I have repeatedly stated that I don’t want to choose One Shots based on pure aesthetic value, to which I hold. Yet, this time, I chose a movie where that promise might be difficult to uphold, as the use of aesthetically beautiful images is part of the way it tries to get its point across. It’s very hard not to find a beautiful shot in this film, and it’s equally hard to look further than the immediate beauty of those shots. Because in the most negative of perspectives The Thin Red Line (1998) can be summed up as a multitude of poems, read out loud against the backdrop of paintings. Which is not that negative of a perspective, but it kind of does the movie a disservice and suggests it’s not much of a real motion picture.
When you, however, take the stance that focussing on pure aesthetics for a lot of its running time is what helps The Thin Red Line in making its intriguing and moving point, you might be more inclined to understand why it focuses on aesthetics, and see it as being about more than just ‘making it look pretty’.
To me, The Thin Red Line is unique in that it approaches the war-movie as a platform to explore the tension, co-existence and at times symbiotic relationship between beauty and horror. The whole idea of making a war-movie look gorgeous kind of feels counter-intuitive, at least when you approach the theme of war in a serious way, but it can enhance the impact of the movie. Horror can feel more shocking when it’s contrasted with beauty and serenity. So this time, my One Shot is about beauty, about aesthetics and its underlying message.
The Beauty of War
In 1998 the war-genre gained two modern classics whose approach to the visualization of war was in complete contrast of each other. On the one hand was the gritty, raw, in-your-face style of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) where Janusz Kaminski’s grainy bleached handheld-cinematography ushered in a new era of so-called shaky-cam action movies. Kaminski won an oscar with his work and gained recognition on an almost universal level. On the other hand was Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, with its poetic, painterly images provided by cinematographer John Toll.
The two couldn’t be more different. Private Ryan aimed to tell a classic war-story in the most realistic way possible. It revolutionized the way we viewed action in movies and pushed towards a raw realism that still shocks to this day. It was filled with tough images of death and gore, with blood literally splashing against the lens at times. And it rarely aimed to photograph its story in the most aesthetically pleasing way, opting instead for a handheld approach, filled with raw and jittery footage, which felt uniquely immediate at the time.
So big was the impact of Private Ryan that The Thin Red Line kind of felt lost in its shadow. It received neither the awards-recognition nor the box-office success of Spielberg’s movie and sometimes was even considered already outdated at its release because it’s beauty seemed almost vintage and nostalgic compared to the new realism ushered in by Saving Private Ryan.
Which is understandable. I cannot deny the impact of Saving Private Ryan’s style and approach and believe it will be remembered as being historically more significant for the art of cinematography because of it’s new approaches. BUT, the unfair bit is that for The Thin Red Line to get it’s message across it needed to have that classically beautiful look.
So while technically its cinematography may have been less unique and groundbreaking as Private Ryan’s, the underlying message of its cinematographic choices appear to be the more interesting of the two to me.
‘Make a war movie that looks like a painting’ might have been the direction Terrence Malick gave to John Toll. Because when you create beauty out of something inherently horrifying, you start to get at something interesting, something much more interesting (in my opinion) than the rather simple moral dilemma of actually saving a private named Ryan.
In The Thin Red Line we constantly switch between the paradise-like surroundings of Guadalcanal and the horrors taking place amidst its beauty. We see plants, animals and natives living in peace, and we see soldiers killing each other, dismembered bodies, and all sorts of horrors. And the question, also aimed at the audience, is put out almost from the start, ‘why does nature vie with itself?’
The fascinating point here is that Terrence Malick doesn’t suggest that nature is good, and men are the evil ones that lay waste to her beauty through their wars, as if man and nature are two separate entities. Instead he takes the position that struggle, war and conflict arise from nature itself, that nature is the origin of both beauty and ugliness of both war and peace. They come from the same source and thus cannot be easily separated. Thus, beauty and horror may also be portrayed side by side, there is no clear boundary between them.
Taking all this in mind, it becomes clear that the choice of showing the world of war through an aesthetically pleasing lens is not necessarily a wrong or even weird choice. It simply pushes forward a message. THUS, coming back to my first sentence, The Thin Red Line’s focus on pure aesthetics serves a just purpose, and deserves to be recognized in my blog!
So which painting did I choose? My eyes fell on one that contains both the beauty of nature and the threat of war in one frame, while also suggesting a relationship between beauty and horror.
The shot is quite a long one, with zero camera movement. It shows a riverbed surrounded by the dark green shades of the jungle, with a compositionally perfectly aligned light source in the distance. It oozes rest, calm and beauty, until slowly the jungle starts to move and figures start to appear. Slowly soldiers, covered in camouflage, crawl out of the shadows and walk towards the camera. First a few, then more and more appear. In the film that shot creates a significant tension which helps to build up towards the last climatic confrontation of the movie (wherein one of the lead characters dies), but it also is designed completely around the themes I laid out previously. It shows beauty through its use of light and dark and composition. It almost hypnotizes the viewer with its looks, and then it slowly starts to transform into a more threatening image. And through the way it shows the soldiers slowly appearing, as if they originated in the jungle, it also strongly underscores the idea that war, violence and conflict literally arise from nature.
These kind of shots really make me sit back and take notice. At first simply because of their beauty, but when you re-watch the movie, sit back and ponder its meaning you start to discover the underlying message and really start to understand the ideas behind the cinematography.
Perhaps that is why The Thin Red Line will always be the more interesting movie of the two. Saving Private Ryan is astonishing in its technical marvels and immersive approach, but each and every shot is easily digested and understood. They all work perfectly in creating an effect, but they don’t really push the viewer to sit back and take notice, to really digest them and understand them. The Thin Red Line does this in abundance throughout its running time and this One Shot is one of its best.