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

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