Friday, June 3, 2011

A Great War Debate: Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line

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.

Spielberg's violence

Malick's violence
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. 


  1. I want you to know that because of this blog post, I watched The Thin Red Line. I am a huge fan of Saving Private Ryan, and like you mention, The Thin Red line didn't really grab me at first. But I went back and watched it a week later and am now haunted by it. The director's use of violence is much more bone deep than in Saving Private Ryan. You're right, the emotional violence is worse than the blood and the guts. Without this post, I don't think I wouldve seen The Thin Red Line.

    Keep them coming.

  2. Like you said both movies are perfect. Its crazy to think how they both describe WWII but in completely different ways. I consider Malick to be a favorite director of mine. Have you seen his other films?

  3. @FILMclatter Oh yeah, I've seen all of his films many many times, and I love them all. The Thin Red Line remains my favorite. A flawless masterpiece. What's your fave?

  4. I fell upon this post again and discovered an unanswered question for me. My bad. I could have just said I had been thinking about it for all these months because I am still not sure of my answer. I guess if I have to I would have to say its a 3-way tie between The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life and Badlands. There you go :)

  5. I have both films on blu ray, and although saving private ryan is an amazing transfer, the thin red line is possibly one of the best transfers I've ever seen, it is jaw droppingly beautiful in parts.

    1. Totally agree. That's one of my most cherished Criterion Blu-Rays. It's heavenly. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  6. The thin red line and badlands stand out for me as my favorite malick films. i saw both saving private ryan and the thin red line when i was 12 in theaters. and i would have to say as i kid i liked saving private ryan, it feels faster. as an adult i much prefer the complex emotional drama that plays out internally in the characters of the thin red line .

    1. Yep, couldn't agree more with this. Funny, I was 12 as well when I saw Saving Private Ryan in the theater for the first time. A few months later, I saw TTRL, and basically deduced what you did: SPR is a better film for a 12 year old. But yeah man, as time passed, TTRL just became invaluable to me. A truly amazing cinematic feat.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Let me know if you have a blog I can scope out!

  7. I saw Saving Private Ryan when it came out in theaters. It was a jarring, gut wrenching experience. The perfect inheritor to all those John Wayne films I saw growing up. You always new that the violence in a Wayne film was lacking, but there was that same gritty 'can do' that SPR has.

    That said I never want to see SPR again.

    The Thin Red Line has grown on me. In some ways It feels like a rip off of Normal Mailers book "The Naked and the Dead" 1947 vs 1962 for the book TTRL, lots of cutaways to interior dialog as instead of before the war recollections. In any case it brings up personal element of the emotional exhaustion of war. Its humanity is why I I do sometimes re watch it.

    Oh and don't bother with TNATD 1958 movie.

    1. Hey there, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an insight comment. I'm glad to hear TTRL has grown on you. Your notion of "it brings up personal element of the emotional exhaustion of war" is something I could not agree more with. I think that is chiefly what makes it so effective. I just absolutely love that film.

  8. hit the nail on the head with this blog post...I've been compelled to go back and watch The Thin Red Line maybe a dozen times (sick, I know) whiie I've just seen Saving Private Ryan twice or so (though I also love that film). The most moving scene for me however is the one where the American's are rushing in, non-stop, overrunning the Japanese post, shooting the terrified Japanese soldiers as they go...this emotion, no doubt abetted by the crescendo of "Journey to the Line", from .Hans Zimmer's great score [that also gets heavy rotation on my IPOD...

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. I can't even count how many times I've seen TTRL. Upwards of 25, for sure. I love the beauty of that film. That scene you mentioned is remarkable because it dares us to understand the horror of the Japanese as well. A rarity among American-made horror films.

      And yeah, nothing against SPR, that is a great film in its own right.

      Oh, and "Journey to the Line" is incredible.

  9. I still find I can instantly call to mind so many scenes and sounds from Malick's masterpiece, such is its hypnotic, beautiful and awesome power. SPR on the other hand, apart from the Omaha landing, just all feels too familiar. You could be watching an episode of my childhood favourite "Combat" but with a much bigger budget and today's film making technology. All the genre conventions are the same. I've always thought it odd too that after securing Omaha a lot of exposition takes place as Capt Miller's squad walks through a paddock ahead of the Allied advance - behind enemy lines - but you'd think they were just out for a Sunday stroll. Anyway, great blog piece. Just a couple of final observations on "The Thin Red Line". I love the sound of the wind through the Kunai grass, Miranda Otto has never looked lovelier, Nick Nolte should have won an Oscar and I also just absolutely love this film.

    1. Hey Andrew, thanks for stopping by and leaving such an insightful comment. I've always been curious about that post-Omaha battle sequence in SPR as well. They all just look so relaxed, which I've always found odd. But really, I agree with everything you said here. The older I get, the more familiar SPR feels, whereas TTRL is always new to me. It's one of my favorite films, for all the reasons you mentioned. And many, many more.