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.