It's difficult to summarize the film's plot or even its underlying themes. In terms of the "right way" to do things -- that is, in film-school terms -- The Thin Red Line is a total mess. When I complained after a first viewing that it had no narrative structure to speak of, a colleague protested that, disregarding a ten-minute prologue, it had a classic three-act structure: the big battle, the recuperation after the battle, and the final confrontation. Though my friend is in some sense correct, he stretches the meaning of act, given that these three "acts" consume 111 minutes, 22 minutes, and 19 minutes, respectively.
Nor, despite its wealth of reflection, can The Thin Red Line be said to have any recognizable thematic development or any consistent connection between action and idea. In most great narratives, the action represents -- or, at best, is even congruent with -- a synthesis of conflicting ideas, generally as perceived through the eyes of a protagonist. But no one learns much of anything in The Thin Red Line. And there is no protagonist. (The former can be said, of course, of all of Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces.)
One of the film's most off-putting characteristics is its rambling point of view. As in Badlands and Days of Heaven, the story is held together by voice-over narration. But while in his earlier films Malick told his stories through the voice of one character, this time around he mixes the musings of more than a half-dozen narrators. The one closest to being a protagonist is Witt (Jim Caviezel), a likable private with twin propensities for philosophical speculation and going AWOL. It is Witt whom we meet during the Edenic prologue, hiding out on a small island in the South Pacific, where he basks in the beauty of nature and the unspoiled kindness of the natives.
But like all Edens this one is temporary: When an American ship happens by, Witt is arrested and put in the custody of his long-time friend-nemesis Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who reassigns him as a stretcher-bearer for the upcoming assault on the Japanese positions at Guadalcanal. After a brief stay in the purgatory of the ship's brig, Witt finds himself forced into the hell of battle.
The mission is commanded by a general (John Travolta) and a bitter, older West Point-er, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who sees it as his last chance for glory. (Travolta, appropriately, does not receive star billing; he's present for one or two scenes, totaling no more than four minutes. This is a veritable lead role, however, compared to George Clooney's Captain Bosche. Clooney, who does get star billing alongside Nolte, Caviezel, Penn, and several others, is on screen for a single, undemanding two-minute scene.)
Witt is the most frequent narrator, but Malick also gives time to Welsh, Tall, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), and three or four others. Often as not the device is confusing: We don't always see who's speaking, and several characters seem to have identical voices, prose styles, and delivery. Malick may want to emphasize the internal commonality of humans -- which is one of the themes the voice-overs repeatedly address -- but this uniformity is nonetheless irritating. Even if the device is supposed to reflect that we are all simply different manifestations of the One Great Human Consciousness, its practical effect is to undercut clarity and narrative momentum.
Indeed the archly poetic stream of consciousness of these narrators is frequently annoying. In the midst of an apparent war film it is disorienting to hear Bell's thoughts of his absent wife, "We together... one being... flow together like water till I can't tell you from me.... I'd drink you... No now," or Welsh's "Darkness and light, strife and love: Are they the workings of one mind, the feature of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made, all things shining."
And yet these flaws are ones of ambition: Unlike Spielberg, who could, of course, much better afford to take such risks, Malick is willing to try something utterly different. Actually, the brilliant you-are-there brutality of Private Ryan's initial combat scene was just such a risk, but the rest of the film effectively but comfortably fits our genre expectations. Malick undercuts these expectations at every turn, potentially alienating his audience. And indeed the first industry screening of The Thin Red Line left many viewers grumbling and baffled. For me the film worked infinitely better on second viewing -- primarily because, being familiar with its pace and structure, I was able to relax and simply absorb the experience of the film.