Contrary to what many believe, The Passion of the Christ was not actor Jim Caviezel’s first appearance in the role of Jesus. That distinction goes to his part as Private Witt in 1998’s neglected masterpiece, The Thin Red Line.
Loosely based on James Jones’s 1962 book of the same name, the film takes place in the Pacific during World War II—specifically, the bloody conflict at Guadalcanal. But while there are several extended battle scenes, the movie is less about war than it is a study of sin and its ravages on man and creation.
Sadly, the film suffered from wrongheaded marketing and failed at the box office. If you had seen the movie trailers, you would have come away expecting Saving Private Ryan in Asia. I watched the film for the first time in a theater with four other couples. An hour into it, two of the couples left. Not the movie they wanted.
It’s a shame, though not a surprise. The Thin Red Line isn’t as accessible as The Passion of the Christ—quite a feat, considering that the latter film is entirely in Latin and Aramaic. Nevertheless, The Thin Red Line is the more complicated movie. The plot drifts through the minds of several major and minor characters, their thoughts communicated in frequent voice-overs and dreamlike flashbacks. It’s all a bit disorienting at first. Who is speaking now? To whom does this memory belong?
But perseverance is rewarding, especially for the moviegoer who enjoys decoding a film’s symbolism. It opens with Private Witt, who has fled the army and is hiding in a native island village. The people are happy in their tropical Garden of Eden. There is no fighting or argument—sin has not yet come to them.
The arrival of the military, searching for Witt and his accomplice in the escape, changes all that. When he returns to the village later in the film, Witt sees firsthand the effects of sin. The villagers have become violent and jealous.
But Witt is himself a different man. His time in the village transformed him from a self-centered coward to a Christ figure, ready to sacrifice himself to save the others. (In one of the more obvious uses of symbolism, Witt “baptizes” a wounded soldier by a river, pouring cold water from a canteen over his head.) His final sacrifice at the end of the film is no less powerful for being expected.
Perhaps the most interesting scenes in the movie involve Witt’s conversations with Sergeant Welsh, played by Sean Penn. Welsh embodies the views of secular society—there’s no world but this one, you have to look out for yourself, etc. Witt, having seen that other world, knows better. While both men are in their own ways noble, only Witt has the virtue of hope and can live and fight for that Being greater than himself, whose existence is borne out in the beauty of His creation.
When The Thin Red Line was released, some conservative critics dismissed it outright. It promoted pantheism, they claimed, wrongly attributing that religion to the natives in the film (and forgetting, apparently, a scene where the villagers march in procession, singing a Christian hymn behind their Bible-toting pastor). If those same critics had looked more carefully, they would have seen the movie for what it is: a poetic retelling of salvation history, from the Garden of Eden, through the Fall, and into a world torn apart by the effects of that first sin.
In the end, the film tells us, all earthly things will pass away. Those who base their lives solely on power or wealth—even the fervent love of a spouse—are bound to be disappointed. Better to see those things as signposts, pointing to the One who alone satisfies our hearts and makes our lives worthwhile.