War Movie Mondays: ‘The Thin Red Line’

The Thin Red Line (1998) marks the triumphant return of American film maker Terrence Malick’s return after a twenty year hiatus from the studio system. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood circles jumped on the production of the film, even if it was just a brief walk on role. In fact, many A -list talents like Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman, Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt, Peter Berg, Dermot Mulroney, Edward Burns, William Baldwin, Edward Norton, Matthew McConaughey, Nicolas Cage, and Johnny Depp were very interested in joining the cast or were either cut from the film due to editing and budget constraints.

Malick was best known for two films in the 1970s which were Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) which were renowned for their breathtaking cinematography and for Malick’s ability to capture magnificent exterior shots much like John Ford’s sweeping westerns Stagecoach (1939), and The Searchers (1956). The beautiful cinematography of the film is credited to John Toll who is an absolute genius.

Malick wrote the screenplay based on author James Jones 1962 novel which chronicles his experiences during the campaign. Pvt. Fife (Brody) is actually Jones who serves as the main character in the book, yet in the film is reduced to a minor character.

The film stars some of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors such as Sean Penn (1st Sgt. Edward Welsh), Adrien Brody (Pvt. Geoffrey Fife), Jim Caviezel (Pvt. Robert Witt), Ben Chaplin (Pvt. John Bell), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche), John Cusack (Capt. John Graff), John Savage (Sgt. McCron), John Travolta (Brig. Gen. Quintard), Arie Vereen (Pfc. Charlie Dale), Kirk Acevedo (Pvt. Tella), Mark Boone Junior (Pvt. Peale), Woody Harrelson (Sgt. Keck), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Tim Blake Nelson (Pvt. Tills), John C. Reilly (Sgt. Storm), and Nick Nolte (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall).

The film centers around the American invasion of Guadalcanal in the S.W. Pacific in October 1942 led by elements of the U.S. Army’s 24th Inf. Div. The battle marked the beginning of American forces shifting to offensive rather than a defensive policy concerning the war in the Pacific. The battle began in August of 1942 when American Marines landed to wipe out Japanese opposition on the island. The campaign lasted until February 1943 when the last Japanese hold outs had been defeated.

The film opens up as Witt (Caviezel) has gone AWOL from his unit and is living among Melanesian natives. He and his fellow deserter are captured by a U.S. Navy patrol boat and are placed in the Brig by Sgt. Welsh (Penn) who criticizes Witt who has a lack of respect for military service. Welsh has worked out a deal to have Witt transferred to a disciplinary unit as a stretcher barer for wounded troops, rather than being court martialed and given a long sentence in a military prison. Witt actually does value his unit and wants to serve with them in the invasion.

The film begins to examine the many different characters in the film, their views on life, their backgrounds, and their feelings leading up to the assault on the island. Gen. Quintard (Travolta) heads the task force of Charlie Company who are a replacement unit sent to help mop up offensive actions on the island. He assures his adjutants that the fighting is contained to a small area of the island and that their is little to no opposition. He then says to his men “The Marines have done their job, now it’s our turn.” Nick Nolte’s character (Lt. Col. Tall) is a 15 year veteran who now has finally gotten his war.

He is a grizzled, bitter officer who has been passed over for promotion many times and hopes that this campaign can get him that silver Brig. Gen’s star. I acquaint his character much like George MacCready’s Gen. Mireau in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1956). Tall will do whatever it takes to ensure that his unit has a high enemy body count and that their objectives towards hill 210 will be met.

Before the early dawn artillery barrage of the hill top, Tall asks Staros if he ever read Homer in the original Greek while attending West Point. Tall believes he is an educated soldier, but is a far from an intelligent, or a competent officer. The artillery barrage is too quick and ineffective, but he believes it will buck up the spirits of the troops. Ridiculous, because the Japanese defenders are very well concealed and are dug in very well to be affected by the barrage.

The scene involving the invasion force heading ashore to their landing zone is beautifully shot. Vintage landing craft, uniforms and an assortment of WWII weapons are represented very well in this scene. You also see many cameos of characters who are now entering the film like John Savage (Sgt. McCron), Woody Harrelson (Sgt. Keck), and Nick Stahl (Pfc. Bead).

The men of Charlie Company hit the beach w/o firing a shot and make contact with their American and Melanesian contacts who begin to guide them through the jungle to Hill 210. At first accounts, you would hardly believe that a major battle has gone on in such a tropical paradise, but the illusion is shattered when the men of Charlie Company see atrocities at the hands of the Japanese against their fellow soldiers. The men encounter two burnt G.I.s who have been mutilated by the hands of the Japanese.

A significant portion of the film centers around the battle for Hill 210 which is held by the Japanese who have a tremendous field of fire over the American forces who must assault the enemy positions and achieve their link up with other American forces on the other side of the island. Massive American casualties result for Capt. Staros’ (Koteas) Company who are cannon fodder for Lt. Col. Tall’s prospects of looking good for the General and for getting a promotion. Nolte gives an absolutely volcanic, blast furnace performance as he is telling Staros to attack with all men and materials at his disposal.

Staros refuses to obey Tall’s orders saying that it’s absolute suicide; which forces Tall to join Staros on the front lines to asses the situation and to eventually have Staros relived of his command. A recon mission to the summit results in Capt. Graff (Cusack) and his squad successfully wiping out the Japanese defenders who are very malnourished and who are ashamed with having to surrender to the Americans.

The rest of the film is more a tale of morality and man’s inhumanity to man. Narration from Witt, Fife, and many others reference the battle between light & dark, life & death. Many of the battle sequences show the violent nature of man and also how cruel nature truly is. Many scenes which show the troops making their way through the dense jungle canopy, show a fascinating yet dangerous landscape. T

he very first scene of the film shows a crocodile which slips beneath the murky waters of a swamp suggesting a hidden danger in nature. The very same crocodile is later captured and made sport of by the men of Charlie Company.

The Thin Red Line came out at a very bad time in Hollywood because the studios were looking for a box office smash that was the same caliber as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which snagged up what view wins it got at that year’s Academy Awards. Malick had been away from the studios for far too long and the public was not ready for a “thinking person’s war film” which in my opinion is one of the finest modern day World War II films of all time.

The film grossed well over one hundred million dollars worldwide, yet many American audiences couldn’t appreciate the film’s message and Malick’s visionary directing and fantastic story telling. It is one of the greatest adapted films along side Erich Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front, and Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory.

The Thin Red Line has just recently been made available for the first time on Blu-Ray disc from Criterion Studios and is a PHENOMENAL transfer with picture and sound that is approved my Malick himself. If you own a home theater surround sound system with decent video and audio upscaling, get it! There actually is a caption before the film begins which reads: “Terrence Malick suggests that you watch The Thin Red Line very loudly.” Genius!

The film is available through Netflix and can be purchased on standard DVD as well.

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