The fact that it is a Terrence Malick film should be something by itself. They are almost impossible to criticize; we should all just be lucky they exist. This was the first film he had done in twenty years, and had only directed two films before this. Now, then again, in those two films (Badlands and Days of Heaven), he had built a reputation few had matched. And then he returned (well, he did have projects that fizzled throughout the 1980s and actually started work on the film in 1989) after the prolonged absence, and people expected him and his film to practically reinvent the medium.
This is unfair; no one can live up to that expectation. But, for whatever reason, the film does not feel like a disappointment even if it does not live up to the lofty goals that were present.
Based on the James Jones novel, the film can be described as an account of the U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal. Leading up to this invasion, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) is arrested after being AWOL and living with some of the natives on the island. He is part of C Company, who has been assigned to reinforce the troops on Guadalcanal. They arrive, but feel they are being treated as nothing more than cannon fodder by Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte). The story then focuses on the rest of the men and their lives, all of whom are trying to make sense of why they are in the war. The film also stars John Travolta, John Cusack, Jared Leto, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, and Sean Penn.
The film certainly feels as expansive and epic as Malick, I am sure, wanted it to. Yet, unlike David Lean, who sometimes was too busy focusing on the money and not enough time on the characters, Malick focuses – actually, it’s pretty much the inverse of what Lean (and many lesser Hollywood epic directors) would do. The film feels natural and organic rather than artificial and phony. The acting and the nature scenes convene to create something that may have actually happened, rather than an interpretation of what the director says happened.
Now, pretty much every war film takes one of two approaches. One is the ultimate statement that war can ultimately test the human spirit and make it stronger (see Saving Private Ryan). The other is that war is a twisted mockery of humanity that should never occur (see pretty much every film ever made about the Vietnam War). Incredibly, The Thin Red Line takes neither of these approaches. It certainly resembles the latter (you have no idea how many people I have met that think the film is about the Vietnam War), but it does not suggest that war is unnatural. That is why there are so many shots of the natural settings. What do you think animals do when they have disagreements? The answer is, not diplomacy. Human civilization has, in cosmic terms, barely existed at all. Long before logic, this is how civilization solved its problems. Yes, it may be awful. But at least Malick tries to address war from a philosophical point of view rather than merely (and annoyingly) crying into a handkerchief and asking why we can’t all just get along. I know no other film to take this cold, hard look at human nature, with the possible exception of Full Metal Jacket. And to use this tactic in telling a story about World War II (in which the allies are supposed to be the good guys fighting evil for the sake of fighting evil) is downright brave.
If there is one thing that I can fault the film for, it is that it feels incomplete. In what has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, the original cut was around five and a half hours long. Many actors (such as Billy Bob Thorton and Gary Oldman) had their parts cut entirely from the film. Now I am just telling you behind the scenes details; what does that mean for the film itself? It means that, at times, certain aspects and characters desperately feel like that need to be expanded. George Clooney and John Travolta’s parts are practically non-existent, not to mention Adrien Brody’s Fife, who was set up at length and feels as though it needs to be expanded. Plus, the film in general seems to jump from idea to idea without every letting one specific thing build to a climax. Now, this is not as notable as I am making it sound. Usually, the film flows quite nicely; a difficult task when so many character’s stories must be told. Still, errors must be addressed. I would love to see whatever expanded version exists….or whatever lost footage was removed.
Is this film the war film to end all war films? Not exactly, but it is probably the closest that any director has ever come. Frankly, since every single director tries to make a war film like this and fail, Terrence Malick deserves all of the credit he can get. The film is breathtakingly beautiful and is a true deconstruction of the nature of war. It is not some jingoistic fairy tale; it is about how men truly change, no matter what they are fighting for.