Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven 20 years ago. Days contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen.
What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.
Say this without further delay: There has been no American film in 1998 with larger ambitions. In adapting James Jones’ huge novel of the campaign to take Guadalcanal, Malick has bypassed generic war-movie obligations to clearly introduce characters, establish tag (or stereotypical) traits that make them and their emotional/ spiritual/ military-team-playing progress easy to track, and also lay out the tactical objectives clearly, with a “big picture” view of how this all fits into the war effort.
In a sense, the principal character in The Thin Red Line is “Charlie” Company – all the officers, noncoms, and grunts hoping against hope to come out of the red hell of combat alive. And the “story” is not only how they cope with the Japs, and with their own intra-Army tensions. It’s the awesome, metaphysically charged spectacle of man doing terrible things to man within the multicolored and multifarious cathedral of Nature.
Malick is plugged into the mainstream of American literary tradition here. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), the introspective Kentuckian who most resembles a point-of-view character, invokes something like Emerson’s Oversoul while contemplating mortality.
The emphasis on ritual passage through Nature and its awesome, immanent tranquility would tickle Thoreau right down to the ground, while out of that ground grow Whitmanesque leaves of grass – an image explicitly echoed by Malick again and again, as his troops and his camera make voluptuous, precarious progress up The Rock toward annihilation, dubious victory, or perhaps transcendence.
These amazing passages, with John Toll’s camera shifting fluidly from angel-on-my-shoulder perspective to the gliding trajectory of a snake, suggest a variation on an ambition of the late, great Samuel Fuller: to set up a reel-long tracking shot through a jungle minefield, and tell the actors-soldiers it was their responsibility to keep pace.
Not all of the imposing roster of actors eager to work for the legendary Malick have survived the track through the cutting room; others (John Travolta, George Clooney) blink in and out so swiftly that their participation tends to be distracting.
Apart from the little-known Caviezel – who has a wonderful, nonactorly woodcut of a face, suddenly breaking into a lopsided, backcountry grin – the most prominent are Sean Penn as the existentialist-without-portfolio Sergeant Welsh; Elias Koteas as the caring “battlefield lawyer” Captain Staros; Nick Nolte as his nemesis, the classically educated, heartless careerist Colonel Tall; and Ben Chaplin as Private Bell, haunted and sustained by dreams of his faraway wife.
But it’s often hard to tell whom they’re sharing the screen with.