Posted by: ckckred | December 5, 2013

The Thin Red Line

the thin red line walking

After making Badlands and Days of Heaven, two of the most critically beloved movies of the 70s, Terrence Malick virtually disappeared from Hollywood, only to return 20 years later in 1998 with The Thin Red Line.  Much has happened during Malick’s hiatus, with the era of New Hollywood, a wave the director was part of, disappearing and a new age of studio dominated films beginning.  But Malick’s return to the silver screen is bigger and bolder than anything he’s done before.  Armed with a fifty million dollar budget and a star-studded cast, Malick made his most ambitious and best movie.  The Thin Red Line is the strongest war movie since the gold standard of the genre: Apocalypse Now.  Its sheerness and wildly surreal story may be disorienting for some, but I found it to be an enchanting experience.

There is no direct narrative, just a simple overview that encompasses the entire film.  Set in Guadalcanal in the Pacific, The Thin Red Line tells how a group of American marines attempt to take the island away from the Japanese in World War II.  The movie follows no direct protagonist, but three characters played by Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and Jim Caviezel have the largest roles.  Nolte is Lt. Colonel Tall, a gruff, withered old soldier who has been ignored and neglected by his superiors and sees the battle as his last chance for victory.  Penn is Sergeant Welsh, a marine who views war with bitterness and spite and looks down at soldiers with a condescending attitude.  And Caviezel is Private Witt, who like Welsh dislikes war but sees the best in people.  “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.” he claims.  “All faces are the same man.”

A majority of the movie centers on these men along with many other soldiers attempting to capture a hill under the command of the Japanese.  At the top, the Japanese have a small bunker that gives them a clear view of all the turf, giving them an enormous advantage.  Tall orders his marines to take the field, no matter how costly the risk.  From there on out, The Thin Red Line switches perspectives from various soldiers including Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), a man who yearns for his wife back home, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who refuses to allow his men to pointlessly die in a suicide mission.

The Thin Red Line has a large cast to fill its epic landscape.  Terrence Malick had reportedly had a first cut ranging over five hours.  Actors like Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, and Mickey Rourke shot scenes that did not appear in the movie and even some of the cast members in the picture hardly have a presence in the picture; George Clooney, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, and John Travolta are only in the movie for about a total a few minutes.  Malick’s decision may be perplexing to some, but his intention is to convey the true chaos of war.  All the faces in The Thin Red Line, no matter the screen time, reveal the characters’ terror and grief.  Even the Japanese soldiers, who are not directly seen until the last half, have the same horror and dread.

Malick’s meticulous production matters clearly radiant throughout the movie.  The director’s love of nature is reflected through serene images of the Guadalcanal jungle, of the towering trees, slithering reptiles, and the glistening grass.  Malick allows the camera to move through the leaves and jump from the soldier’s faces.  Even the violent setting doesn’t seem to affect the peacefulness of the surrounding world, suggesting that war and nature do not mix together.

Released a few months after the other big World War II movie of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line was somewhat neglected by the much bigger combat picture.  While they take places on the two different sides of the world, they aren’t too different.  Both make the statement that war is hell, most evidently reflected by Ryan in the Omaha beach scene, as well as making the connection of soldiers’ despair and desire for their homes.  Saving Private Ryan is a great movie with its bold tone but The Thin Red Line is a better one.  It attempts to address the concerns of many of the people who fought to protect their country.

To many, The Thin Red Line might be cold and empty.  For myself, it’s an uplifting tragedy, a movie that attempts to convey the morality in the worst parts of life.


  1. I remember trying to watch this years ago before I knew much about Malick. After having seen The Tree of Life I don’t feel tempted to try to rewatch it. Don’t think I’m someone who is able to appreciate it.

    • Try checking it out again. I think it’s probably an easier watch than The Tree of Life and it’s one of the best war movies I’ve seen.

  2. Nice stuff. This happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time, so I need to really do my own review of it at some point. I find it endlessly enchanting and fascinating, especially in the way it deals with its narrative and characters, as if they are specks on the face of a larger and more mystifying and beautiful existence. It takes an almost God’s-eye view of everything that happens, which I particularly find wonderful, but I know plenty of people who really hate the film. To each their own, but I certainly find it enriching.

    • Thanks! I really love Malick’s perspective of war; it’s one of the most original pictures I’ve seen about combat. Like you said it’s not a film for everyone but it’s stunning.

  3. I haven’t seen this film for years, but remember thinking it was good at the time. Now I know more about Malick I think I need to reappraise it and see what I think now. I will probably like it even more, although I couldn’t stand Tree of Life, so who knows!

    • Definitely try seeking it out again. I saw it last week and I already feel like I should watch it another time this weekend.

  4. Definitely very good, this one. Better than Private Ryan? I don’t know. Equal to it. I’d say that much without hesitation.

    • I do love Ryan, but The Thin Red Line struck an emotional cord for me. I felt that it managed to convey the chaos of war and the peacefulness of nature.

      • That’s fair. It did, at that. 😉

  5. I need to take another look at this film. I did have a problem with Malick’s narrative, but that could be me. Fine look, ckckred.

    • Thanks! I can see the narrative as a bit troublesome and it took me a little while to adjust, but I thought it was a masterpiece.

  6. Great review. The cast is so large and star-studded, with many actors I like. I might have to give this a wee look.

    • Thanks! A lot of the big actors like George Clooney and John C. Reilly have small roles, but the cast is amazing.

  7. Haven’t seen it in awhile, but from what I remember, it sure was a beaut. Good review.

    • Thanks! It’s really amazing how Malick could find beauty out of war.

  8. I’ve got this one lined up to watch. I struggled a bit with The Tree of Life but I like the sound of this one.

    • It’s a bit more accessible than The Tree of Life, but takes some time to digest. I couldn’t find anything to complain; it’s the best war movie since Apocalypse Now.

  9. I really have to watch this again! Good write up!

  10. Outstanding sir! I absolutely love this film. It’s in my personal top ten and agree that this is Malick’s best film. Great review!

    • Thanks! Malick has made so many great movies but I think this is the most emotionally powerful. Superb film and a masterpiece for sure.

  11. Like, like, like! One of my very favourite and most cherished movies. Good on you for giving it some love with this awesome post.

    • Thanks! I saw it last week, and that viewing has me craving to see it again. One of the best films I’ve seen.

  12. I would argue and say that Jim Caviezel is the direct protagonist.

    • Jim Caviezel probably had the biggest role out of all the characters, but I think he didn’t really have enough screen time to be the main protagonist. Thanks for the comment.

  13. I LOVE Jim Caviezel in this, glad he got the biggest role here. He’s such an underrated actor! This one is perhaps one of my fave war-themed films as it focused more on the soldiers’ psyche instead of the battle scenes.

    • Thanks for the comment. Caviezel is great and really brings much humanity to the movie. I love how Malick juxtaposes nature to war.

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