The Thin Red Line: Revealing the Truth About War

By: Jon Wagner

Terrence Malickís The Thin Red Line (1998) is a film that examines the Guadalcanal Battle of World War II, looking past the physical results of the violence, in order to uncover the deeper truths and ramifications of war. The film conveys themes and ideologies that are somewhat uncommon to war films, especially WW II films. In this dark, surreal, journey, Malick takes us inside the minds of soldiers experiencing this battle to capture a remote pacific island from the Japanese. We do not hear or see gruff, hardened soldiers, anxious to die for their country. In fact, there are no heroes in The Thin Red Line. There are only regular men, scared of fighting and scared of dying, who have been thrown into a situation that will forever change their lives. The fighting is not suspenseful or glorious just brutal. Using an ideological approach to the study of film, this paper will examine The Thin Red Lineís messages about the truths of war, and how it challenges our societyís stereotypical view of war as a valiant undertaking where brave men fighting for good battle the evil of the enemy. Consequently, the ideologies that are uncovered will then be used to look at The Thin Red Line as a war film, and how it fits and does not fit into the genre.

The Thin Red Line portrays war as a filthy, horrible, and emotionally destructive thing. The film seeks to show that we, as humans, have managed to create something that not only is physically destructive, but is mentally destructive to those who take part in it. James Morrison, in his review of the film in Film Quarterly, writes that: The Thin Red Line is an anti-war film, but unlike other anti-war films that it superficially resembles, from the hallucinatory inferno of Apocalypse Now(1979) to the gung-ho kitsch of Saving Private Ryan(1998), it is almost entirely free of anger or bitterness.(Morrison 36). The film is certainly an anti-war film, but it does not place blame. It merely accepts that there is war, and comments on the effects of it, letting our emotional and mental response do the rest. It examines war not through the battles and through the violence, but through the emotions of the soldiers. Geoffrey Macnab, another reviewer of the film, agrees. He states that ìIn The Thin Red Line, the battle scenes merely provide the backdrop to Malickís inquiries into military behavior and the nature of evil.(Macnab 54). Voice-overs throughout the film allow us to get into the heads of these men. One soldier prays while another man day-dreams about his wife in the U.S. One soldier, after standing among the remains of dozens of dead bodies after his company has taken a Japanese stronghold, reflects on how the bodies have become no different than those of ìdead dogs.î War, then, becomes an unnatural force. It becomes a force that drives regular men to suppress their natural, human feelings. If it were not for this war, men would not have to convince themselves that dead bodies are no different than dead dogs, and men would not have to contemplate about whether or not they can kill another man.

During The Thin Red Line, the island of Guadalcanal becomes a metaphor for natural purity, and is constantly contrasted with the violence that has invaded its serenity. Malick shot the film with special emphasis on the nature of the island. We see men being shot to pieces all around us one second and then we see lush green grass swaying gently and peacefully the next second. In the opening scenes of the film, the main character, Private Witt, is AWOL on an island, spending time with the natives there. These peaceful natives become symbolic of natural existence, just as the beauty of the land has. This juxtaposition of beauty and violence is a vessel through Wit and Coomb comfort each other

which Malick delivers to us his main theme. This is, as Nicholas Cull puts it, the ìenduring power of nature, beside which a world war is but a passing expression ofsome of the planetís nastier creaturesî(Cull 1050). War is a violation of nature and of the Earth. As humans, fighting for any side, we do not have the right to destroy one another and to go against the natural way. War, then, is a violation of ourselves as natural individuals, and as an entire human race.

The Thin Red Line also exposes the ironies involved in war, challenging the false ideas that our society has come to accept as truths about war. Kathryn Kane, in her book Visions of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II, talks about how as an American society, we view World War II as ìthe twentieth century clash of good versus evil. The opposition between America and Japan is synonymous with the conflict between the settled and the wild, the artificial and the natural, the civilized and the savageî(Kane 25). Yet, in The Thin Red Line, the Americans and the Japanese are not portrayed as two great forces battling one another. The men on both sides are dirty and scared. The Americans do not have nice, clean uniforms that make them look ìcivilizedî and strong. The uniforms and the helmets are big and floppyÖthey look unnatural on these men. In one battle scene, when the Americans have reached deep into the interior of the island and are attacking a Japanese camp, a thick fog envelops the battlefield. It is impossible to tell who is who in the ensuing chaos, and a confused and unorganized battle takes place. This confusion and lack of clarity symbolizes the superficiality of the lines we use to differentiate ourselves from the enemy. A society convinces itself that it is somehow different or better than whomever they are fighting, justifying the killing of that enemy. By reducing the enemy and increasing our ìvalueî, we make it easier for us to kill, because instead of killing our equals, we are killing our inferiors, whom we have managed to strip of their humanity. The Thin Red Line exposes the ridiculousness of trying to set one group of people as more human than another. During the film, an American soldier pulls teeth out of several living Japanese soldiers, an act that we are supposed to equate with our barbaric enemies. The film is saying that war does not create civilized and barbaric ìsides,î but instead degrades the humanity of all involved.

The Thin Red Lineís themes somewhat contradict the social stereotypes of war. War as an unnatural and horrifying human ìinventionî is not exactly the way our society views armed conflict. We, as a society, have experienced a way of life, and believe that war is necessary to preserve it. Thus, we accept war as a sort of necessary evil, and then wrap it in superficial blankets to ease our conscience. Because The Thin Red Line, though, portrays war as evil but also as anything but necessary, it breaks in some ways from the conventions of the war film genre, and more specifically, the sub genre of WWII films.


During the years of World War II, and the years immediately after, several hundred WWII films were produced in the United States. Most of these early World War II films, describes Jeanine Basinger, author of The World War II Combat Film, developed the pattern of ì hero saving a group in order to achieve the greater objective (Basinger 26). This theme has lasted throughout the life of the genre, becoming a staple in even some of the darkest war films. In The Thin Red Line, as was discussed earlier, there are no heroes. The film offers no great objective that makes the deaths of the soldiers that we witness seem worthwhile. A disconnected and frustrated Sergeant Welsh, at one point in the film, ridicules the idea of a greater cause or meaningful death. He says to Private Witt, who is trying to find meaning in the violence around them: What difference do you think you can make in all this madness? If you die itís gonna be for nothing This war is all about property, thatís it. A bunch of property.î Even when characters do things that are heroic, the film does not glorify the actions, it simply comments on the irony that such an action would not even be necessary if it were not for war. This film gives us no reason to feel pride or patriotism. We feel only sadness and disgust at the seeming pointlessness of the war. In this way, The Thin red Line differs from other films of the genre, even ones that share a similar anti-war/ emotional disturbance theme.

A unique aspect of the film is the absence of a strictly organized plot. Whereas most combat films, even those that are decrying violence like The Thin Red Line does, have a plot revolving around a battle or event during the war the particular film is about. While The Thin Red Line has a definite battle setting (The Guadalcanal battle), the time line of the battle provides no plot structure. In a typical war film, the events of the battle parallel the character development and story structure. The climax of the battle becomes the climax of the film, for example. As James Morrison points out, though:

The narrative structure of [The Thin Red Line] divests the battle scenes of the excitement or grandeur typical of the genre. For one thing, the big battle scene is displaced from a climactic position in the story, and after it is over, the film goes on for nearly an hour without heeding any narrative compulsions to build further. Malick risks such anticlimax to strip the battle scenes of trivializing generic functions that apotheosize a plotís set-ups or generate frivolous suspense (Morrison 36).

The Thin Red Line is not about the battle for Guadalcanal, and thus the film is not structured as a film that is telling the story of a battle. The battle scenes, in fact, are few and far between, and seem to be inserted only to give us a reminder of the only slightly important historical setting of the film. The real story of The Thin Red Line, as pointed out earlier, is the emotional and

Filming behind the scenes in The Thin Red Line mental processes that men experience when forced to fight in a war. Thus, the filmís structure follows this disturbing process, from being scared and confused to becoming distant and bitter. Eventually, for some, they recover, while others are scarred and others die. This process does not occur in a parallel existence with the advances of a battle, and therefore the battle serves only as a backdrop to these menís emotional deterioration. In this way, the film has bent the ìrulesî of the war film genre.

The Thin Red Line challenges the social stereotypes and values that our society holds towards war. The film does not offer a meaning or necessary cause for war. It only gives us a situation in which we can explore the effects of this violence, and comments on the senselessness of it. Contrary to the mental state a society adapts when fighting a war, the film presents ideals that value all human life, not just the lives of those fighting on our side. It portrays war as an unnatural and unbeautiful force, that only strips the natural humanity from all those who take part in it. These themes, being contradictory to our societyís apathy towards armed conflict, make for interesting exceptions in The Thin Red Line to war film conventions. While there are certainly war films that speak negatively of war and examine the mental state-of-mind of those who take part in it, this film does so in a unique way. The narrative is structured without concern towards the time line of the battle, and the outcomes and victories of the battle itself simply are not important to the filmís messages. Thus, Terrence Malickís The Thin Red Line becomes a film that brilliantly and truthfully uncovers the truth of the ridiculousness and emotional destructiveness of war. War is an unnatural thing, so The Thin Red Line, consequently, does not portray war in the ìnormalî fashion.

Works Cited

Basinger, Jeanine. The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Cull, Nicholas J. ìThe Thin Red Line (motion picture review).î The American Historical Review. v.104 no3 (June 1999): 1050

Fox Movies Homepage <>

Kane, Kathryn. Visions of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Macnab, Geoffrey. ìThe Thin Red Line (motion picture review).î Sight & Sound.v.9 no3 (March 1999): 53-54.

Morrison, James. ìThe Thin Red Line (motion picture review).î Film Quarterly. v.53 no1 (Fall 1999): 35-38.

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