The Thin Red Line (1998) Movie Review

Liberal Hollywood hates real wars, but adores the hell out of war movies. How else can you explain the sheer bulk of actors, stars and would-be stars, who flock to be a part of war movies no matter how small their part? Maybe it’s the need to feel “tough,” so you play the toughest guys out there — and who is tougher than the men who survived a “world war”? World War II, by default of America’s victory, is the favorite subject of war movies.

In 1998 alone, there were two “epic” World War II movies, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Since starring in either men’s movie garners undeniable prestige (with Malick getting the upper hand since it seems he only makes a movie per decade), Hollywood would-be tough guys must have been going crazy trying to decide which movie to join. Spielberg got Tom Hanks and Malick got, well, everyone else.

The Thin Red Line is a World War II movie about the American struggle for control over Guadalcanal against a ragged Japanese force that had been pounded by the Marines, and now attempts to survive the onslaught of the Army. As the movie opens, we are in a faraway island in the Pacific, where AWOL soldiers Witt (Jim Caviezel) and another fellow soldier are living the good life — that is, until war appears and they’re forced back into action. Witt, we learn, is something of an optimist, which means he’s the only one as Charlie Company prepares for, and proceeds to, lay siege on an island where the Japanese are holed up, dug in, and ready to fight to the end. We follow Charlie Company, along with Witt and various other personalities, as they attempt to take the island and an important landing strip away from the Japanese.

There are only two ways to look at The Thin Red Line: you either love it or you despise it. I happen to adore the movie, not just for the sheer size of Terrence Malick’s balls, which he must have in order to throw us into the middle of a massive hillside battle and refusing to let go until an hour later, but also for the movie’s softer, lyrical, and poetic side. The movie is well over 2 hours and 30 minutes, but I could have sat through another hour, maybe two. The movie was that interesting and entertaining. Despite the sheer number of dead and dying soldiers (and the bodycount is staggering, as it probably was in real life), the movie isn’t a downer. I know, it’s hard to imagine, but this is true. Malick presents to us the horrors of war and how it poisons the human soul, but he doesn’t barrage us with just those morbid images.

In-between the bloody conflict between the Americans and Japanese, Malick, by way of cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart), gives us flashes of resilient mother nature via her living creations and a tranquil village of locals who continues to survive, blissfully ignorant of the world war going on around them. Each image of nature or the village tells us that despite all the chaos, all the carnage and death man is delivering on himself, nature will remain long after we are finished and gone. Also balancing out the morbid scenes of mankind’s self-destruction, Malick transfers us quite literally through the minds, and eyes, of the fighting men, and this makes the movie quite life affirming.

So who is the real star of The Thin Red Line? Is it the sweeping view of the lush green mountains or thick, fog-infested swamps? The mind-boggling and terrifying battle scenes that seems to go on forever and have no rhyme or reason? Or the characters themselves, as they reveal their most innermost secrets, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and dread to us in voiceover?

The characters of The Thin Red Line are many and this means you won’t remember everyone despite the famous cameos by many stars, but that hardly matters. The characters are only there to represent the varied shades of man’s emotions.

In Witt, we have eternal Optimism, the ability to see the good in everything despite the harshest of conditions. With Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin), an officer busted down to Private because he couldn’t stand to be away from his wife, we have Hope for the future. Sean Penn shows up as Sergeant Welsh, the Pessimism that most men turn to for sanctuary. In Adrien Brody’s Fife, the Fear of all things that keeps men alive. Elias Koteas (Staros) represents Conscience, the source of all guilt and sometimes strength. Nick Nolte rounds out the team of human emotions as Ambition, that dangerous of all emotions that can drive men into the ground but without which nothing is possible.

The Thin Red Line is not a movie for everyone. Some people will adore the heck out of it, as I do, and others will not care for it at all. The latter group don’t know what they’re missing.

Terrence Malick (director) / James Jones (novel), Terrence Malick (screenplay)
CAST: Sean Penn …. 1st Sergeant Edward Welsh
Adrien Brody …. Corporal Fife
James Caviezel …. Private Witt
Ben Chaplin …. Private Jack Bell
George Clooney …. Captain Charles Bosche
John Cusack …. Captain John Gaff


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