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