first hand, as both an active combatant and later a journalist in Vietnam, James Jones endeavoured to reveal its overwhelming loneliness. Malick replicates the author’s wounded written words with fleeting filmic passages. They are scored with solemn strings and graceful heart-rending monologues summoned from war-torn psyches and spoken from cracked, bloodied lips. The jingoistic heroism of films such as Saving Private Ryan (which was released five months prior) is never present, instead the true toll of combat upon the mind, body, and soul, is laid bare – revealing both great inner-strength and an inability to accept the barbarism which perpetually rested upon the horizon. Malick’s signature use of high-concept visual metaphors is widely present, allowing the director to overlook the high levels of violence familiar to contemporary war films, replacing them with imagery both stunning and devastating in equal measure.
As with every Malick picture there undoubtedly rests a far more succinct and accessible picture beneath the layers the director’s arduous rumination and reshaping of his work. On the other hand, a longer cut would ultimately be welcomed when scenes involving Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, and Martin Sheen were either nixed during pre-production or removed from the final edit altogether. A recommendation to watch The Thin Red Line is not just an invitation to experience it as a piece of filmmaking, but an opportunity to delve into its vast mythos conjured throughout a decade of touch-and-go production, and the real-life battles upon which it is based. Beauty and the poison of war have no business colluding with one another, but somehow Terrence Malick managed to have them co-exist and bring forth stunning visuals and powerful performances that resonate far beyond the devastating theatre of war in which they take place.