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

20 thoughts on “The Thin Red Line (1998) Part I The Review

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Interesting approach. I look forward to the other posts. I promise to take some valium before reading the last one. I don’t like where this is heading.

    Allow me to defend Col. Tall.

    1. He is definitely not mad (as in insane). He is improperly motivated by the knowledge that his stagnant career is over if he does not take that hill, but that makes him obsessed, not nuts. I will grant that the first frontal attack is suicidal, but not at all unusual for an American army unit in WWII. Our doctrine was straight ahead because it was better to take some casualties immediately instead of more casualties by waiting for a perfect attack. This was very much the “Western way of war” and won the war for us.

    2. He does listen to Staros and calls off the second frontal attack, allowing the flanking attack that opened up the hill. The movie should be commended for breaking the stereoptype of the insane, stubborn leader that sacrifices his men in vain.

    3. He forces the men to keep the attack going even when Staros points out they are running out of water. Tall is right! Never give up the momentum or the initiative. He saved lives by being “cruel” and “uncaring”.

    4. Staros deserved to be transferred. He was insubordinate. He may have been right about not launching the frontal attack, but he still was obligated to follow orders. Tall could have had him court-martialed. He treated him very fairly. Let’s face the facts – Staros did care too much about his men. Great commanders have the moral courage to lose men for the greater good. Staros lacked moral courage.

    One of my problems with the movie is the audience is manipulated to hate Tall and sympathize with Staros when a unbiased view proves otherwise. The magic of movies!

    • Maybe the choice “mad” was wrong if it is understood as being insane which, of course, he wasn’t. He wasn’t mad enough to understand the moment he saw the situation and I agree with you, there are rules to follow that Staros didn’t follow and keeping him would have been impossible. Tall would never make it on any of my “most hated” character lists. I had to speed up the review a bit. I will look at hi and Staros in more detail in Part IV.
      I start to see why people feel might not like this film or why it triggers intense emotions. At one point while watch I was even thinking “This isn’t a war movie”. Funny that, right? I’ll get to it hopefully. Some of what i write is alos menat to be a bit provoctive, like part V. I can already revela this much, part V is meant to analyze our concepts of heroism. And that is why these two movies are great examples.
      I’m not sure you are right about the frontal attack. Maybe, just maybe, you didn’t win the war because of that but despite of it.

  2. Novroz says:

    This sounds like an interesting series. I have watched the movie long time ago…but I couldn’t remember anything. After reading your review I can remember a bit.

    I guess it wasn’t impressing enough to me and that’s why I barely remember anything. ..but your series really intrigued me

    • I think it is a difficult movie that’s why I decided to do theses posts. I would like it to be better understood. It’s extremely well done once you see the symbols. I’m glad you like the idea.

  3. TBM says:

    I still have not seen this movie and I want to. I need to move it up my list.

    • I would say it is a must-see. I’ll be curious to hear which one you prefer, Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line.

      • TBM says:

        It has been years since I saw Saving Private Ryan. I’ll have to watch it again to make a fair comparison. Once I get settled into my new place I need to start watching some of the movies you’ve suggested.

      • That’s a good project. When Trumpets Fade is the third that came out the same year. Not well know but in my opinion also far better than Saving Private Ryan.

  4. Novroz says:

    I am most curious with part V, I like movie battle 😉

    I wish I can join you, as in writing the same thing on that versus…I think it would be fun. But I only have saving private ryan on my shelf. If only I can find The Thin Red Line somewhere next week… let’s do a blogathon. What do you think?

  5. movieman says:

    I am not very keen on war films as I hate to see people dying in any sense. But if I am to talk about this one as I have watched this, ı can say that this is really good, the war scenes are so vivid and you feel like you are watching something more like a real- action. Anyway, let me tell you my best war stuff, ” The Full Metal Jacket”.

  6. Politicaldefiance says:

    I disagree with the poster who said that the film manipulates the audience into hating Colonel Tall. I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, he’s a very complex character. Sure, he may come off as a bit of a self-concerned prick at first, but that scene with John Cusack shows you how sad his life really is, and I think you can even empathize with him. Even if you don’t like him, you still have a sense of understanding. And he certainly looks overwhelmed with all the destruction in the scene where he starts to look around at the dead bodies laying on the ground after they’ve taken over the Japanese base. I certainly wouldn’t just simply write him off as a villain like some people have in the past. In fact, I don’t think there’s any real villain in the film, which is why it’s so brilliant and challenging.

    I am very much looking forward to your analysis of comparing Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m preparing the post in which I’m analyzing the characters in details and then will compare Saving Private Ryan to The Thin Red Line. Hopefully both post will be written later this week. After thinking about him for a long time, I came to a similar conclusion. His and many of the characters make one of the biggest differences between Saving Private Ryan. I think the characters in The Thin Red Line are overall more complex.

  7. Connie Barnett says:

    one of the most vivid and searching movies i have seen… i had forgotten the beauty of the scene contrasting with the horrific non poetic
    aspects of war.. i love this movie.. and find it totally engrossing and
    satisfying albeit devastating..

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