This may seem, from a distance, to be an easy call. Even in my head until most recently this was never an argument. But I argue that if one were to go back and stand Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan up shoulder to shoulder with Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the argument may be closer than first thought. Of course I may be simply playing devil’s advocate here, but I argue that perhaps Malick’s film is, on a cerebral level anyway, a vastly superior film.
While the two films are almost incomparable in many ways, they share a certain historical lineage they cannot escape: both were released in 1998, both World War II films, both nominated for Best Picture. These facts are inescapable, but that is where the similarities end. Private Ryan is set in Europe, beginning with the Normandy invasion and taking us across the continent while Red Line tackles the battle with the Japanese in the South Pacific. Spielberg’s film, when released, was met with praise from all around, including war vets, some who could barely make it through the graphic and fully realized recreation of the Normandy invasion. Red Line was released that same fall, and like all Malick films, was a quiet release without as much hoopla.
The problem with trying to pick a better of the two films is that they are so vastly different. Private Ryan has one of the most spectacular, if not the best ever, battle sequences in its Normandy invasion. The first twenty minutes are jaw dropping, heartbreaking, all together amazing. And the cast of Private Ryan, starting with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Ed Burns, and working down into cameos from Paul Giamatti and Ted Danson, is solid. Something that Private Ryan has that works for it and, in some ways, against it, is a firmly entrenched plot that involves rescuing Matt Damon’s character as his three brothers were all killed in battle. The way it works for the picture is that it gives the audience and the characters a set goal, allowing everyone involved to travel across Europe and experiencing the aspects of World War II throughout the continent. However, one way it may be a disadvantage to the overall picture is the fact that it narrows the focus of a picture about something as grand and all encompassing as the World’s most important war. Certain films can do this, but films as broad as Spielberg’s might be at a disadvantage. This is nitpicking of course, but it’s still an important aspect of the screenplay. Red Line, on the other hand, did not carry the pedigree and production values of Private Ryan.
What it did have, however, is the original, creative, and patient eye of Terrance Malick, a director whose technique is naturalistic and deliberate. Malick is not a typical big-budget director like Spielberg, so his ability to put a fresh perspective on an epic war film is what makes Red Line stand alone from other war films. Not above others, but apart from them. Malick appreciates the beauty in nature, and where he lessens grandiose production value, he fills it with important, thought provoking shots of nature; clouds burnt red and gold by the sun, an alligator slinking into the water, the sunlight piercing through a canopy of tropical trees. These shots take the audience away from the action for a specific purpose: they show us the world, the setting in which we fight these battles with each other. These are the things that will be here even after the wars are fought and people are gone. Malick delivers a perspective often overlooked in War films. But Malick’s film is not all imagery, as it has its own share of compelling battle scenes.
The biggest anchor in Red Line is the battle for a ridge between the Japanese and Americans. The majority of the picture deals with either the lead up to the battle, the battle itself, or the aftermath. The way Malick is able to build suspense and create unseen, quiet tension allows the audience to be drawn into the flowing grass plains with these soldiers, many of whom are scared beyond belief. We are down there, hiding in fear with them, unsure of what is beyond the grass plains in the eerie silence.
Saving Private Ryan is an excellent film, one of the five most powerful war films ever. But The Thin Red Line is something new for war pictures. It is the thinking man’s war film, not nihilistic like Apocalypse Now, but more thought provoking than a straight war picture like Private Ryan. That freshness of ideas makes Red Line stand out, not necessarily as a better film, just as a more inventive one.