Thursday, November 17, 2011

'The Thin Red Line' and Epic Cinema vs. 'Saving Private Ryan' and Dramatic Cinema

Examining the theory of epic cinema derived from the work of Aristotle we can devise a set of characteristics of contemporary cinema in order to differentiate can example of epic cinema from the more culturally dominant style of dramatic cinema. This analysis will compare Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, examining the different modes of address between the films to formulate an argument about the epic cinema and specific differences in the technique adopted by the filmmakers.

Drawing from the work of Aristotle, the epic cinema is a mode of storytelling that can incorporate both the lyric (the subjective, intimate point-of-view) with the dramatic (action and speech between two or more persons) through varying modes of address and typically altered chronology and temporality. Saving Private Ryan adopts a mould of filmmaking developed by D.W Griffith in Birth of a Nation (1915), the creation of binary relationships between different images, constituting a parallel organic montage with one image succeeding another according to a rhythm.

From the intellect of Gilles Deleuze in 'Cinema 1: The Movement Image', "these parts necessarily act and react on each other to show how they simultaneously enter into conflict and threaten the unity of the organic set, and how they overcome the conflict or restore the unity. In Spielberg's film the characters are positioned within the frame and share dialogue purely for dramatic effect, as the editing simultaneously quickens and the audience is asked to process multiple convergences towards a climax. Typically this is the Hollywood mode of filmmaking, often inducing acknowledgement of the hero.

The Thin Red Line adopts a mode of cinema with very different politics. In Malick's film, there is no hierarchy of humans, soldiers are often almost completely hidden by their surrounding environment, and the jungles are given the same significance as the human characters in the film. Epic cinema has the power to remain non-enamoured in perspective, and have more interest in menial objects like a flowing stream, or a sun-drenched canopy, than the human. The epic cinema also has the power of 'interruptability', adopting a fragmented narrative with indifference to chronology. The Thin Red Line chooses not to focus its narrative on American patriotism, and represents both the Americans and the Japanese as equally destructive. This is in opposition to Saving Private Ryan, which only includes one German in the central narrative, but purely to fuel conflict within the squad and provide moral tension in the character of Upham.

The dramatic mode of cinema (Ryan) works with chronological direction, with the narrative featuring no alternation in temporality, working in the present (despite the events of the entire film being a flashback), and executing to the logic of cause/effect. Spielberg works with the traditional three-act structure (opening with the D-Day assault, followed by the mission to find Ryan, concluding with the defence of Ryan's life and their territory). The Thin Red Line's only real narrative (and similarity to Ryan) is the squad's advance on the Japanese controlled hill and the struggle between Toll (Nick Nolte) and Staros (Elias Koteas) over the course of the advance. This remains ultimately only a minor part of Malick's world, a world that deviates from the linear by de-linking philosophical voice-over from the image and incorporating instances of flashback.

What is interesting about Malick's film is the delay of the onset of violence, foreshadowing the violence to come with the grisly discovery of two bodies of tortured marines, creating tension simply by having nothing happen. We do not see the remains of destroyed buildings, or hear distant explosions; we see a Melanesian elder walk past, ignoring the presence of the Americans. Malick is searching for something more universal than 'man', while Spielberg's intentions are to create a journalistic evocation of war, carefully grouping the characters within the frame to demonstrate a hierarchy, forcing us to identify with Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), the film's 'hero'. Malick never asks us to identify specifically with one character, except perhaps Witt, whose voice-overs frame the film.

Malick's film oozes with natural energy and there are countless times that we witness instances of violence inter-cut with beautiful images of the surrounding rainforest. In one scene we see a bird writhing in the mud, and you aren't sure whether it is being born (new life starting to oppose the horrifying deaths) or in fact dying like the Japanese soldiers following the raid on the town. It is an illusion, The Thin Red Line suggests, to think that we can look at nature the way it appears to look at us - as a spectacle distinct from the looking. Bersani, in his essay 'One Big Soul (The Thin Red Line)', uses the example of the owl, represented in the scene following Witt's death, described as "a spectator of the terror and imminent violence below and around it, sitting and looking at all in which it is not implicated." In a further example of this theme, while under heavy gunfire, the camera captures a snake threatening a soldier, who is attacked at once by man and nature.

James Morrison, in his review of The Thin Red Line, describes the film as "aspiring to the grandeur of the Epic, to a narrative that remains tied to a set of given patterns self-consciously recombined and arranged with the impartial sophistication of a chronicler attuned to the grid-work of collective unconsciousness." In the early attack sequences, as the Americans are attempting to progress through the grass and over the hill, we see the camera often adopting a formal manoeuvre of a diagonal decentred tracking shot that glides over multiple plains of action, first following one character and then shifting to adopt another perspective.

Maintaining a consistent below-grass level, these tracking shots are separated by intimate close-ups, demonstrating Deleuze's idea of the affection image, very different to the common mid-shot of the men in Ryan. Spielberg utilises the close-up in a different way, typically as a series of reaction shots following a dramatic moment of conflict within the squad. In no scene is this more apparent than the heated discussion following Miller's decision to let the German prisoner walk free, strapped with a blindfold.

Saving Private Ryan's montage continually frames the squad in the shape of a triangle, tightly enclosed by the frame, effectively unifying the characters into a wall of multiple depths of field. In the shot moving through the village, the squad accumulates to the right of Miller within the frame, fully filling the frame but leaving a gap to the left that becomes the focus of the scene's movement. The gap is a typical device to convey the film's sense of consistent forward motion. In The Thin Red Line this invocation of unified forward progression is stifled by the camera's sideways motion and isolated groupings of soldiers across a wider frame.

Consistent forward motion in the film is only strongly evident after the squad takes the hill. Marching through the mist towards the village, the Americans remain scattered with their bayonets pointed in a strikingly forward position. The men are facing opposition by the Japanese soldiers, standing beyond the mist in a 'wall' structure resembling the tight positioning of the squad in Spielberg's film. The camera then follows the individual soldiers with a tracking shot as they sprint forward (not sideways) through the village. These framing devices reveal that Ryan is more interested in a progressive narrative that continually moves forward, while The Thin Red line is more enamoured in irregularity, and lacks the narrative drive.

Despite a cinema release within six months of one another both films have very different approaches to World War II, comparable through dramatic narrative structuring through montage and framing, instances of altered chronology and the camera's focus in The Thin Red Line encompassing the hero, establishing a more lyrical and universal analysis of a world destroyed by war.


  1. Great essay Andy. Particularly on the difference between what is obviously two great movies that I love. At the time when both films had come out, I would say that Saving Private Ryan was a better film. Years later has I've gained a much broader understanding towards film and cinema. I found myself more drawn by The Thin Red Line.

    Oh, there is a great trivia about both films that I heard on the commentary track on The Thin Red Line. During production for both films, cinematographer John Toll was emailing his wife, who was a longtime makeup artist for Spielberg, as she was working on Saving Private Ryan. When Spielberg asked her who she was emailing, she told him that her husband was working on The Thin Red Line. This gets Spielberg to make contact with Malick. Malick would give Spielberg a Japanese war flag while Spielberg gave Malick a production jacket.

  2. That was an great read! Both are beautiful films in their own ways I think. TRL revels in the beauty of nature and its flowing cinematography and unhurried pace. SPR has that amazing desaturated colour, war reporter style handheld cinematography and amazing production design. For me the forward momentum and more traditional narrative structure of SPR is a much more entertaining experience but TRL has a much more poetic, reflective mood and tone that probably rewards more repeat viewings.

  3. Nice comparison. I do appreciate the different approaches both films have. I think one does their approach much better than the others. I don't think I have to say which.

  4. I must admit I love both films, and it's incredibly difficult for me to choose between them. I suppose I lean in favour of Malick's film.

  5. @ Steven - Thanks. I agree, initially I enjoyed Saving Private Ryan much more than The Thin Red Line, but I seem to appreciate the latter so much more every time I see it - and it's one of my favourite films. I haven't had the desire to put in SPR in a while, despite always finding myself blown away by some of the scenes. That's some great trivia too - glad the two guys got to share a moment. Pity neither of them won the Best Pic oscar.

    @ Pete - That is exactly right. I could not agree more. I have found myself rewarded by TTRL on multiple viewings and it has this meditative pace which delays the onset of violence but first places man within nature (in harmony - through Witt) before the carnage starts. I think some of the battle scenes in TTRL are amongst the best ever filmed - that assault on the bunker and their attack on the village. Wow. SPR has always been about bringing the harrowing realism of the front to an audience as though it was documented that day - but it's also about presenting the American soldiers in a heroic light and adhering to a story structure. I admire both films, but they are each very different and present different modes of filmmaking, and as a result, create different feelings in the audience.

  6. @ Red - Thanks for reading, and for sharing the article, mate!

    @ James - I think I know which one you mean. I do like SPR also, but I think I exhausted my desire to see it, having viewed it countless times at the start of the decade. When I grew to appreciate TTRL, and it's very different style (epic cinema) it's a film that has rewarded me on multiple occasions, and is still one of my favourites.

    @ Tyler - I do too! I wanted to expose a few differences in the approach to cinema used by Speilberg and Malick - and why one feels the way it does - and how the techniques used by the filmmakers relate to either the epic or the dramatic cinema.

  7. Wow, Andy, that was fantastic! I am very impressed with what you wrote! I always do appreciate people who can use words so beautifully to describe the world around them like you do! One of your best posts!

  8. Aww, thank you Aziza. That is so nice of you to say. I'm really glad you enjoyed it :-) You also just watched The Thin Red Line recently didn't you? I imagine it would have been of especial interest to you. Thanks for reading!

  9. Insightful essay and excellent analysis Andy. Both films are great and I love both pretty much equally, I'm not sure why people have them competing against each other or something.

  10. You put a lot of work into this Andy. After seeing 'Thin Red Line' earlier this year, I think quiet war movie is a good term for it. While it has it's big fight sequences, it's more about the lives and emotions of these warriors. 'Saving Private Ryan' also manages to delve into the emotions of their characters, but the ultimate goal is to make a Hollywood epic. I don't think Malick is ever considered with that.

  11. Fantastic essay. I wrote something really similar to this over the summer. It's a fun challenge, comparing these two flicks. You nailed it.

  12. Thanks for reading buddy. I appreciate the kind words. I'll have to check out yours now!