The Thin Red Line (1998), set during the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, was unfairly overshadowed by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, that year’s other big war film detailing American involvement in a Sisyphean battle. As commentators at the time recognised, Malick’s film was no flag-waving commercial for Yankee imperialism, and as such garnered little box-office success. The Thin Red Line instead subordinates action and patriotism for cryptic interior monologues and perplexing mythologising. It is an attempt to deconstruct and make sense of these decisions that forms for the basis for Chion’s study.
Having previously penned a BFI classic on Eyes Wide Shut in 2002, it comes as little surprise that Michel Chion has been charged with reappraising Malick’s masterly exploration of nature, brutality and sacrifice. Chion is a lucid, if at times infuriating writer, but much of the study remains frustratingly unengaging.
This is not a book for Malick biographers or wannabe film-makers. There is very little on the genesis of the project, much less on the casting decisions. With a cast list that reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern American acting (hard-hitters Penn, Cusack and Harrelson alongside grizzled veterans Nolte and Travolta and rising stars Brody, Caviezel and Chaplin), it would have been fascinating to learn more of Malick’s casting decisions, working methods and editorial judgement. Chion also tends to gloss over Andrew Marton’s 1964 adaptation of the book. Clocking in at just over ninety minutes as opposed to Malick’s three-hour opus, a brief comparative study of the two versions might have proved fruitful. Worst of all is the opening few pages – a crashingly ponderous ‘treatment’ of Chion’s eventual ideas that serve only as a reminder of the inherent cultural and linguistic differences between French and English-speaking film criticism.
Chion’s approach is to produce a series of mini-essays. One concentrates on the importance of voice-over in Malick’s work; another, ‘Brother in Language’, translates a key sentence by a captured Japanese soldier that remains untranslated in the film. Two others, ‘The Haunting Beauty of the World’ and ‘How Big is a Crocodile?’, playfully explore the insistence of nature and the beauty of Malick’s imagery in his films. Indeed, Chion is clearly attuned to Malick’s metaphysical meditations. He links The Thin Red Line not only to James Jones’s source novel, but also to a wider strain of American thought (chiefly, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) that privileges the sublime aesthetic and transcendentalism.
Throughout, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) are recalled to reiterate structural and aesthetic similarities with The Thin Red Line. While Malick aficionados will already be familiar with such recurrent themes as precocious voice-overs, the importance of place, experiential story-telling and fastidious sound design, Chion’s best work stems from his ability to link together the three films. He is aided by some sumptuous colour stills, reminding me of the critic Gilbert Adair, who argued that The Thin Red Line should win an Oscar for Best Foliage. Structurally then, these divergences are informative, but there remains the nagging feeling that the film is relegated to the sidelines; that Chion’s own musings rather than any detailed sequence analysis underpin the whole study.
Overall, this is a witty but bitty work, placing reflection over sustained analysis. Chion’s insights are never dull, and his style alternates between punchy and meditative. The real disadvantage is coming away feeling that our understanding of the film’s richness has not really been expanded. Spending fourteen pages of a book (in a series characterised by lucid economy) on an alternate plot synopsis seems unnecessary, and comes as a disappointing anti-climax after Chion’s plaintive summing-up of this extraordinary film.