The Thin Red Line

By Michael Elliott for The Christian Critic

In The Thin Red Line, which was adapted from the 1962 autobiographical novel by James Jones, the thoughts that run through a man's mind in times of warfare are typically formed as questions: Where does evil come from? Where does love come from? What happens when we die? What am I doing here?

This movie, not surprisingly, does not answer those questions. It doesn't even point us in the right direction. It just keeps raising more questions.

Writer/Director Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven) ended a twenty-year hiatus to make this film. I would like to be able to welcome him back with a glowing review, as I am sure many of my peers will. Already, the advance hype is declaring The Thin Red Line a masterpiece and one of the year's best films. I don't happen to share that opinion. And I suspect that most filmgoers will side with me. Look for The Thin Red Line to be embraced by the critics only to fizzle at the box office.

Set during World War II during the battle for Guadalcanal, the film doesn't settle into a conventional story-telling mode. It really isn't a story that is told as much as it is an experience to sit through.

Private Witt (James Caviezel, GI Jane) and Private Bell (Ben Chaplin, The Truth About Cats & Dogs) are the two characters which the movie seems to center around, although everyone in Charlie Company gets their camera time. Through Witt, we examine the philosophical aspect of war, comparing it to the struggle of the opposing forces of nature. Through Bell, we see the power of love illuminating the darkest corners of a man's soul. And of course throughout the film we see the horrors of war depicted in graphic brutality.

There are many performances of note in the film. Both Mr. Caviezel and Mr. Chaplin perform admirably in their respective roles. Other actors who are deserving of mention: Nick Nolte (Affliction) as Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) as First Sgt. Edward Welsh, Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flint) as Sgt. Keck, John Cusak (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) as Capt. John Gaff and Elias Koteas (Gattaca) as Capt. James Staros, whose conscionable, but inappropriate action may have saved the lives of his men while, at the same time, ruined his military career.

Mr. Malick clearly has a cinematographer's eye for detail. The images he's captured on screen are both hauntingly beautiful and horrifying to watch.

War is many things... none of them good. We could point out the various positive spiritual examples that are depicted in the unfolding of these tragic events: Our ability to overcome fear; the idea of one man's sacrifice for the salvation of many; battling an unseen enemy; the strength of a unified family and the folly of an individual operating outside of its protection. There are many spiritual analogies that can be drawn from this film.

But I wouldn't want to give the impression that The Thin Red Line is somehow an edifying experience. Quite the contrary. There is nothing spiritually uplifting about death and destruction. The waste of so many young human lives is tragic. Watching it occur (even in a dramatization) is not easy. Nor is it pleasant.

The devil remains the author of death and the cause of all evil. The battlefield is his playground and during times of war he is able to thrive. Even a cursory glance shows us the devil's involvement. War is conducted in an environment full of confusion, noise, and chaos. It engenders fear and hatred in the hearts of those involved. These are not qualities that come from the God Who is all love and in Whom is no darkness at all.

While Mr. Malick raises many thought-provoking questions as each of his characters mentally wrestle with the horrors of war that surround him, he offers no relief from the devilish arena from whence the questions arise. The scriptures tell us:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8 [KJV]

Sitting in the audience of The Thin Red Line for the almost three hour running time, obeying that scripture proves to be nearly impossible.

Copyright The Christian Critic. Used by permission.