Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line

Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line are at times overshadowed by the Sacred Bottom Line.

It’s not every year that two films are released about the American involvement in World War II, let alone any war. And though the comparisons were especially inevitable between the two, it’s a pleasure to see how differently they told their respective stories. How refreshing! But first, the obligatory comparisons:


  • Legendary production staff
  • Visual effects and cinematography
  • Wartime realism, trauma, and humanity
  • First-person styles of photography

Both these films had very competent production hands at their wheels. Saving Private Ryan was of course directed by Steven Spielberg, whose very name these days warrants huge wheelbarrows of money from any sensible production company. The bottom line is ticket sales, despite what vision the director or writer may have.

The Thin Red Line had its own legendary director. Terrence Malick, who directed only two other films in the 70s, came out of seclusion to direct the adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel. Something of a phenomenon, everyone in Hollywood scampered about to be included in his film. Hence, we have cameo appearances by every big name actor in the biz: John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and George Clooney. At times, these faces were slightly distracting to the flow. But more disturbing was 20th Century Fox’s (now Fox 2000) choice of deceptively advertising the film by highlighting these actors when most of them were around only long enough to get killed. Again, the bottom line surfaces.

Then we have the very qualified cinematography teams. With Ryan was Janusz Kaminski, who teamed with Spielberg for Schindler’s List and Amistad. Just as equally equipped, Line‘s cinematographer is no stranger to epics. John Toll also filmed Braveheart and Legends of the Fall.

Another vital member of a good production staff is the composer. Much credit for the moods in these two films should go to two very fine soundtracks. Hans Zimmer, who did the DreamWorks animated epic Prince of Egypt, composed the score for Line (interestingly, his former employer, DreamWorks, is now his competitor of sorts with their release of Ryan). Ryan‘s soundtrack was of course composed by John Williams, maintaining probably the longest Hollywood professional relationship ever (he has worked with Spielberg since Jaws).

The visual reality painted by these films was truly stunning. By now, everyone is very familiar with Spielberg’s captivating opening sequence in Ryan. He did exactly what he set out to do: capture the experience of a soldier on the beach of Omaha. The audience has an invitation to share that experience first-hand. We wade through the bloody waters, trudging toward the beach, ducking enemy fire. If nothing else, Ryan will at least renew your respect for service-men and -women and war veterans.

Likewise, Malick triumphs in setting and mood. From the early scenes of panicked soldiers nervously waiting to hit the shore of Guadalcanal, to the tedious march up the reeded hillside, the director places us inside the film. Malick, too, employs the first-person voice in his photography: ducking in and out of the grass along with the soldiers advancing up the hill, and intimate interaction with the native aborigines. There is some truly mesmerizing photography. Instead of patterned scenes, we’re bombarded with hundreds of them; so many that we begin to feel anesthetized to the visual stimulation. There’s too much to take in with one sitting.


The differences between Ryan and Line are very great. They are most obviously:

  • Depth and impact of the message, whether sentimental or philosophical
  • Pace of the action
  • Audience appeal and accessibility

Spielberg has gotten some flack from the hardball antiwar crowd for Ryan‘s inclusion of sentimentality. Apparently the scenes of the blood-saturated Normandy beaches weren’t enough. Apparently the depiction of very real-to-life injury and mortal terror weren’t enough either. So what if a teary veteran salutes his buried regiment at the Normandy cemetery! What’s so flag-waving about that? Sure it was predictable, but hypothetically speaking, wouldn’t it be natural for that vet to salute in that situation? I didn’t see the big deal. Neither did most of America. Apparently, being true blue patriotic in the midst of anti-establishment cynicism is still largely popular.

What Ryan really succeeded at was not its message against war, but its message for the sacredness of life. These were real boys and men, dying in drones for a cause that none of them really espoused personally, at least not when confronted with their own demise. As Tom Hank’s teacher-turned-soldier Captain Miller said, “finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then… then that’s my mission.” Still others, when faced with death, only wanted the comfort of their mothers, not some political ideal. In this sense, there was a certain ambivalence to the experience, in that the audience is left to decide for itself the dilemma of loyalty to state over loyalty to fellow man.

Jones’ novel was supposed to make Ryan‘s screenplay look more like a bleeding heart flag-waving fest. In some ways, I can believe that. Yet, as with most books that make it to the Silver Screen, the novel had to have been better. To its detriment is the amount of introspection. Malick’s complex characters wax poetic throughout the film in a narrative voice-over. They are searching for meaning, looking for God, and contemplating the existential existence of man.

They have a similar disassociation with the war they are fighting. “It’s all about land,” responds Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welsh, who later refuses a Purple Heart for bravery. If it were up to him, he’d have nothing to do with war. Not so much unpatriotic, but rather, like Ryan, anti-death. Malick uses recurring imagery like water to symbolize the oneness of humankind despite cultural and political differences. He also juxtaposes scenic beauty with ravaged landscape (a termite-gutted tree, etc.) to ask the question, “Why does nature vie with itself?” Mankind, echoing nature, is its own antagonist as war becomes a metaphor for the human soul.

The trouble with Line is that, although it has some really great philosophical points to make about war, I can’t help feeling like the voices of these soldiers are disembodied, that these characters wouldn’t really be making these profound observations without the hindsight with which Mr. Jones obviously writes so masterfully (Jones himself is a veteran and the novel is semi-autobiographical). Perhaps not. Yet, these finer character flaws certainly don’t lessen the impact of Line. I would consider it a masterpiece really, every bit as much as Ryan, but for much different reasons.

Ryan is certainly the most accessible to the masses. It has the more generally accepted formula for crowd pleasing: big loud gruesome opener, steady central plot line, moderately happy ending. It’s also unfortunate, however, because Ryan was about much more than that. It wasn’t mere Hollywood sentiment and cheap blood. On the contrary, this was the most expensive kind.

Even the titles of these films are indicative of their accessibility. “Saving Private Ryan” is about exactly what it says, whereas “The Thin Red Line” is rather elusive. Not having read Jones’ book, I have to speculate, but it probably symbolizes the quiet link shared by all men, the bloodline of humanity. This theme was carried throughout the film (“We are many faces of a single man, one big self”), in that insanity and chaos in war was both a Japanese and an American experience.

Truthfully, I’m not looking forward to this year’s Academy Awards. Both of these WWII films were excellent, but if previous Oscar nights are any indication, then Ryan would be the safer bet, especially since Spielberg’s sweep at the Golden Globes. It’s the same reason that Titanic won instead of Good Will Hunting last year. Historically, it would seem that the Academy is more interested in ticket sales as indicators of quality film. For these reasons, in the midst of heightened public awareness of veteran sacrifice is the overshadowing presence of the Sacred Bottom Line.

Yet, the bottom line is also the public, and I’m afraid that Malick’s vision just didn’t resonate with the people. In my theater, people by the dozen were walking out. While Ryan had them glued to their seats, Line was perhaps too profound and lengthy to keep Joe Moviegoer interested. I won’t say that it takes an “above average” patron to appreciate Line, but people quitting before the curtains drop does say something for the impact.

Some old-school film buffs have said that by putting to film the depiction of war, no matter what the message, you inevitably glorify it. To some degree, I think this is true. However, I think that it is impossible for the individual viewer to gain nothing from the experience of The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan, and in retrospect it would be hard not to learn something about mankind.

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