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The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
1998 / Color / 2.35 anamorphic 16:9 / Street Date / 19.98
Starring Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly
Original Music Hans Zimmer
Produced by George Stevens, Jr., Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau, Grant Hill
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A respected director's first new film in 20 years. An ambitious subject, from an ambitious novel by James Jones, a quasi-sequel to From Here to Eternity. Half the male stars in Hollywood vying for a part, no matter how small. A potentially landmark war film in a year already dominated by a blockbuster war film from Steven Spielberg.

These were the media issues when Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line debuted on screens in December of 1998, starting arguments across dinner tables, in dorm rooms and on the Internet. Opinions ran hot; one either loved the film or hated it. It profoundly disappointed a horde of war film fans that must have expected another Saving Private Ryan. What they got was a highly personal reflection on War, a war film driven not by plot or even character, but by an almost mystical theme. Worse, the film didn't pander to the popcorn trade and didn't coddle audiences with reassuring sentiments or patriotic drum thumping. Saving Private Ryan offered two hours of melodrama, sentiment and violent fantasy - surefire action material. This reviewer's only objection was not Ryan but its obvious marketing with an eye on Oscar - the, 'this one's for the veterans' rhetoric, the claims that the film existed on some higher plane of noble effort than just moviemaking. The Thin Red Line offered an un-commercial contrast: Three hours of poetry, beautiful images, haunted faces and brutal conflict. It did without tidy resolutions, moral pigeonholing and all the usual condescending ploys of the 'serious' Hollywood film.

The Thin Red Line is a difficult film. It is slow, wordy, and sometimes hard to follow. There is no prominent hero,- nor even a handy identification figure. In fact, it is often difficult to tell its leading players apart. In the theater it is impossible to know whose voice is speaking those long poetic passages. Concentration is required to figure out what is happening and to whom. Malick urges the viewer to look deeper. His focus is on the visual and verbal poetry that constructs two coexisting and contradictory worlds: the brutal reality of humans in conflict, and the beauty and hope that they carry in their souls.

This is personal stuff, not the kind of treatment that a typical war film audience is going to tolerate. It is probably due to the enthusiastic approval of cinema-lovers within the film industry that The Thin Red Line was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Ryan kept touting how it 'honored the veterans.' In whose name? Asking whether a veteran would like one film over the other is pointless -- and insulting to veterans, whose tastes are just as varied as other civilians. I once assumed my father, an Air Force flier, would love every film about airplanes. He didn't. His love was for flying and aviation films tended to concentrate on planes crashing or blowing each other up. I see no reason why anyone shouldn't enjoy both war films. It is however, frustrating to realize that the vast public which accepts the theatrics of Ryan as the definitive truth of WW2, rejects Red Line as a 'boring mess' (a quote from a reader).

The Thin Red Line charts the fortunes of C Company, an Army unit that follows the Marines onto Guadalcanal. The nature of the chain of command forces officers to order soldiers to die and reduces men to extremes of brutality. Self-loathing Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) regrets his toadying to the insufferable Brig. General Quintard (John Travolta), but himself goads, threatens and browbeats Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) when he refuses to order his men to their deaths. The ugly truth is that the callous Tall is probably right - in the hell of battle, the conscience-stricken Staros' good intentions only prolong the suffering of his men.

The soldiers on the line are young farm boys facing trial by combat with varying levels of self-knowledge. Redheaded punk Doll (Dash Mihok) and lovesick ex-officer Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin) find strength in personal reserves they cannot describe. Bell's tender relationship with his wife is the subject of haunting visions (memories?) of bliss. Deserter Witt (James Caviezel), inspired by time spent AWOL on a Melanesian island, finds both harmony and courage within himself, a belief in 'a better world' whose existence he debates with the tough, pragmatic Sgt. Walsh (Sean Penn).

The Thin Red Line is unlike other war films. On camera, the soldiers express their feelings and beliefs in a welter of confusion and rationalization. The key to Red Line is this controversial audio narration. Some of the voiceovers are direct stream-of-consciousness ramblings. But others are abstract poetry ... the voice of their souls, so to speak, or in context, the voice of their collective soul. Malick's characters don't vocalize his message, and are allowed to be believably inarticulate. The musings on love and brutality, grace and damnation are heard on a voice track, removed from the characters themselves. This becomes evident when the most eloquent verse is voiced by a soldier named Train (John Dee Smith). Speaking on camera before the battle, he's obviously no poet. He frets endlessly to Sgt. Walsh at a shaving mirror. At the fadeout, he's still mumbling the same incoherent nonsense on the deck of a boat. But his voiceover (or the voiceover of his soul?) intervenes, ending the film with measured thoughts of which the foolish-sounding Train would hardly seem capable.

The film has some terrific battle action, squelching the claim that Malick only knows how to take pretty pictures. A forty-minute, highly subjective assault on a grassy hill builds to a feverish pitch. The dizzying action at its climax conveys the panic and hysteria of the moment but also gives the viewer enough information to have an active stake in its outcome. The result is a level of participation uncommon in the 'blur and flash-frame' aesthetic that passes for action scenes lately. When Malick does seek to create confused havoc, the screen fills with long takes of running, shooting men converging on one another in a free-for-all of insane mayhem. Sam Fuller might have approved; his Merrill's Marauders has a similar wild battle at a Burmese railhead.

The new Fox DVD can help sort out details in Red Line that even multiple theater viewings miss. The English subtitles name the speakers with their dialog, helping to identify the voiceovers as well as differentiate the characters. I was surprised to find that Lt. Whyte (Jared Leto), who orders the first two fatalities to proceed up the hill, is himself shot dead only a few moments later. One soldier who torments a wounded Japanese, is later shown crying in the rain, haunted by the words of the dying prisoner.

Malick's visual associations, felt on first viewing, are easier to appreciate on the DVD. Witt pours some water down the leaf of a giant fern, starting a montage of water-related images that leads back to the Melanesian village. In the midst of battle young Bead (Nick Stahl) is distracted by a folding blade of grass, which is filmed in a setup reminiscent of the butterfly conclusion to All Quiet on the Western Front. The crocodile that is the film's first image is later shown captured, bound, and studied by mystified soldiers on the back of a truck. Everywhere in the film the soldiers are shown searching for clues and meaning in the savagery and beauty of nature around them, linking them to the 'imposed' author's voiceover.

I once overheard Steven Spielberg react to the excitement over Apocalypse Now with an uncomprehending, 'It's only a war movie.' His philosophy of making films is a valid one (much more than valid when taken in commercial terms) but I don't think Spielberg would begin to understand what The Thin Red Line is all about. In war movie terms, it continues an arc from Patton through Apocalypse Now of stressing cinema and poetry over storytelling. Saving Private Ryan, for all its flash and bombast, is 'just a war movie.'

Fox Video's DVD of The Thin Red Line is simply terrific looking. The rich, deep colors and dark shadows of the jungle come through as clearly as the brilliant sunshine of the grassy hills of Guadalcanal. The disc is 16:9 enhanced (although it is hard to tell by reading the case), which goes far to alleviate resentment over Fox's previously limited commitment to the DVD format. The audio is rich and clear and the mix encourages a believable, enveloping-environment feel instead of trying to be an audio equipment workout. I can't imagine an improved presentation of the film; on a large monitor the experience rivals seeing it first run in Westwood.

Fans looking for extras aren't going to be very happy. Except for a teaser for a CD of Melanesian songs associated with the film there are none, not even a trailer. Not having read much about The Thin Red Line I would have appreciated learning more about this fascinating film.

But the show is the thing. Devotees need no urging; those Saving Private Ryan fans who walked out of The Thin Red Line or found it 'long and boring' are urged to give it another try. And I will revisit Private Ryan with an eye toward finding what so captivated most everyone else in America.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Thin Red Line rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Poor
Packaging: Alpha Case
Reviewed: November 7, 1999.


I enjoy your writings on DVD Resource and read your recent review on Thin Red Line. While I agree that too many viewers did not understand the film, some that did (including me) also felt it flawed and disappointing. I'm not going to rebut with a detailed analysis - it's just my opinion that I can defend if I had the time or energy (I don't).

Your review compares TRL with SPR as if one needs to define itself with the other. They both exist separately, are COMPLETELY different movies in tone and approach and should be taken as such.

The only thing that irks me about your review are the comments about Spielberg. Again, this is my opinion, but in the 20 years since Malik's last film, I don't think there's been a prolific filmmaker with the range and scope of Spielberg, and I think that deserves to be appreciated and given a little respect. It just seems that no matter what hurdles Spielberg traverses or what unbelievable cinematic film experiences he creates, someone writes a quote like, "Saving Private Ryan, for all its flash and bombast, is 'just a war movie."

To me, this type of comment is an example of your point re: viewer ignorance and frustrations in appreciating TRL. For what it's worth, there are quite a few scenes in SPR that have as much moral dilemma, human drama and soul searching as TRL - and it didn't take an ongoing monologue to tell you what you're seeing, feeling or what you just saw (that old philosophy - "show me, don't tell me").

And regarding that quote of Spielberg stating that Apocalypse Now was "just a war movie" - PLEASE! How old was Spielberg at the time he said that - 18? ;) I think he's grown up quite a bit since then. (Note: he was 33.)

I would urge you to give SPR the same consideration you're giving TRL (as you promised in your last line). In my opinion (and don't I have a few!), Spielberg's genius is in communicating such strong, deep concepts in such an efficient manner that most of the audience gets it, at the expense of some critics who see SPR as "just another melodramatic action movie." I don't know, man, maybe I'm just a peasant, but I find SPR to be one of the most viscerally and emotionally devastating moviegoing experiences I've ever had.

One more comment on SPR appreciation: see the opening sequence with subtitles on. You really get an understanding and appreciation of the tactical maneuverings.

Anyway, thanks for reading this, excuse any typos and keep up the great work on [DVD Savant] - I'm always looking forward to it! - Flexx

Five stars for your review of The Thin Red Line! I've been trying to explain this movie to my friends and co-workers for the last several months, and all I've been getting from them are blank stares or "it's a boring mess". Somehow, you've managed to put into precise words the feelings I've been trying to express about Malick's style of filmmaking. I will encourage my friends and co-workers to read your review, and perhaps they will give it a second try.

However, I don't share your apparent disdain for Saving Private Ryan. To me, the two movies are simply two different takes on World War II (or any war) by two gifted directors. The fact that Spielberg is a "commercial" director does not, in my opinion, diminish the magnitude of his achievement. Spielberg's images of carnage are just as moving to me as Malick's images of the tall grass of Guadalcanal. I was profoundly affected by Ryan and I was profoundly affected by Red Line. There is no reason why these two films can't co-exist. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were two different takes on the Vietnam War (or any war), and they have co-existed for twenty years.

I hope you will make good on your promise to revisit Saving Private Ryan (you will be amazed at the quality of the new DVD from Dreamworks). It is refreshing to encounter a reviewer who is willing to question his/her own opinion about a film.In the meantime, I will look forward to each new article from the DVD Savant. - William

Dear Savant- I greatly enjoyed your review of Fox's DVD of The Thin Red Line. As one of the few people who liked this movie, I was quite pleased with the surprisingly beautiful DVD Fox made. Of course I also wish more extras were on the disc, but I'm guessing Malick is so eccentric he wouldn't allow it. One thing you didn't mention was the nice booklet that accompanies the disc. While not terribly substantive, it was nice nonetheless. Do you know where I could find a recent picture of Malick? Being a fan I'd like to know what he looks like. I know he didn't allow any pictures of him to be used to promote TRL, but there must be some, somewhere. - Guy

I have friends who kind of feel the same you do towards Private Ryan. To a certain extent I do as well. I think Spielberg is probably the most talented director of our time. He is this generation's David Lean so to speak. However, Spielberg is no longer the boy wonder of Hollywood. He has "matured", if you will, into a man who desires to make "important" films. Through this desire, he is trying to cull through history and pick out some of the more important moments in time, moments which may not have been explored very well on film, in hopes of making one of these "important" films. What he doesn't seem to realize is that he has already made important films, but now in his desire to make important movies, he is actually selling his audience a little short. He is now relying too much on his cinematic devices instead of allowing them to just happen. Spielberg has always been a sensitive director. He knew how to push buttons and provoke emotional responses. At times, he would push a little too hard and go too far, but I could forgive him these excesses. At least in the 80s. In my opinion, the 90s have not been kind to him. He has made a series of subpar films and has now even given up making the kinds of films that made his movies a sort of brand name.

My favorite film of his is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my second choice, followed probably by The Color Purple. To this day, I still think The Color Purple is the best of his so-called serious films. I know some people think that Schindler's List is his crowning achievement. It is a good film and it is definitely not without its powerful moments. But I am not the kind of person that can watch ultra-depressing films over and over again. And in my opinion, part of what makes a good or great film is the ability to watch it again and again. Something should draw you to it, not repel you from it.

This is why I feel that Saving Private Ryan is Spielberg's best film of this decade. The characters in the film question the validity of the mission as much as you do. That is part of the point of the film. Whether or not the scenario is realistic is beyond the point. What matters is that you learn to respect the characters as honorable men and that what they were asked to do, namely kill and be killed, was an unfortunate and terrible thing but also a necessary one. In these times of anti-war sentiments, this gives the movie a clarity that I rarely find. With Schindler's List, everyone knew, unless you were a white-supremacist hate-monger, that the holocaust was the culmination of the actions of evil men.

You also have made the point that Private Ryan is just a war movie. I agree whole-heartedly. But in that respect, so is The Longest Day, Platoon, Bridge on the River Quai, The Dirty Dozen, Full Metal Jacket, the list goes on and on. But all of these films are noted as great war movies. For me, another part of the pleasure of watching Private Ryan was picking out the numerous referrences to other great war movies. The Normandy sequence has a little bit of The Big Red One and a lot of The Longest Day. The finale has a touch of Bridge Over the River Quai. There are a couple scenes that remind me of Full Metal Jacket. Many filmakers have been referencing Steven Spielberg. Most notably Roland Emerlich in Independence Day. I found it kind of neat that Spielberg would reference the directors that he felt were great.

In contrast, I feel that Terrence Malick was trying to do everything in his power to make sure that his film was not compared to Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line seemed to use very glossy film stocks, utilizes intricate camera setups in order to stage the beautiful camera work and had extremely vibrant colors. I thought the greens were going to jump off of the screen. Ryan, on the other hand, uses film stocks that will promote grain, predominantly hand held camera work and a washed-out color scheme making the film seem almost black and white. Ryan is set in the Atlantic Theater of combat while Thin Red Line is set in the Pacific. Both films have staged a major beach landing sequence. In Ryan, the men landing on the beachfronts are relentlessly assaulted. In Thin Red Line, the men reach the beachhead without even firing a shot. And finally, as I stated before, Ryan seems to be referencing many of the great war movies, where Thin Red Line tries to avoid doing so. The fact that people still tried to compare the two films seems a bit unfair to me, but it is only natural. As I stated before, I feel that Saving Private Ryan is more entertaining. This is to be expected because it is a more typical war movie. The Thin Red Line offers more meaning but does not have all of the bluster and bravado. Finally, I agree that I found myself not nearly as involved in the opening battle as most people. For me, this has to do with the fact that at that point in the film, you don't know anything about the characters, not even really there names. The sequence uses this to its advantage because of the fact that so many men died in that assault that it would be almost impossible to know all their names. But the tank assault at the end is very affecting because now you have a handful of names to go along with the handful of faces instead of the hundreds of nameless faces. It is pretty much the same thing as in The Thin Red Line. The lengthy battle scene in the brush is intense but not nearly as harrowing as the retreat down the river at the end for the same reasons. In the brush attack, there are so many men and you have a hard time keeping track of them. But the retreat down the river has fewer people involved and by that time you have a pretty solid grasp on the characters. - Jonathon

Thank you for coming to the defense of an underrated and underappreciated film. I have heard so much negativity leveled at Malick's film that it makes me sick to think of the intellectual state of the average film viewer. It is increasingly rare in this day and age when a film reaches an audience beyond the broadest and most basic levels of understanding. It goes to show that films are more and more being thought of as a passive experience to begin when you walk in and finish with when you walk out never thinking of said film again. The Thin Red Line went beyond Ryan's carnage mentality to explore the thoughts of man in his relationship to war, nature and how he exist with the two. Maybe we've bestowed the honor of "National Treasure" on the wrong film.

Also, to my knowledge The Thin Red Line, in its unedited form, runs somewhere between 4 and 6 hours. There is a special edition of this film just waiting to see the light of day. As someone with an internet voice and a voice in the world of DVD, this would be the perfect place to begin a campaign to have an extended version of the film released. Thank you. - Erik

I saw Saving Private Ryan first and thought it was an excellent film in all aspects (cinematography, acting, etc.) and was enthralled that it has come the closest to showing the brutality of war, especially beachhead landings. I won't go into details since you are going to re-visit SPR in the future.

Having seen and loved Badlands and Days of Heaven, I felt that another Malick film was one I must see. The Thin Red Line, after my first viewing, left me with the feeling that I loved it, but couldn't tell you exactly why. After repeated viewings, more of it fell into place and your current review cemented many thoughs and feelings I have about it. As in the aforementioned films, Malick has a great eye for cinematography. This shows up magnificently in TRL and is one of the most visually appealing films I've ever seen. An added bonus was a great story and cast. People who didn't like or understand this film have missed something wonderful. Thanks for your excellent review. Regards - Brad

Text (c) Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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