The Thin Red Line
d. Terrence Malick / 1998 / USA / 170 mins
Viewed at: The Box @ FACT (Liverpool, UK)
Okay, so todays real confession is that I’ve been damn slack in writing about what I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks! As penance, I’ve recently commenced an eight week course on Film and Philosophy, held at FACT Liverpool and run by Liverpool John Moores lecturer and editor of the Film-Philosophy journal, David Sorfa. Aside from the opportunity it provides to see some classic films on 35mm, I wanted to do this course because I felt as though, as great as my undergraduate education was, I never really had the opportunity to explore in-depth film theory and the application of other forms of social theory to the cinematic realm. Admittedly, the sessions so far have involved more of a discussion than a lecture per se, but I’ve found them enlightening nonetheless.
Anyway, the course began two weeks ago with a screening of Terrence Malick’s 1998 existentialist war epic, The Thin Red Line. Now, Malick is one of those directors who has inexplicably passed me by. I’ve always known he existed, and I’ve always known (and been told) that I should see his films – particularly his first two features, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) – and I’ve always wanted to see them, but for one reason or another, I’ve just never got around to it. And so, this screening of The Thin Red Line was my first Malick experience.
I find that most cinematic attempts to take a particular philosophical standpoint or present some sort of philosophical ideal tend – more often than not – to result in a confused, detached, meandering and muddled film, placing the message well before the medium. While The Thin Red Line certainly isn’t faultless, its beauty lies in Malick’s ability to draw together disparate elements – visual, audible, temporal and narrative – in order to create a unified whole that is able to address its philosophical ideas in a relatively subtle, unobtrusive manner. Far beyond some sort of structuralist experiment, Malick is able to create a bold vision of life on the Pacific front line that somehow manages to straddle a fine line between being romantic and a little mawkish, whilst remaining realistic, gritty and unsentimental.
Another of Malick’s fine achievements here is his ability – even in the face of these disparate elements – to provide the audience with an engaging, almost wholistic experience alongside his soldiers. While most war films are content to show the events of battle in a cause-and-effect structure, Malick eschews this approach and presents the battle from the American soldiers’ point of view in more ways than one. A traditional Hollywood treatment of a military assault on a hill fort (such as the one in The Thin Red Line) would see corresponding shots of American troops preparing for the advance and Japanese soldiers taking up positions, and would continually cut between the two armies in order to advance the narrative of battle and provide an unambiguous visual account of US progress. In The Thin Red Line, Malick craftily keeps the audience on tenterhooks by simply not showing the Japanese troops for almost the entire battle. Actual POV shots from the American soldiers are combined with a visual structure in which the audience essentially sees as much as the troops they are following. Rather than providing Japanese POV shots, we are left – like the soldiers – pinned to the sandy ground and trying desperately to work out exactly where the shots are coming from. It is not until the American soldiers finally reach the peak of the hill and flush out the gun positions, that they – and the audience – finally come face to face with the Japanese soldiers.
Needless to say, I am now very interested to see how Malick applied these techniques to subjects as diverse as sociopathic murder (Badlands, 1973), life on the Texas Panhandle in the early 20th Century (Days of Heaven, 1978), the tale of Pocahontas (The New World, 2005) and the very meaning of existence (The Tree of Life, 2010…maybe!)