The Thin Red Line Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

What difference do you think you can make, one single man, in all this madness?

When word got around Hollywood that writer-director Terrence Malick was working on a film after a twenty-year absence from the business, it attracted the attention of numerous high-profile actors who wanted to be in on the action-- Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, and John Travolta. After catching Hollywood's attention with his meditative and lyrical dramas during the Seventies, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven", Malick went into seclusion in Europe after being named best director by the National Society of Film Critics and the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. When Malick finally returned from his self-imposed exile stretching and announced that his next film would be "The Thin Red Line" (based on the James Jones autobiographical novel), Hollywood's A-list came knocking at his door practically begging for whatever acting morsel Malick could send their way. And while 'the other World War II movie' (the first being "Saving Private Ryan") is certainly ambitious in scope and carries Malick's trademark pensive style, it is for these very same reasons that it fails to be the masterpiece that it was anticipated to be.

I'm living by the minute, sir. Counting the seconds. We're going to be landing soon.

The story of "The Thin Red Line" covers the events of the Guadalcanal campaign, which took place between August 7, 1942 and February 8, 1943. The Japanese had occupied Guadalcanal, one of the Southern Solomon Islands in June of 1942, and their strategic objective was to build an airfield from which they could launch attacks aimed at cutting the supply lines between the United States and Australia. With the airfield about to become operational, a decision was made for American forces to invade Guadalcanal and to occupy the airfield, which would make this the first American land offensive in the Pacific Theater.

I want you to attack and attack right now with every man at your disposal!

The story jumps between its five main characters and at least a dozen minor ones. In charge of the ground assault is Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte of "U-Turn"), a commanding officer who cares more about his career prospects than the welfare of the men under him. Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas of "Fallen" and "Exotica") is in charge of Charlie Company, and in contrast to Tall, cares deeply for his men, and is unwilling to let them throw away their lives needlessly, which leads to a significant conflict later on. Second-in-command of Charlie Company is Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn of "U-Turn"), a cynical soldier who uses his tough exterior to hide his humanity. Private Witt (James Caviezel of "G.I. Jane"), a man who lingers on the beauty of nature and yearns for a simple life, has just been captured after going AWOL and is thrust into the madness of battle. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin of "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") is driven by his desire to return home to see his wife, who he thinks about constantly, even in the thick of battle. And while the beach landing is a non-event without a single shot being fired, the soldiers soon pay dearly for every inch of territory they capture as they pursue the Japanese forces into the verdant mountains. It is here that the characters begin to unravel in the heat of battle, staring into the face of death, surrounded by the carnage of their fallen friends, and fighting off the thick scent of death.

I have lived with these men for two-and-a-half years, and I will not order them to their deaths.

"The Thin Red Line" is the type of film that polarizes its audience-- the critics will love it, calling it 'brilliant' or 'a masterpiece', while the general moviegoing population will not express so much enthusiasm for it, likening it to a visit to the dentist. Like Malick's "Days of Heaven", "The Thin Red Line" is a slow and meditative film that eschews plot in favor of poetic images. The cinematography by John Toll is striking, capturing a number of memorable images, such as the death throes of an injured bird, dogs feeding on the remains of the recently-deceased, and the partially-buried face of a dead Japanese soldier. Like the thematic undercurrent of the film, Malick constantly juxtaposes images of tranquility and destruction: a bearded local passes by the heavily-armed Charlie Company in the jungle and pays them no mind, or the serene image of a sea of tall grass is shattered by the life-and-death struggle between the battling armies.

Are you prepared to sacrifice the lives of your men in this campaign?

Unfortunately, the narrative's role is secondary in this film, almost to the point of non-existence. There is no dramatic focus on the events, as the story drifts from one character to another on the battlefield. And while the characters are interesting unto themselves and backed up by some good performances, the fractured structure has them dropping in and out of the picture, making it difficult for audiences to create any attachment for them-- John Travolta's and George Clooney's blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos exemplify this. Furthermore, the structure of "The Thin Red Line" has the story going in fits and spurts, with long and laggard introspective stretches between the main confrontations. And after the first main battle is finished, which happens halfway in, the film seems to completely lose all narrative cohesion, and winds up meandering from one plot point to another.

What's this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? Is there an avenging power in nature?

The most noticeable aspect of "The Thin Red Line" is extensive use of voiceover to reveal the thoughts and motivations of the various characters. While the use of voiceover in film is usually considered to be a 'crutch' in the art of writing for film (saying instead of showing), its use is acceptable the locution is poetic and profound, such as in the films of Hong Kong arthouse director Wong Kar Wai. Unfortunately, the often-abstract voiceovers that Malick has his characters babbling wind up being more distracting than invigorating, coming across as pretentious indulgences on the part of the director. Furthermore, they are delivered in a painfully unhurried manner, which grinds proceedings to a complete halt.

How did we lose the good that was given us, let it slip away, scattered careless?

"The Thin Red Line" suffers from a confusing and meandering narrative, laggard pacing, and over-indulgent filmmaking in general, which is a shame, since the film has so many powerful moments among the mediocre ones. Like "Saving Private Ryan", it de-romanticizes the Second World War and deconstructs it to the brutal reality that it was with a series of stunning battle scenes that are not easily forgotten. But unlike Spielberg, Malick takes a more roundabout way for making this point.

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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