Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line

As everyone decries the injustice of another Weinstein Brothers film clutching away the precious best picture Oscar from more important and deserving films, I’m reminded of another Weinstein brothers film stealing Oscars from two much better films. Go back twelve years and another Weinstein Brothers film took the win: Shakespeare in Love. It beat out two of the most important and excellent films of 1998: Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

Today, no one talks about Shakespeare in Love. It left no lasting impression and was little more than a mild amusement. However, both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line revitalized the war genre and spawned a run of modern WWII films. And while both films are important in bringing about that movement, they also have different intentions in depicting the events of WWII.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan taps into the classical WWII film. Much like Bataan from 1943, Saving Private Ryan follows a small squad on a crazy mission which culminates in a final stand against waves of endless enemies. Their mission is in the title of the film: to save the last remaining Ryan in a war that has claimed the lives of his other three brothers.

The Thin Red Line makes the return of Terrence Malick, who crafts one of the most artistic war films ever made. Many have knocked the film for the lack of characterization, plot and an unclear setting. But they fail to realize that these “flaws” are intentional, a deliberate attempt to divorce the audience from the character and the narrative and instead explore something else entirely.

Saving Private Ryan is a deconstruction of the classic WWII combat film. The beach sequence is one of the most violent, grizzly and unpleasant sequences captured on film. Any excitement or sense of adventure that existed in previous WWII films is completely undermined by the horror of the graphic violence and relentless onslaught that occurs on the beaches of Normandy.

Likewise, the solders aren’t those good ole American boys of classic WWII films who fight with a sense of courage and honor. As the Normandy sequence begins to draw to a close, soldiers shoot unarmed men who surrendered. Likewise, once the squad of men goes out searching for Private Ryan, they fight with themselves almost as much as they fight with the Germans. These men aren’t the paragons of virtue, justice and heroics, unified underneath the cause of freedom, but squabbling ruffians.

In contrast, The Thin Red Line is a complete divorce from any previous war film. The film shows little interest in the history or the characters. Instead, WWII becomes a backdrop for Malick to explore the nature of war itself, ruminate on why men are driven to kill each other. He concludes it’s not a struggle against an outward foe, but an inward contention, something Malick sees as innate to human nature, man vying against his very self.

It’s of a rare breed of film that is interested in trying to understand why war arises in the first place. Therefore, the backdrop of WWII has little value. It could be any battle over anything in any place in any time. Malick isn’t interested in the what but the why. The entire film is built around one battle which is driven by a lieutenant colonel’s ambition. The men fighting the battle have little investment in the conflict and many have a bleak and existential view of the whole affair.

In the same way, the squads sent to save Private Ryan see no reason to risk their life for one man. If anything, it seems more like a publicity stunt or a way to make some desk worker sleep easier at night. Here, the American sense of patriotism contorts it to choose a mission that willfully puts the life of one man above the lives of others.

And yet, amid such a construed and messed up mission, the squad’s interpreter, Upham, romanticizes the idea of war. He’s working on a book about the camaraderie forged between men in war only to see it dissolve in front of his eyes. He also sees the mission as a chance to turn himself into a man. But when the moment of opportunity comes, he cowers in fear. Many people come out of Saving Private Ryan hating Upham, but they fail to see that he represents our own tendency to romanticize war where the horror of it doesn’t turn men into heroes, but into babbling boys crying for their mothers.

Likewise, the entirety of The Thin Red Line undercuts the thrill of war. Malick’s films are deeply romantic, drawing the audience deep into beautiful and breathtaking shots, and yet the film undercuts that sense of romanticism with a constant series of dark narrations, grimy visuals and meaningless violence. One of the main death scenes of the film involves a soldier slowly dying after he blows his guts up with his own grenade.

Furthermore, there is little combat in The Thin Red Line. Most of the film is built around slowly working through the tall hills of grass or the dense jungle. There are more shots of grass, trees and rivers than bullets and blood.

While the films share a similarity in this respect, they completely diverge in their conclusions. Saving Private Ryan, for all its deconstruction of war and attempts to portray the horror, ends up lapsing back into the conventions of the WII combat film. The final battle is actually quite entertaining to watch, less visceral and higher on action. It also helps that the audience is watching Nazis get mowed down instead of Americans.

It’s also a film that returns to the sense of patriotism it spends most of the film undermining. The bookends of the film incite a desire to rally around the memories of those who lost dying to preserve the freedom of America and the last shot of the film ends on an American flag. Also, the narration lays on yet another layer of patriotic declaration. And perhaps for the soldiers of WWII, that patriotism proved invaluable.

The Thin Red Line is divorced from identifying with a particular nation. Yes, the film follows the American side, but it humanizes the Japanese far more than it does the Americans. It taps into a sense that in some strange way all of humanity is connected and that no war is a triumph of one group over another, but simply a loss of life on both sides.

What does The Thin Red Line conclude? There is no victory or triumph in The Thin Red Line through battle. War is inevitable; the only thing to do is to find a way cope. For the Sean Penn character, it’s apathy while the Jim Caviezel character seeks some form of transcendence beyond, the belief that there is a life beyond this mortal coil. Which is right? There’s enough proof for each view by the time the credits roll.

Saving Private Ryan starts off as a fantastic reinterpretation of the genre, but by the end lapses back into familiar territory. The Thin Red Line remains far more consistent in ideology. What exactly that is can be debated and this being a Malick film the ending is ambiguous. What can’t be denied is that both of these films helped rework the war genre, pushing it into a new era and setting the bar for war films to a level that, as of yet, has not been reached since.

  • Sometimes I wish these two films weren’t released the same year, since they have so little in common other than that 1998 tag.

    I love them both dearly, which amuses me about TRL since on first watch I didn’t “get it”. They are two radically different takes on war, and two films that have endured amazingly well. Gotta believe that they each could have handily won Best Picture had they not been forced to compete against one another.

    Great post good sir – your insight is quite profound.

  • drush76

    [“Go back twelve years and another Weinstein Brothers film took the win: Shakespeare in Love. It beat out two of the most important and excellent films of 1998: Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.”]

    I’m sorry, but “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” deserved its Best Picture award. Why do I believe this? The backbone of any good movie is the story. And when it came to storytelling, “SIL” ran circles around both “SAVING PRIVATE RYAN” and “THE THIN RED LINE”. It really had a brilliant script. I cannot say the same for the two war movies.

    • Besides the fact that I disagree with the notion that the backbone of any good movie is the story, I honestly strain to find any element of Shakespeare in Love’s story that I think is exemplary or worthy of praise. I think it’s a shallow love story, which is a shame given how many interesting stories Shakespeare wrote.

    • Also, I can’t believe that guy mined this post a year after it originally appeared just so he could say something that silly.

      I just discovered your blog, nice work! TTRL is one of my all-time favorites and I share your love for Malick’s films in general. I’ll be following your stuff.

      • James Blake Ewing

        Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying the site.

        Also, love the name.