Rediscovering The Thin Red Line (1998) – Editing Micro-moments + A New Type of Battle Scene

Just rewatched this 1998 Terence Malick war film about a battle vs the Japanese in the Pacific in WWII. I want to break down frame-by-frame two battle explosion moments that left me awestruck as well as mention a few of Malick’s choices during key fight scenes.

Editing Moment 1.) Blood spatter on the lens

Sorry for the poor quality, but watch this clip and pay most attention to the end, the blood spatter moment.

I had to watch that moment 6 times and then I still couldn’t break it down so I did some frame-by-frame screen grabs: He cut between two shots but cut to the left half of the second shot one frame before adding the right half of the second shot. So he leaves it split screen for one frame.

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With the frame below and the spatter, I’m curious if that’s a separately-shot element or if that’s a burned-in part of this first shot.

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As the man falls down, Malick cuts to a left-side portion of a new explosion shot which exactly matches the shape of the fallen man in the previous frame. He leaves up the right side of the old shot for this frame-

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And now, he cuts so the entire frame is taken up by that new left shot.

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I don’t really know how to articulate the strategy behind cutting this way, but it felt new and innovative and exciting to watch.

Editing Moment 2.) Quick cross dissolves 

In capturing an exploding Japanese bunker, Malick uses cross dissolves (or maybe just double exposures) across four shots – here’s the frame by frame.

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The impression of this explosion’s sparks is left in part of the below close-up:

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That spark above in the final close-up man frame is a superimposition from this next shot:

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Here’s a quick cut to the head of a Japanese man being shellshocked by the explosion:

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The structure is:

1 frame white

1 frame EXT explosion 1

4 frames CU man 1

2 frames EXT explosion 2

2 frames CU man 2

Many frames EXT smoke clearing

These transitions combined with the sharp punctuated explosion sounds leads to a transcendent few moments of film.

Other Choices

OK first – who cuts to a single shot of a bird during a battle scene? In this clip Malick cuts to a snake among the troops and then to a shot solely depicting a bloody bird dying. The choice to include nature is a striking one. When I rewatched the film I thought the bird was covered in some sort of birthing fluid and it was actually being born, which I thought was a super interesting juxtaposition with the surrounding death, but I guess a dying bird makes more sense.

And then – this moment where one captive Japanese soldier is hysterical and the one next to him is meditating is incredibly powerful:

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That’s all for now.

#JohnCReilly #SeanPenn #FilmEditing #filmmaking #WoodyHarrelson #cinema #oscars #1998 #editing #TheThinRedLine #TerenceMalick #JohnToll