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Film Review: The Thin Red Line, using war as a metaphor for humanity's disconnect from nature

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

There was a lot of curiosity in the film industry about The Thin Red Line, which had its theatrical release at the end of 1998. Terrence Malick was one of the most mysterious figures in Hollywood. Until that point, he had rarely spoken to the media. Coming from a background in philosophical studies,

Malick made two critically acclaimed movies in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven. Then he disappeared for two decades until The Thin Red Line. Many critics regard the film as Malick's masterpiece and one of the best movies of the 1990s. It is a free adaptation of James Jones's World War II novel of the same name. A previous adaptation of the book came out in 1964.

The story takes place in November 1942, during the Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942-February 1943), one of the most critical Allied offensives against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. The title refers to the thin border that, according to Jones, divides sanity and madness: a line that is easy to surpass during times of war.

But the film is different from any other existing war film. The story of several major and minor characters intersect in a mosaic, focusing less on the battle itself and more on the soldiers' inner lives. The internal voices of the characters narrate the events. One of the voices is Private Witt, who makes profoundly philosophical and poetic reflections, especially about the relationship between humanity and nature.

The Thin Red Line is not a war movie. Instead, it is a film that uses war as an instrument to have us all think about some universal questions. Love, friendship, duty, and the meaning of life, are among the themes touched by Malick. But the most important one is nature and our place as human beings. It is also the element that permits us to rediscover The Thin Red Line and to watch it from an ecological point of view. As in his following film, The New World (2005), about Pocahontas's tragic story, Malick has consistently denounced the violence humanity commits against nature.

In The Thin Red Line, Private Witt compares the violence already present in nature as animals compete for power with violence from the addition of human beings. The difference between humans and animals, as illustrated by Malick, is that humanity's struggle for power is not part of the natural hierarchy but connected to technological development and the desire for conquest. War is the most extreme expression of this "artificial," advanced violence. Malick represents war as the absolute negation of everything good in the world. Tragically, we are again witnessing a war of aggression in the heart of the European continent more than seventy years after WWII.

In The Thin Red Line, Private Witt and another soldier have distanced themselves from the rest of their tactical unit and live temporarily among the natives of the South Pacific, the Melanesians. Eventually, they are discovered and forced to rejoin the military again and take part in the bloody assault on a Japanese-controlled hill.

The dichotomy between the simple existence of the natives living in harmony with nature and the subsequent chaotic and violent battle represents the film's message. Furthermore, the images depicting the destruction of forests and the killing of animals as part of the battle make the film's point even more apparent. Humankind belongs to nature like all other creatures: we can choose between creating a positive relationship with wildlife or destroying everything. The second path will undoubtedly mean the ruin of humanity.

Critics and moviegoers compared The Thin Red Line to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which had come out a few months before. However, this comparison is a faulty one. Saving Private Ryan is a perfectly made war film that reminds us about the brutality of war and the cost of liberty. Malick's movie is something else. It uses the theme of war to explore universal questions. Now could be the right moment to rewatch The Thin Red Line from an ecological perspective and see what Malick can tell us about the current climate crisis.


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