In the summer of 1998, American movie audiences were completely thrown off guard by the power of a war epic called Saving Private Ryan. We’d all heard the hype: the eye-shielding opening scene, the gut-wrenching emotional drama, the subtle humor, and that kid who just won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting. Hype is to film what kryptonite is to Superman; it can be irreversibly damaging. Our expectations exceed their highest point, and we’re ultimately let down by the finished product.
Saving Private Ryan was not one of those movies. It was, and remains, a perfect war film. At the time of its release, it was the best war film, since, what… Platoon? And the best WWII film, since, what… Patton? Which is to say, it was arguably the best war film ever made. Steven Spielberg had done it again. Just like he tackled the Holocaust in a way no one had seen, he had stormed the beaches of Normandy in a way no one was ready for. And then, a few short months later, something odd happened.
|Storming the beach in Saving Private Ryan|
In December of 1998, Terrence Malick released The Thin Red Line, his first film in 20 years. The Thin Red Line was the antithesis of Saving Private Ryan. It was slow and poetic and beautiful and, let’s just say it, kind of confusing. But it was also undeniably brilliant. As one critic said, The Thin Red Line was “the thinking man's war film.”
Saving Private Ryan is everything a great war film should be. It has epic battle sequences, a heroic lead star, a strong supporting cast, mild humor to break the tension, and a tightly-wrapped conclusion. It’s also, dare I say, rather conventional. The plot is its only real function. Eight soldiers are sent to find one man and send him home. One by one, the men get picked off via an elaborate, individual death scene (mostly in the final battle), and, eventually, Private Ryan is safely sent home.
It took me 12 words to describe the entire plot of Saving Private Ryan, but it’d take me 12 pages to describe the plot of The Thin Red Line, mainly because, there isn’t one.
|An anonymous soldier in The Thin Red Line|
Whereas Saving Private Ryan is essentially the aftermath of a 20-minute battle scene, The Thin Red Line IS the battle scene, both literally and figuratively. The main battle in The Thin Red Line, save a few breaks, takes up a bulk of the three hour film, as we witness the attack from start to finish. Saving Private Ryan, rather brilliantly, throws us, without warning, onto Omaha Beach. The Thin Red Line waits patiently with us as the soldiers grimly, and tediously, prepare for certain death.
In The Thin Red Line, we see the sun rise over a doomed hill on Guadalcanal. “Rosy-fingered dawn,” Nick Nolte’s angered, prepared Lt. Col. Tall, tells Elias Koteas’ fatherly, God-fearing Captain Staros before the battle. Minutes later, hundreds of soldiers stealthily move up the hill, hiding as best they can behind tall blades of grass. Minutes later, a young officer (Jared Leto), silently orders two Privates up the hill to their eventual death. Leto has not one speaking line in the film, but his face says volumes as his two men are gunned down by soldiers in a hidden bunker. Seconds later, chaos ensues, and it never lets up.
Saving Private Ryan is bookended with two of the best-staged battles in film history. Its violence is meant to shock, not to propel the story. Guts spill out, a soldier looks for his arm, a knife is slowly eased into a chest, and so on.
Terrence Malick isn’t at all concerned with violence. The war is the violence, not the actual dying. So why is it that, with very little blood shown, The Thin Red Line is the more disturbing of the two films? Simple. Because we actually know, and grow to care about, the soldiers in Malick’s film. But how is that? We spend far more time with the Saving Private Ryan characters, and actually get to know their names and their personal histories. Whereas in The Thin Red Line, some main characters only grace the screen for a single scene, others don’t even speak.
To be honest, I’m not sure how Malick pulls this off. I’m not sure how the most devastating scene of both films occurs when a soldier reads a letter from his wife in The Thin Red Line. I’m not sure how the hardest scene to watch of both films is a soldier crying in the rain in The Thin Red Line. I’m not sure how the most powerful scene of both films is Nolte and Koteas arguing with each other through the radio.
I’m not quite sure how Terrence Malick does it, he just…does.
Obviously, Saving Private Ryan was the successor of the two films. It grossed $216 million, won five Oscars and remains a staple for Veteran’s Day viewing on broadcast TV. The Thin Red Line made $36 million, won no Oscars and has never aired on broadcast TV. And I understand why. As I mentioned earlier, The Thin Red Line, upon first (or second, or third) viewing, is pretty damn confusing. The persistent narration is done by a number of actors, and we’re never really quite sure who’s talking. There’s no plot, no central character, no smooth resolution; it’s everything a war film shouldn’t be.
|Saving Private Ryan boasted big names, like Tom Hanks|
|The Thin Red Line's relative unknowns, like Elias Koteas, were as important as the film's big stars|
And that’s the point. Malick doesn’t want you to know who’s doing the talking, or who the main character is. The soldier is the main character. The war is the story. I once spoke to a WWII veteran who was, understandably, disturbed by Saving Private Ryan’s content, but loved the film nonetheless. I urged him to watch The Thin Red Line. After his viewing, his response was as follows: “Well, I wasn’t exactly sure what the hell was going on in that movie, but The Thin Red Line is the only movie I’ve seen that accurately displays the hell of war. That’s exactly how it is.”
Saving Private Ryan is a perfect war film, one of the best ever made. The Thin Red Line is a perfect film, and the best war film ever made. One is great with its tradition, while the other is masterful with its alternative style.
Earlier, I mentioned a powerful scene in The Thin Red Line between Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall and Elias Koteas’ Cpt. Staros. Tall, with volcanic fury, orders Staros repeatedly to move up the front of the hill and attack a bunker. Staros, knowing this order to be certain death, refuses to accept Tall’s order. The subsequent five minutes are some of the finest moments ever committed to film. At the end of the scene, Staros puts the radio down and quickly speaks a line in Greek.
We are not given subtitles. We are not given a meaning. The soldiers around him have no idea what he said, and neither should we. Exactly.