The Thin Red Line (1998) Part IV The Actors and the Characters

The Thin Red Line is a movie with an incredible cast. This is not uncommon in war movies but what is unusual is that we have actors from a very wide range in the same movie. Actors you’d hardly ever see together in another movie. I’m pretty sure this was done on purpose. Seeing the actors and the characters gives a feeling of heterogeneity. This isn’t a “Band of Brothers”, these are individual characters thrown together by the circumstances. Of course I will have to mention this again in my most anticipated post of this series Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line (which is not so much a duel than a simple comparison, to show, that those two movies go together like two faces of a medal).

The actor is one thing, the characters another. This post is meant to explore the characters. Not all of them, of course, not even all those who are included in the opening picture. I don’t want to write a 2000 words post.

Brig. General Quintard aka John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Love Song for Bobby Long)

Like in every war movie, there are good characters and bad ones, likable ones and idiots. Although it is one of the strengths of The Thin Red Line to show the complexity of human beings, and therefore we do not find black and white characters, John Travolta’s character is the only really negative one in this movies. This is pure asshole material.

We only see General Quintard at the beginning of the movie when he instructs and – in my eyes also debases – Lt. Colonel Tall. Quintard is typical High Command. He most certainly will never see action. He is preposterous and enjoys putting down people. Malick has him stare over the ocean for a while, which means nothing else than that the guy is in an abstract, combat-free zone, somewhere above everything and not really interested in things and even  less in people. An empty shell.

Lt. Colonel Tall aka Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Cape Fear)

There have already been quite a lot of discussions involving Tall in the former posts. I know I argued he is the typical “mad” superior officer, going over dead bodies to achieve what he has been told. He blindly follows orders and believes in the chain of command like in nothing else. While all this is true, to a certain extent, it’s not the whole picture we are given. Tall is far more complex than that, and I agree with a commenter, who stated that this was another proof of how excellent a movie The Thin Red Line is.

When we see Tall and Quintard together we already learn that this is pretty much the last chance for Tall to prove himself. He’s been left out during all the last promotion rounds. One can only suspect why this was the case. Seeing the type of superior he has, we can assume he didn’t have the right contacts. This has made him bitter, this and the fact that his son didn’t want to join the Army but prefers to sell fish bait.

Bitterness and the fear to fail are powerful drivers and he looses perspective easily. He tries to see the bigger picture and wants to achieve success, no matter how high the costs. He thinks that sacrificing a few to save a lot is justified. He thinks you have to drive the men, despite their hunger and fear. When given the choice, however, he will let them rest and drink. He isn’t sadistic. He is just extremely driven and not inclined to think about the individual need of his soldiers. He shouts and screams and fumes in a totally exaggerated way. That’s why I called him crazy. He is neither abusive nor does he enjoy being mean.

Private Witt aka James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ)

Witt has the role of the one who questions good and evil. He is also the one character who would – and eventually does – sacrifice himself for others. In this he can be compared to Sgt Elias in Platoon. I mentioned it somewhere else, but I’ll mention it again, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Dafoe who played Elias later got to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, just like Caviezel played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ after The Thin Red Line. They ooze a saviour aura in the war movies that stuck to them and was later exploited by other directors.

Private Witt is teamed up with Sgt Welsh. These are two characters that clash when looked at superficially. If you look at it more closely however, they have a lot in common.

Sgt Welsh aka Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River)

We tend to have our favourite characters in a movie and in this one, my favourite one is Sgt Welsh. Sean Penn is also one of my favourite actors. I would argue that this is one of the most memorable characters in any war movie but you need to watch it at least twice to realize it. He is cynical but out of vulnerability. He is one of those who does the right thing, the good thing at the right moment but he doesn’t want it to be mentioned. He is discreet and calm. The biggest difference between him and Witt is the fact that he is no believer. Nothing makes sense to him, he thinks that all that happens is down to human nature which is inherently bad.

Capt. John Gaff aka John Cusack (High Fidelity, 2012)

Capt John Gaff is one of those young, eager officers that have the words “promising career” written all over their faces. He isn’t a bad sort but distant and withdrawn. He is everything that Tall would have loved his own son to be. At the same time he is probably also everything Tall himself would have liked to be.

Capt Staros aka Elias Koteas (Shooter, Shutter Island)

Capt Staros is the antithesis of Tall. Tall isn’t a completely bad guy, but Staros is decidedly a truly good one. He will always think of his men first, which means he will always think of the individual first. Maybe sacrificing a few would bring the desired outcome of a  mission but that is not the way Capt Staros, a deeply religious man, would ever go. He is also very courageous and, if necessary, disobeys orders. His feeling for what is good and right is so strong that he will not think about the consequences his insubordination will have for him. But he isn’t a Private Witt, he wouldn’t sacrifice himself. He also doesn’t believe that people are inherently good but he thinks they deserve to be protected.

Sgt Keck aka Woody Harrelson (Natural Born  Killers, The Messenger)

Sgt Keck is worth mentioning because his death is so useless and tragic and on top of that his own fault. He gets one of the longest dying scenes of the movie and while he realizes he will die he goes through a wide range of emotions in a very brief period . He is one of the good ones, a good sort who dies, not through enemy fire, but through a tragic accident that underlines futility and the randomness of death.

Private Bell aka Ben Chaplin (Murder by Numbers, The Remains of the Day)

It’s through the character of Private Bell that the battlefield and the home front get connected, the life of the soldier and the life of the civilian meet. All through the movie he is thinking of his wife back home and their love for each other. It’s a bit of a war movie cliché that he is the one who gets a letter from his wife telling him that she found someone else because she was too lonely.

As you can see in this older post, there are many other actors and characters in the movie. Some like Lt Whyte (Jared Leto) and Cpt Bosche (George Clooney) have just tiny roles. One stands for the numerous men who died without anyone ever really knowing them, the other one is one of hundreds of officers that come and go endlessly. Some are good, some are bad, some are remembered, many are forgotten.

If you have seen The Thin Red Line, who is you favourite character?

If you are interested in the other parts here is

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part III Nature and Evil

Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan is upcoming.

The Thin Red Line (1998) Part III Nature and Evil

This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night? (Private Witt)

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? (Private Train)

Is there evil in nature? Is man part of nature? If man is part of nature and man is evil, then nature is evil? Are nature and man one? Or is there a distinct dichotomy between man and nature?

Besides offering a profound meditation on Death and Dying The Thin Red Line also explores the topics nature and evil in different ways. Two positions are explored. Position one  assumes that man is part of nature and since he is capable of evil, nature is not all good. This idea is supported by Lt.Coll Tall when he speaks to Cpt Staros who wants to save his men. Tall shows him the lianas that suffocate the trees. This is evil, according to Tall, as it will kill the tree. Nature is not all good. He tries to make Staros accept evil because he thinks it is inevitable and part of nature.

Other scenes support this. In the beginning of the movie we see a little bird, probably he fell out of the nest and seems to be struggling for his life. We see him, his fight and we know he will die. Nobody did this to him, it just happened. It’s the way of nature.

One of the powerful symbols is the crocodile. In the beginning of the movie we see him swim freely, dive, in the end he has been bound by the men. He cannot harm anymore but he is subjugated.

The second line of thinking says that nature cannot be bad. Only man can be bad. We know the term of natural death. As I said in Part II death is part of nature but the death on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made. This line of thinking supports that man has left the realm of nature, is not part of nature anymore.

Even if there are bad things in nature, nothing as bad as war can happen without man’s doing.

The Thin Red Line is set in the Pacific, on the Solomon Islands, a place to which hardly any Americans or Europeans had gone before the war. An island with a lush vegetation and a population not knowing anything of Western civilisation. The movie begins with idyllic scenes among the natives. They live in harmony with nature and its rhythms.

When the soldiers later disembark on Guadalcanal, an old native man passes them by but doesn’t even acknowledge them despite the heavy gear they are carrying and the clothes they are wearing. They are only foreigners. The natives and their land do not know yet what they bring.

War has come into this tropical paradise and not only does war kill men, it destroys nature. The men are surrounded by tall grass, hiding in it, but the bombs and grenades destroy this lush paradise and transform it into arid land.

The end of the movie seems to want to say that no matter how much man tries to destroy nature, nature will survive and the film ends on a last picture of a sprouting  coconut.

These reflections on nature and man’s nature are very old. Philosophers like Rousseau have dedicated whole books on this. Rousseau thought that man was born good but society, or culture, made him bad. In his Discourse on Inequality you can find the following passage.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. (Rousseau 1754)

Here are

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part IV The Actors and the Characters and Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan are upcoming.

The Thin Red Line (1998) Part II On Death and Dying

Sergeant Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.

You are going to die. I am going to die. We are all going to die. It is inevitable. The difference lies just in whether we want and allow to be reminded of the fact or not. Whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not and to what degree.

The way death and dying are shown in The Thin Red Line will trigger three different ways of reacting:

  • We see it and allow to be reminded of our own death which will make us feel uneasy and sad to different degrees
  • We see it and look away or feel nothing
  • We see it and make fun of it

These three ways to react to someone’s dying can also be found as reactions in the movie.

I would argue that there is not one war movie out there that thematizes death, dying and killing like it is done in The Thin Red Line. I would also say that I think that this may be one of the reasons some people have a problem with it as the death scenes are very intimate, very intense. We have people who die screaming, people who die swearing, some pray, some mumble, some are quiet. This is quite usual in war movies but we have also an emphasis on those who watch them which is unusual. The importance of looks in The Thin Red Line would be worth a chapter on it’s own but I will only focus on the looks related to death and dying.

We have those who look away when someone is dying, no matter how close they are to the person. And we have those who acknowledge the others dying. Some are moved by it, some are not. Watching someone die is a very intimate act, if you think of it. Being with someone during his final moments is a privilege. Private Witt gives each and every single suffering man his full attention, looks at him unflinchingly but also unobtrusively and with compassion.

There are also the looks directed at the dying enemy. They are very different. They are indecent almost. Some make fun of them, stare, strip them off their dignity. Witt also looks at the enemy with the same intent attention and compassion.

In the movie there is equally a meditation about death’s randomness as expressed in the quote by Sgt Storm at the beginning of this post. Why does one man die while the other who is maybe a far lesser soldier survives unharmed? This is something that has been on my father’s mind a lot. When he was drafted he was heartbroken and hoping to get killed on the battlefield. While his friends and comrades died, he didn’t get one scratch. My father has not one tiny little scar, yet he eagerly awaited death. This is mysterious and the movie shows this exceptionally well.

Death is part of nature (which I will try to analyze in part III) but the dying on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made.

Killing is also a theme. Although it is legally acceptable to kill someone on a battlefield, in a war, soldiers didn’t kill lightly. I use the past tense deliberately because movies – or series in this case – like Generation Kill - and also already some of the Vietnam movies – show that there are more and more soldiers who have no empathy for those they kill. Those who play war games may see a running person at a distance not like a human being but just like another target. And they certainly don’t feel guilty.

The soldiers in The Thin Red Line do not kill lightly. They do feel guilt and the term “enemy” doesn’t mean much anymore once they have shot him down with their own gun.

One of my earliest posts on this blog focused on the topics Death and Dying. You can find it here:  On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach Us a Buddhist Lesson. Nothing has changed in my perception since then. I still think that the way death and dying are treated in our society is very problematic. We have to accept the fact that they are part of life. All war movies deal with death and dying but not all involve the viewer as much as the The Thin Red Line. Like hardly any other movie it manages in a very subtle way to raise the awareness for our own mortality.

The following parts are upcoming:

Part III. Nature and Evil

Part IV. The Actors and the Characters

Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line (1998) Part I The Review

Sometimes we watch a movie and love it. A few years later we watch it again and have no clue why we ever liked it. This happened to me a few times, fortunately it isn’t all that often.

I have seen the The Thin Red Line three times by now, the first time I liked it so much that it actually triggered my interest in war movies.

The second time, shortly after the first, I still liked it a lot. But that was 7 years ago and since then I have seen numerous other movies, excellent ones, good ones and abominable ones as well.

Watching it for a third time made me somewhat wary. What if…?

I shouldn’t have worried. After watching it for the third time I think it is the most radical, most thoughtful, most provocative and most difficult anti-war movie that has ever been made.

The Thin Red Line is truly a lyrical and poetical meditation on death and dying. It’s far more than just a war movie. It is transcending the genre.

I decided to dedicate more than one post to this stunning movie, exploring different aspects (something I would like to do for other movies as well in the future).

I will cover the following topics.

Part I. Review

Part II. On Death and Dying

Part III. Nature and Evil

Part IV. The Actors and the Characters

Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line

Part I The Review

In many war movies there is a bridge to defend, an outpost to be kept or a hill to be taken. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones’ eponymous novel, tells the story of the taking of a hill. It’s 1942, on the island of Guadalcanal, which is part of the Solomon Islands, in the Pacific.

The movie opens on an idyllic scene. Two soldiers, one of them Private Witt (James Caviezel) have gone AWOL. They live among the natives in a paradise-like place. They swim and play with the kids, surrounded by the beauty of tropical nature. This will not last. A patrol boat will come and get them and together with the other soldiers from C-Company they are sent on a mission to take a hill on top of which is a Japanese bunker.

This is one of those typical suicidal missions. Driven by a mad Colonel (Nick Nolte) who cares about nothing but his own glory the men are led by the gentle and courageous Cpt Staros. Staros cares for his men, unlike Colonel Tall and even risks being court-martialled for disobedience in order to save his men from certain death. Tall wants them to attack frontally despite the fact that the Japanese have all the advantages. They are well dug in, sheltered by their bunker, looking down on those crawling men. Staros wants to bypass the hill. A far better and careful decision that was made after seeing how the situation really was, while Tall decided from afar, having no clue how the situation looked closeup.

The scenes that follow the beginning are alternating between intense infantry combat, scenes of dying and death, nature shots, interior monologue in voice-over and also flashbacks of the soldiers lives before the war. Witt thinks of his childhood and the peaceful idyll in the tropical paradise, Staros is very religious and Private Bell imagines his wife and their love for each other.

The losses are high, the death scenes harrowing and gruesome. Thanks to Staros’ disobedience the attack doesn’t lead to total disaster and the men are victorious in the end. However he has to pay a prize, he will be sent away under the false pretense of suffering from malaria. No matter how many soldiers’ lives he saved, he will never ever be in command again.

The Thin Red Line draws a few interesting character portraits to which I will come in Part IV of this series.

The score of the movie has been written by Hans Zimmer and underlines the poetical versus brutal aspects of the movie.

If you already want to know more about the cast here is an earlier post: My Favourite War Movie All-star Cast

My Favourite War Movie All-star Cast: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Due to its nature the war movie genre is rich in movies with all-star casts. There are many that I like. I was looking through the casts of quite a few and in the end I was not sure if I did prefer the cast of Black Hawk Down or the one of  The Thin Red Line. Finally, making a very thorough comparison, including also minor roles, my winner  is The Thin Red Line. There is only one actor I am not keen one and he may very well be the reason why some people do not appreciate The Thin Red Line. I am talking about the fanatic pro-lifer James Caviezel.  But look at all the others and then tell me that you do not think this is an astonishing group of actors that has come together in one movie.

James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ)

Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Cape Fear)

Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River)

John Cusack (High Fidelity, 2012)

Elias Koteas (Shooter, Shutter Island)

Adrien Brody (The Pianist, King Kong)

Nick Stahl (Sin City, In the Bedroom)

John. C. Reilly (Gangs of New York, Magnolia)

Woody Harrelson (Natural Born  Killers, The Messenger)

John Travolta (Pulp Fiction,Love Song for Bobby Long)

Ben Chaplin (Murder by Numbers, The Remains of the Day)

George Clooney (Oceans Eleven, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Alexander, The Fight Club)

Miranda Otto (Lord of The Rings, War of the Worlds)

and many , many more.

Which is your favourite all-star cast? The Longest Day? A Bridge Too Far? The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen?