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.

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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 Great Escape (1963) Tells Actually the Story of a War Crime

Maybe 90% of my readers are yawning now. I am very sorry but since I have seen The Great Escape for the first time only recently I had no clue. I thought it was basically the story of an escape, which it is, of course. The scene of Steve McQueen on a bike was very familiar as well (one of those memorable movie scenes), but apart from that: zero. I never heard it mentioned anywhere that it is based on the true story of a war crime. Are there any others out there like me who haven’t seen it yet? Maybe. For their sake I am not going to reveal why it is the story of a war crime. Just telling you, that it is.

Apart from that? Did I like it? Obviously when everybody tells you how great a movie is you start to expect something and if that is not what you get then you are slightly disappointed. So I was slightly disappointed. I didn’t expect such a summer camp like joyousness in the beginning. I rather expected something in the vein of The Colditz Story. Something a tad bleaker and grimmer. The feel of The Great Escape is much more adventure story than war movie. Plus English actors who play Englishmen  who pretend to be Germans and get away with it despite their heavy accents are not the height of realism.

What is my final conclusion? No, you are wrong, I don’t write it off but I will have to watch it again without the weird expectations that are never going to be fulfilled. A proper review will be due by the time I have watched it for the second time. After all its a classic, with a fabulous all-star cast and it’s just bad luck  I never watched it as a kid when it was on TV cause everyone who watched it then has the fondest memories. It’s definitely nice to have fond childhood movie memories. My only childhood war movie memory is A Bridge Too Far. Yeah well, not a bad one either, right?

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?