The Thin Red Line (1998)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Every man fights his own war.”

This movie runs almost 3 hours, but I did not feel that it ever dragged. Terrence Malik directs an impressive cast, encompassing both Hollywood veterans and newcomers. Malik, a near legend in the modern movie industry, also wrote the screenplay based on James Jones’ semi-autobiographical World War II novel.

The story begins on a south sea island. A speaker muses about the natural world while scenes of island life: a crocodile entering a river, sunlight filtering through the canopy of a tropical forest, children on the beach and swimming are shown. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) paddles a canoe, stands on a beach and gives voice to more musings about the nature of life and death. Witt talks with an island woman about life on the islands and her child, who she is holding.

When a PT boat comes near the island, Witt and another soldier attempt to hide and wonder what the boat is doing there “all alone.” The scene changes to a brig where First Sgt. Ed Welsh (Sean Penn) talks to Witt about his AWOLs and other perceived misdeeds. Welsh speaks of a transfer to a stretcher bearer unit. In their discussion, they don’t agree on much.

The scene changes to a ship at sea where Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte in a very good portrayal of an extremely unlikable character) has an audience with Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta). We hear Tall’s thoughts as he takes a personal inventory. The General gives Tall an empty talk. The Colonel’s thoughts are more interesting, especially when he says “The closer you are to Caesar the greater the fear.” The Japanese have built an airbase on Guadalcanal. Quintard tells Tall to take the island and preserve the airbase for its potential strategic value.

The story centers on Charlie Company commanded by Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas). Capt. Staros displays a genuine concern for the troops under his command. He hopes to avoid their destruction. The troops land on Guadalcanal virtually unopposed, but that only begins the battle for the island. Further inland lays a machine gun fortification on a ridge which holds a particularly strategic position defending the airbase. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) leads an unsuccessful effort to attack the machine gun emplacement.

Lt. Col. Tall orders Capt. Staros to have the company make a frontal attack. The Captain refuses the order with witnesses. Later, after the withering machine gun fire stops, Tall meets Charlie Company at the front lines. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) leads a small detachment of six soldiers to scout out the ridge. His thoughts during this episode, as they often do, turn to memories of times with his wife (the lovely Miranda Otto, Eowyn of LOTR). The detachment reaches a good vantage where Bell discovers a bunker on the ridge.

After a sleep Captain John Gaff (John Cusack) takes another detachment of seven to lead the attack on the bunker. He, Bell, Witt, Doll (Dash Mihok) and others run the gauntlet back to the vantage on the bunker. They direct an artillery barrage on the ridge and lead the subsequent assault.

The cinematography in this movie stands out. The soundtrack also excels, with both the music and the window into the thoughts of the characters. That “window” sheds light on their actions, rather than presenting a distraction. Although labeled a “war classic” this film follows the antiwar tradition of All Quiet On The Western Front. With their thoughts and actions the major characters, some for brevity not mentioned in this review, demonstrate the folly and futility of war. In their relationships -- especially Pvt. Witt and Sgt. Welsh, Pvt. Bell and his wife, and particularly Capt Staros and Lt. Col. Tall with their differing regard for the troops under their command -- the characters highlight both the best and worst qualities which war brings to the foreground. Antiwar films seem always relevant, but particularly so lately. In this film several characters comment on the cruelty of nature. Indeed, nature can show cruelty. However, The Thin Red Line depicts war, not an earthquake or hurricane. Men create war. I hope this movie will give you new insight into war, one of the worst inventions of man.

1964 Film DVD

Related CD

Soundtrack CD