Terrence Malick's meditative war film, The Thin Red Line, begins with the image of a crocodile slipping into a fetid swamp: one of nature's strangest, most violent and frightening creatures submerging itself in the place where life begins. The film is about a much stranger, more violent and frightening creature—man—and the ways he submerges himself during wartime, into the primal swamp of instincts and fears: the instinct to kill, of course, as well as the instinct to survive, to flight or fight. With the instincts come the fears: the fear of one's own cowardice, the fear that one's going crazy, the fear of pain, the fear of being macheted to death out in some god-forsaken jungle an ocean away from home. The best American war films of the post-Vietnam era—even those about World War II, as this one is—have blessedly absolved themselves of the need to heroize anything: whatever their sundry faults, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Casualties of War, Born on the Fourth of July, even Saving Private Ryan tend to shatter any illusions about the morality or heroism of war by sheer force of their depiction of the basic dumbfounding insanity of crowds of human beings gathering in order to kill one another. The Thin Red Line may convey that insanity better than other films: Apocalypse Now reveled too aesthetically in its woozy hallucinations; Saving Private Ryan settled into too standard a war picture after its first astonishingly disorienting half hour. The tendency when making a war movie "crazy" is to make it absurdist, which safely distances the viewer from the action, but Malick never drops the humanist frame, so we're forced to absorb battle insanity without the usual stylistic buffers: we get scared-to-death American men killing scared-to-death Japanese men, and our sympathies are with everybody.
The concentration on the raw emotional experience of war—Malick spends a tremendous amount of screen time lingering on the terror and wonder on his soldiers' faces—makes The Thin Red Line especially timely now, when the Bush administration and most of the media have come to an agreement that we should talk about everything except what actually happens in battle. Everybody's happy to discuss before and after—all the reasons to go to war, what will happen to Iraq after Saddam is deposed—but when it comes to what war actually is, everybody stumbles into cliché: war is hell, mumble, mumble, um, collateral damage is inevitable, well, yes, it's scary out there, but our guys are up for it, mumble, mumble, hey, war is war is war is war. . . . The Thin Red Line is an amazing film in many ways, but what makes it amazing now is that it forces us to access in stark terms what fighting feels like and how low we have come—all of us, no matter what the issues are—when killing is what it comes down to. For me, it makes comprehensible, say, Germany's principled position against the war as anything but a very last resort. They know what war suffering means more than anybody, and they can sense it when an empire starts feeling bloodlust.
Malick's movie is about much more than war terror, though. As realistic as it is, its heart is deeply romantic, even mystical. There are movie stars galore in this film—Malick's ambitious script attracted John Travolta, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson in minor roles—but the heart of it belongs to Jim Caviezel, an actor with eyes so large and calm and accepting that he can carry the spiritual burden of Malick's vision, which is to make us sense, as the script puts it variously throughout, "the glory," the "light," "the other world" of immortality that shines through war if one has the eyes to see. It's as if Malick put William Blake at Guadalcanal and let him loose with a camera. What glorious eyes this film has.
The Thin Red Line screens as part of the Peace and War on Planet Earth series at Cal State Fullerton, Humanities Amphitheater, Room 110, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3498. Sun., 5:30 p.m. Free. Included is a discussion lead by Cornel Bonca, a CSUF English-literature professor.