Today’s topic: Nature. Nope, it’s not a biology lesson, I’m well aware of it. What I mean by the word ‘nature’ is the key role that nature, in this case the tall Elephant grass and the impenetrable jungle, play in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
A lot of you, when you hear the words “war movie”, might immediately think of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket or in some cases even Apocalypse Now. And of course, you have the right to. Those are iconic movies not only in their genres but well beyond that. They marked a certain kind of filmmaking and a very specific way of looking at the horror of the battlefield. A realistic perception of what used to be a movie genre that spread pro military propaganda (re: The Green Berets). However, when I must make a statement on what I consider the most monumental and in a twisted sense, beautiful film, I say The Thin Red Line (1998).
The story of the American battle against the Japanese forces on the island of Guadalcanal, a small piece of rock in the middle of the Pacific, grabs you by the legs and doesn’t let go. The men, portrayed by a wonderful cast of, during that time, relatively unknown actors like Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, John Cusack, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and many others (including veterans Nick Nolte and John Travolta), they are the main plot. Because, well, there actually isn’t one. We follow young soldiers into the unknown, where they discover, on foreign soil, who they really are or who they used to be before their lives took an abrupt turn.
The state of mind of these poor bastards is represented by the wild, dark nature that surrounds them day and night. Why? Well, isn’t the mystery of what’s about to happen our greatest fear? The fear of catching a bullet or the fear of falling into a booby trap? The fear of getting killed on an island far away from home and our beloved ones?
The Elephant grass is tall and green; its leaves are razor blades that cut deep into every soldier’s exposed body part. Its ground is made out of dirt, hiding snakes and other wild beasts awaiting the chance to kill. That’s right. Everything moves. Everything is deadly out there. The soldiers can crawl, squat, even lie down and pray and they won’t be safe. That’s Terrence Malick’s, the director’s, point. We are guests; we are vulnerable; we mean nothing; mother nature decides whether we get to live or die. Malick’s direction, the camera following every soldier from behind and from the side, is meant to hit the viewer straight to the gut with its message: you don’t get to decide. You’re not in a position to. In fact, the soldiers know it. They await, for the first 50 minutes the sound of a speeding bullet. For them it was months, since the Japanese army first of all focused on destroying the US Navy and its supplies. Only after a long, infernal span of time, did the Japanese decide to act. And with what force. What was supposed to be taken in three days, was won over in six months of bloody battles.
Malick, a well known oilman and biologist, has the eye for little details. Even the first shot of the film is a crocodile moving through the muddy water like a trained assassin. In fact, that’s it. That tells you what it’s all about. Explosions? Huge action set pieces (in some scenes up to 3000 extras)? Breathtaking POV sequences? Yes, of course, but that’s not half of it. Peace and quiet. That’s when the jungle is at its most ominous. When the birds stop their singing, when the waters calm down, and when the sound of flies vanishes. That’s when you’re ought to worry. It’s that kind of deadly silence that the soldiers have in their hearts while fighting for survival. The silence in their hearts. The memories of a lover in California, the mental pictures of mom’s apple pie, the sweet sound of children laughing. That’s all in their minds. That’s all they can think about because of the silence. Because of the sun that can’t get through the twisted branches. Because of the thick air that becomes more and more tiring. Because of the mud that keeps slowing them down. The jungle is what they live, what they breathe, what they walk, what they talk and most importantly, what they fear. It’s all their emotions packed into a big, heavy bag. Now, they have to carry it. And that’s no easy task.
Not even for a soldier.