The Thin Red Line by Terrance Malick features a subdued soundtrack which serves to create a strong sense of interiority and personalization. Though the film is based upon a fierce battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, the sound of the film avoids much of the overpowering sound which is a feature of many films of this genre. I believe that Terrance Malick wanted to create an artistic but realistic view of the war from the vantage point of the soldiers had the misfortune of fighting it. The sound design of the film was an important element in accomplishing this endeavor.
The controlled combination of sound and silence helps the viewer understand the events from the eyes of those who experienced it. Eq is used to help highlight this interiority. As a voiceover reveals the philosophy of a young soldier who has experienced brutal fighting, the sounds of the environment surrounding the soldier are dimmed with the high-end of the frequency spectrum diminished. The low-end of the sound spectrum still exists at a reduced level which helps to place the soldier in the his environment but space remains for the voiceover to deliver a powerful message. This technique makes us feel more connected with the thoughts of the soldier therefore producing a stronger relationship between the audience and the character. This technique is prominent in the aftermath of a battle between the Americans and Japanese. As Private Witt stares into the face of dead Japanese soldier, the sounds of the surrounding chaos is muted and a voiceover from the dead Japanese soldier fills the sound space and delivers a message which shows the similarity of men in the contrasting armies. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film and the emotion was achieved, in part, through the use of sound isolation.
Films such as Saving Private Ryan, for example, highlight the chaos of war through an intense and violent soundtrack. Explosions, gun fire, and men’s scream fill the sound space, leaving little room for space between sound effects. While this level of noise does have a powerful effect on the viewer’s psyche, it can lose its effect quite quickly. The intense amplification of the battle sounds only serves to spotlight the exteriority of the events taking place. In other words, it fails to connect with the viewer on an emotional level in the same way as The Thin Red Line. For example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan features the American invasion of German occupied France at Omaha Beach. The Americans are immediately met with gunfire from heavily fortified German defenses overlooking the beach. As the intensity of the battle grows, the sound level continues to increase to the point where the entire frequency range has a high, consistent amplitude. The invasion of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line uses a completely different approach. When the American troops storm the beach, they are met with complete silence. They are not fired upon and the sound of nature quickly fills the soundscape.”As in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, where the conquistadores are continually threatened by unseen natives while surrounded by thick vegetation, unrelenting heat, and the eerie sounds of exotic birds, Malick sustains the tension ‘simply by having nothing happen'”(Lloyd Michaels 59). Understanding that danger is ever present but not knowing where it lies creates the tension of the scene. This use of silence is as powerful, if not more so, than the overtly clear use of powerful sound effects featured in the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Terrance Malick’s understanding of the powerful use of contrasting sound and silence adds another level of complexity to an already gripping story. The focus on a subdued sound space helps set this film apart from others of the same genre and helps create a strong emotional connection between the characters and the audience.