The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezal, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Miranda Otto, John Travolta, Dash Mihok, David Harrod, Nick Stahl, George Clooney.
1998 166 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, profanity, brief nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 21, 1999.
Terrence Malick, widely regarded as one of the most visually stunning film directors of all time, made two films in the '70s, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," respectively, and then completely vanished for many years. His first film in twenty years, "The Thin Red Line," set during World War II, is like no other war picture I have ever seen; one of extraordinary beauty that goes beyond the norm of simply setting up characters and battles (even those the film does have these) and into a plain of astonishing metaphysics.
In a surprising turn from a regular movie set during a war which usually begins in the depths of a battle, "The Thin Red Line" starts out with an unidentified man (Jim Caviezal) gently walking around and observing a Melanesian village, where the natives all appear to be in a state of deep harmony. As I watched this striking prologue, the film really was able to fill me with a strange feeling of inner peace, especially in a small, moving scene where he has a warm conversation with one of the female natives who is holding her tired, young child. Eventually, this peaceful tranquility is interrupted with an oncoming war ship, and we discover that the man is actually the AWOL soldier, Private Witt, who is being picked up by his gruff commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). The ship is headed for Guadalcanal, and soon we are placed directly in the middle of the infamous battle, where the soldiers alternate through voice narration in pondering some of their deepest thought about their lives and human nature, in general.
Due to the timing of the film, comparisons are inevitable between "The Thin Red Line" and last summer's "Saving Private Ryan," although they are actually quite different in style. While "Saving Private Ryan" contained graphic battle scenes, the film itself was undoubtedly more mainsteam and accessible for regular audiences, due to its neatly written characters and story, as well as the occasionally oversentimental emotions (after the success of "Patch Adams," I have realized how much most Americans love corny, melodramatic situations). "The Thin Red Line," on the other hand, plays like a lyrical poem, much more meditative and thought-provoking in its ideas and treatment. Not only that, but even though it is not as bloody as "...Ryan," I found myself much more enthralled with this picture, particularly in its reflective storytelling techniques and seemingly more realistic overall depiction of war.
"The Thin Red Line" has been almost unanonymously acclaimed by critics, but it has been seldomly criticized for its use of narration, which is said throughout the film by eight different characters, telling us their personal thoughts. Some critics object to the scholarly and overtly mature thoughts that are swarming in the soldiers' heads, which I find to be a rather offensive complaint towards those who have ever fought in a war. The truth is that humans naturally have many, many thoughts constantly in their minds, and I find it wholly believable that people under such life-threatening circumstances would think and question themselves about things of such importance and meaning.
For a large majority of its almost three-hour running time, "The Thin Red Line" is set in the midst of the battle of Guadalcanal, and it is here that we get to know the wide array of characters. Terrence Malick acquired a huge cast of people, both known and unknown, and it was only in the editing room that he structured the film, while trying to cut a rumored million feet of film down to three hours. Because of this, previously expected storylines were completely dropped and some cast members totally disappeared from the final cut, such as Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas. Regardless of this fact, and the unorthodox way that the characters enter and exit the picture without much of an introduction or farewell, I was pleasantly surprised that I still was able to get to know the people, even if it only was from body language or subtle observation. Ben Chaplin is, perhaps, the most effective in the cast as a soldier who often is reminiscing about his angelic wife (Miranda Otto) back home. As Witt, Jim Caviezal also makes an impression due to his brilliant performance in the opening section set at the Melanesian village. After "Affliction," Nick Nolte does another high-powered turn as the always-hollering Lt. Col. Tall, and obviously put his heart and soul (as well as his voice box) into the role. Finally, Woody Harrelson is heartbreaking as the doomed Sergeant Keck, and Elias Koteas poignantly portrays the scared and confused Capt. James Staros, who fears risking the lives of his men when ordered to ascend farther up the hill upon the Japanese enemies. The only flaw in the cast (and it isn't the actor's fault) is George Clooney, who appears right at the end and comes off as an example of pointless casting in order to get another "big name" star.
Coming away from "The Thin Red Line," I was not only struck by the intriguing questions the film brings up, but also the unforgettable images that appear throughout. As a visual stimulant, the recent "In Dreams" and this film certainly do the trick unlike anything else I've seen in a long time. As the camera gracefully moves among the giant, swaying blades of grass, the film causes you to feel like you have physically entered into the exotic setting. Other images of equal pulchritude include the shots of the sun gleaming through the trees; the bamboo stalks blowing in the wind; an alligator slowly descending into the depths of a river; and a fatally wounded baby chick wrestling around on the ground for dear life. For a mainstream audience used to conventional fare, "Saving Private Ryan" will most likely seem superior in their eyes because this film is more deliberately paced. However, for those viewers interested in a phenomenally more challenging piece of work, "The Thin Red Line" is the way to go. Along with Oliver Stone's "Platoon," "The Thin Red Line" is easily the best war film I have seen and, just in the way that Malick takes WWII and then is able to transform everything into a more meaningful tapestry about human nature, is an amazing triumph that proves what a master Terrence Malick is at his craft. Hopefully, he won't wait until the year 2018 to make his next masterwork.
©1999 by Dustin Putman