As the name of this online journal might imply, war films are something of a speciality of mine, and since last weekend I spend a little less time rambling and dedicated a few days to being something of an actual rifleman, my comrades kept banging on about Hacksaw Ridge and how it’s supposed to be excellent, great, good, etc. Well, I’m no lover of Mel Gibson, Andrew Garfield or the persistent wallowing in the scent of America’s WWII service record, but I was interested by the concept, and the Pacific theatre does certainly make for difficult glorification what with all the flamethrowers and teeth pulling. As such, I decided to subject myself through Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line; a 2 hour 50 minute cinematic marvel boasting a huge ensemble cast including Sean Penn, John Travolta and Nick Nolte to name but a few. Based on a book of the same name by James Jones, the film’s title is actually an allusion to Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, which refers to the ‘thin red line of heroes’ so indicative of men at war in the 19th century. Jones, however, alters the meaning of this concept to fit his own ideas, citing in his book that the soldiers ‘discover the thin red line that divides the sane from the mad… and the living from the dead…’.
If this review is starting to look like a piece of university coursework it’s because it bloody feels like one! The film looks like it should be on the syllabus of a film studies module, and as somebody who wrote his dissertation on war films I’m a little disappointed that this one slipped me by, because there is so much to talk about. The film is, above all else, surprisingly pensive for a war film. For long pauses the camera will settle on a cluster of tree roots, or two parrots preening themselves, or even a bush baby grabbing a quick snack. This is a directorial style which has earned Terrence Malick a fair bit of criticism, but in The Thin Red Line it acts as a stark contrast to the brutal and unrelenting horrors of combat to follow. It’s a far cry from Saving Private Ryan or Fury in which men are being hosed down by hot lead within the first scenes. Malick’s film is so carefully paced that it’s a good 40 minutes before a shot is even fired. The score that accompanies the film is beautifully slow and solemn, which is why it came as a tremendous shock when I discovered that it was composed by Hans Zimmer! His early work was always a lot different compared to his bombastic Holst-esque themes from Gladiator and the like, but this I found to be huge break in convention. It’d be like discovering that La La Land was directed by Neil Marshall.
I’d put The Thin Red Line alongside the more recent Kajaki in that this is the kind of film that Hollywood needs to be making more often. There are guts, certainly, but absolutely no glory to accompany it. The writing, both in direct dialogue and in the voice-over narration, portrays the hopelessness and conflict within the soldiers themselves, constantly questioning their actions and existence in the face of the horrors of war. The acting too is excellent. No grim determination or heroic leadership is found here. The look on the face of every actor is fear, and the camera captures each character’s thousand-yard stare superbly. The only contrast to this is the career-driven mania of Nick Nolte’s Lt. Colonel Tall, who screams his orders down the radio only for them to land upon shell-shocked ears. And shocking is the word for it. The action is brief, but when it happens it happens very fast and with a high level of brutality, with explosions and bayoneting alike all having the same sickening effect on the viewer.
All in all, this is not what I’d call easy viewing. The average war film enthusiast will probably get bored before the first shot is fired off, and those seeking something profound may struggle getting through the violence. But if you can compromise between the two, you will find, as I did, to find The Thin Red Line to be very compelling in it’s story and utterly beautiful in its themes and cinematography. It shines above your average Hollywood war film, as most of them serve only to glorify the efforts of the US military in their last conflict against an unambiguous threat, and has the hall-mark of a great piece of war cinema in that it stays with you afterwards and provokes discussion amongst your fellow viewers. My only hope is that Hacksaw Ridge manages to rise to the same level of quality. Your move, Mel Gibson.