BFI Classics: The Thin Red Line

Author: Michel Chion

Having only made five films in 38 years, Terence Malick has possibly become the greatest enigma in Hollywood. Following the critical successes of Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), Malick went missing in action for 20 years before making The Thin Red Line in 1998. As questions were raised about where he’d vanished to, reports placed him in various bizarre places including cutting hair in a garage in Mexico.

Michel Chion’s book looks at The Thin Red Line in relation to Malick’s two previous films. There can be no doubt that Malick has a directorial signature style which Chion explores throughout the book. Chion also gives a detailed analysis of The Thin Red Line, breaking the narrative, characters and voiceovers down into different sections. He also draws on Malick’s previous work to explain his use of certain narrative devices time and time again.

The Thin Red Line was released to much critical success in 1998 and for any fan of Malick’s previous work there was much to celebrate. Chion draws most attention to Malick’s choice to fracture the voiceover this time around. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven featured one female character exclusively in charge of the voiceover. The Thin Red Line switches to a male voice and this time around, there are multiple sources. The voices are so closely matched at times that distinguishing between them becomes increasingly difficult. Chion contends that The Thin Red Line is a film of almost total silence as the soldiers’ views are almost entirely expressed via the voiceover. Actual dialogue is kept to a minimum and involves nothing more than tactical army speak between Lt Col Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Startos (Elias Koteas).

Chion maintains that The Thin Red Line isn’t an anti-war film but is in fact a film about loneliness. The characters are totally alone in the green wilderness that is Guadalcanal. From the privates to the senior officers, there’s never a sense of Band of Brothers material here. The battlefield is shown as a hostile empty world that one can draw little from other than despair. The film opens showing Private Witt (Jim Caveizel) who, having deserted his unit, is now living in a Polynesian heaven. His ultimate sacrifice for his comrades at the end of the film is seen as a waste by his friend Sergeant Ed Welsh (Sean Penn).

The Thin Red Line is a fantastically complex film that stands up well to repeated viewings. Fans of the film and Malick himself will find much to enjoy in this excellent book. The text is fascinating and challenging in equal measure and will make you want to watch the film again and again.  Having had the pleasure of watching The Thin Red Line at my local cinema five nights in a row upon its release in 1998, this book is made to measure for me. Anyone who sees Terence Malick as the one true poet of the cinema should read this book.

Aled Jones

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