In the late 1990's (in the era of what I've come to call the "Pax Clintonia) it was hard to imagine our country ever being in a war again with the likes that we've seen in this Spring of 2004--with battles marked by ugly guerilla warfare and attrition of a scale not seen by US forces since Vietnam.
Now amidst an era of full-scale war "The Thin Red Line" resounds even more powerfully than when it first came out. I can only believe that it speaks directly to the fears and struggles of the fighters on both sides of the current Iraq conflict--whether they be troops of the US and our allies, or those who oppose us from the anti-coalition side. As well as to the non-combatants caught up in all of the hell of this war as well.
In the discussions over "The Thin Red Line" it is often compared and contrasted to the other big 1998 war film "Saving Private Ryan". I think it is fair to do so as it is to compare and contrast different pieces of, say, literature.
I still do admire "Saving Private Ryan" (at least from afar) and cannot discount the views of those who like it better than "The Thin Red Line" and believe that Spielberg's film falls more within their vision of what a war movie should be. For me, however, the effect of "SPR" has receded within me as time passes. Though it is an extremely well-made film, what strikes me is the sheer conventionality of so many of the plot elements in "SPR". I mean haven't we seen so much of what happens in "SPR" before, in classic World War II film after film such as "The Longest Day" and "Battleground"--but with a new layer of realistic gore for the 1990's? This is one reason why "SPR" never truly entered my psyche the way "The Thin Red Line" did.
And speaking of the bloodshed I do agree with the assessments of those that see something somewhat voyeuristic about some of the scenes of anatomically-detailed violence in "SPR". I think that this sort of violence marred and unnecessarily distracted from otherwise fine films like "Blackhawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers". Scenes practically designed to make the audience exclaim, "Ooh, look at what just happened to that guy's hand!"
The violence in "The Thin Red Line", in contrast, NEVER feels exploitive--and never has a hint of "war pornography". Instead "TTRL" has a uniformly mournful, tragic tone. A sensibility that is not cynical, sardonic, and mean-spirited towards the world as in "Full Metal Jacket" by Stanley Kubrick (whose work some people compare Terrence Malick's with), but sorrowful about the tragedy built right into the fabric of a world that has never known a time without war. And Malick does not single out anyone as a true villain (even Nick Nolte's Colonel Tall is shown as a self-loathing man in his voice-overs); he simply says that this is the way of life, laments all this suffering--and poses many more questions than he tries to provide answers about why nature and the universe are so cruel in this way.
So many of the images in "The Thin Red Line" will live with me till the day I die. For instance all of the sequences involving Ben Chaplin's character (Private Bell) and his beautiful wife (played by Miranda Otto). I still feel the spell of the particularly striking scene where the camera is upside-down so that Mrs. Bell appears to be swinging into the sky like an intangible sylph that cannot be held onto--and indeed she eventually becomes lost from the arms of Private Bell, the one person or thing that has kept him going through all blood and destruction all around him.
The scene of Private Witt's demise also stands out--Jim Caviezel's entire presence in the film itself a stand-out. For me it represents idealism destroyed by crushing reality but also the hope that there is something spiritually transcendent beyond death.
And the last shot of the coconut sprouting up one new baby palm--a "life moves on" image that at first left me somewhat befuddled when I first saw the movie--has now indelibly joined the pantheon of haunting film endings for me. All of the chaos and insanity and horror that have preceded this final scene have ebbed away and left on the beach a brief fleeting moment of gentleness and tranquility.
If some movies are fast food this ambitious, poetic, multi-dimensional film on the other hand is a gourmet meal created by a master chef that takes many visits to fully savor and appreciate its different courses. As I evolve, as I age I experience something fuller and deeper each time I revisit this film that only grows ageless with the passing years--whose impact we find in full force during this time of war.