War and Nature in “The Thin Red Line”

“Nature’s cruel,” says Lieutenant Colonel Tall to Captain Staros as he reassigns his subordinate to the JAGs and sends him back home, and yet The Thin Red Line seems to imply, in every shot, the opposite. It is not nature that is cruel: it is war. The Thin Red Line opens with a shot of a crocodile submerging in the waters of a Melanesian swamp and a voice-over narration by Private Train, who for a time goes AWOL to live among the Melanesian natives: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”  The first minutes of the film are captivated, as Private Train is, by the idealized people and flora and fauna of his surroundings: children play in the sea; birds of paradise watch from the trees; native people live in harmony with their surroundings, all accompanied by the backing of an angelic choir. This is cut short, tellingly, by the appearance of the smoking troop carrier that hosts C Company, Train’s outfit, and that has come to take him back to work — an obvious intrusion of war into paradise. Nature is cruel, says the egotistical Tall, but in the interaction of soldiers and nature we see almost only the destruction of nature. A healthy plant withers under the touch of an American soldier; Japanese and Americans alike burn and decimate the landscape of Guadalcanal; a tense battle scene takes time to focus on a bird who has been injured in the fighting. Shots of Americans struggling to cross a swamp are juxtaposed with those of the birds who watch them do it, and as C Company marches inland, tense and fully armed, they encounter a lone Solomon Islander walking the other way, an old man, alone and barely clothed but serene.

A symbolic binary develops — the Americans and Japanese, the soldiers, come to be associated with fire, what their conflict leaves behind. On the other hand, the native Solomon Islanders and the plants and animals of their home are heavily tied to water: their children swim in it, they sail upon it, and it extends also, for some Americans, to glimpses of the world beyond the war. Private Train swims and canoes with the Melanesians, but for Captain Staros, water and the sea are linked to moments of intimacy of his wife at home, and it is the flow of a river that saves Private Fife from death and allows Private Witt to save the rest of his unit.

The Thin Red Line highlights in many ways the futility and lunacy of war: on both sides, soldiers act irrationally and display moments of behavior that seems insane. A Japanese soldier meditates calmly on the ground while his comrades are routed and slaughtered; an American laughs hysterically and plays with bullet shells. One scene that seems to best exemplify this comes between battles: a C Company soldier stands on a hill, screaming in the sightlines of Japanese guns, and is not shot at. “How come they all had to die,” he yells, “and nothing happens to me?” That war is portrayed as meaningless makes the final interactions between war and nature all the more tragic. As the Americans leave Guadalcanal, we see that conflict and disease have come to the once healthy and happy communities of Solomon Islanders, and a manicured lawn with sprinklers has been set up, absurdly, as a graveyard in the middle of a jungle. “War doesn’t ennoble men. It turns them into dogs, poisons the soul,” writes Captain Staros as he flies home, and The Thin Red Line appears to agree with him. The film closes on a coconut sprouting, improbably, on the shore of the ocean — maybe for nature, it might say, there is a chance at redemption.