The Thin Red Line [eng]

1998- Fox 2000/ Phoenix Pictures- 170 min
Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack
Director: Terrence Malick
Rating: R (war violence and language)

A crocodile submerging itself in algae covered water. A bird in its death throes, dying alongside humans. Dogs feasting on dead human carcasses. Bodies dropping in the wind-bent grass. Anyone who sees The Thin Red Line knows that Terrence Malick is a poet of images. The Thin Red Line is a great visual poem. And like many poems, many people will not “get” it.

Many wondered what the significance of the crocodile part was. The film questions whether or not nature contends with itself. The crocodile is a big killer. In the end, the soldiers have become more dangerous than the crocodiles. He asks at that point if “dog-eat-dog” is naturally built into our programming. In a sense, the film isn’t even about war, but about the necessity of man to kill man.

Being quite the visual poet, Malick also has a great talent with his actors. He knows how to direct them to subtle, moving performances. Each character, Witt, Colonel Tall, Welsh, Bell, Staros, Keck, Whyte, Fife, Doll, and others are all fearful. They are all brave men. They are all scared. These are all strong presence’s but for me the key performance and key character is that of Witt.

Jim Caviezel gives a great performance as Witt, a soldier who has gone AWOL and has been living with the natives on the island of Guadalcanal. His character is constantly questioning why the calm, peaceful lives of the natives must be questioned. Caviezel joins Mary Kay Place on my short list of actors who can actually do a southern accent effectively. He doesn’t drawl it out like most actors, but just makes it sound natural, as it should sound. He creates a great character who doesn’t fit into any of the usual clichéd war movie stereotypes, but a great, three-dimensional character in a performance that should be remembered at Oscar time.

Also memorable is Nick Nolte as Colonel Tall. Being described in the screenplay as “stupid, ambitious, desperate to succeed before his superiors and fearful the battalion will be pulled back off of the line before he can”. This is why he ordered the frontal assault on the enemy position. Barbara Streisand said she hired Nolte for The Prince of Tides because you could see the pain behind the eyes. Here you can see the pain behind the eyes, and the ambition of a man, any man, wanting to succeed. This is not your ordinary, mean, no nonsense portrayal of a one-dimensional leader, but a man, who like all others struggles for dignity and a small measure of pride.

Sean Penn, widely considered one of the best actors of his generation, also fails to fall into any of the war film stereotypes as Sergeant Welsh, a man who is just there because he was called upon. He didn’t see the sense in the war, yet didn’t question the reason he was there. This is a good performance from Sean Penn, who manages to sell every line. He is able to get us to buy everything he says. Every line seems natural, and like something that he would say–not like it was something the screenwriter would say.

Also quite impressive is young British actor Ben Chaplin, as Private Bell, a man obsessed with the memory of his wife back home. Chaplin dons a fine American accent, and never once sounds like he is simulating an accent, but makes it all sound natural. The relationship that Ben Chaplin has with his wife is of great importance because it shows the love that two people have for each other is a unifying force, “like water flowing through a stream”, as his character says.

Elias Koteas, forever doomed to supporting roles, is effective as Captain Staros, the leader of the company. He, like Penn sells every line. He has no real taste for the Army or for war, and is in the war because he was sent, and for no other reason. Therefore, his not being a career military man makes it easier to swallow that he did what he did at a certain point in the film.

Woody Harrelson is Sergeant Keck and is good in a role slightly larger than a cameo, as a man who greatly sacrifices for the other men. He has a good death scene. Adrien Brody perfects the shell-shocked look as Corporal Fife. He utters only a few lines, yet by the look on his face, and in his eyes, creates a three-dimensional character. Another strong presence is that of Dash Mihok as Doll, a character who demonstrates the unpredictability of war. Jared Leto has a small part as Whyte, a soldier, as does John Cusack, as an aide-de-camp. The only out of place cameos are of John Travolta and George Clooney. It is probable that they both had substantially larger parts that were edited down.

While watching The Thin Red Line, one cannot help thinking of the other World War II film of 1998: Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Saving Private Ryan.

When the American Soldiers attack the Japanese bunkers, you witness one of the greatest scenes in movie history. The tears that the Japanese soldiers cry as they hold their dying friends, their prayers toward heaven, and their fear are very symbolic.

In Saving Private Ryan, we cheered when the Germans were killed, but in The Thin Red Line, we feel compassion for all of the fallen, not just the fallen of the Americans, but for all. We know that the Japanese were young men fighting for their country in the same way that the Americans were. Malick tells us that we are all part of the same world, and that we are all going back to the earth someday. Making us feel compassion for all of the fallen, because we can relate to all of the fallen is a great and superlative achievement.

The film works on all levels. The shot composition, the direction, the acting, the cinematography, the sound, the editing, and the score were all phenomenal. The voice-over narration was of rare effectiveness. The score by Hans Zimmer was great. Much like Saving Private Ryan did, the battle noise gets quiet around a person for a time, but here, a sound will become a note, and then the score will start.

The Thin Red Line is a film that will confuse and frustrate many. Many people won’t like it. People expecting a Pacific version of Saving Private Ryan will no doubt be disappointed. There were a few walkouts at the theatre where I saw the film. This is a thinking persons movie. Like Shakespeare, it may need to be experienced several times for a person to fully understand and appreciate it.

Nick Nolte says of The Thin Red Line (the novel), “What Jones was writing about was that war is a horror, and nobody knows how they get into it and why they’re there, and then they find out they have to kill or be killed. And at that point the fear is so tremendous that they lose all personal identity, and in that process of total breakdown the discover that they have unbearable compassion for their fellow fighters. It’s a quality, a love that is only discovered in the horror of life.”

Malick did a brilliant job showing this. By the end of the film, they are all weary and beaten, having seen and experienced things they never expected or wanted to experience again. They had been on an unforgettable and life-changing journey.

So had the audience.

This is the best film of 1998.

Again, I implore: Do not miss this film.

Daniel Smith

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