How big a hit Fox has depends on the fickle public's word-of-mouth, with many hurdles to overcome in the marketing. But its big, brooding, warlike nature -- asking the big questions and not finding easy answers -- May Foster the rare confluence of reality and art that makes "The Thin Red Line" an uncannily timed movie phenomenon.
After a 20-year-absence, enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven") has realized a 10-year dream project -- based on the 1962 novel by James Jones -- and delivered a breathtaking cinematic experience, one very different than this year's other celebrated World War II film. Indeed, those expecting "Saving Private Ryan" will be surprised by the unconventional structure, sometimes slow pacing and heavy use of voice-overs but not by the bloody battles, which are graphic and complex enough to rival those in Steven Spielberg's award-winning hit.
There's no easy way to encapsulate the nearly three-hour plot and do right by every striking scene or memorable character. Likewise, the themes and Malick's directorial choices will be subject to much debate, more so than in any film this year. "2001: A Space Odyssey" was a mystery to many, and so will be "The Thin Red Line", but its reputation could soar over time.
Filmed previously in 1964 with Keir Dullea and Jack Warden, in a much abbreviated version, "The Thin Red Line" is the story of C-for-Charlie Company, U.S. infantrymen fighting the Japanese in the crucial campaign on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942. Jones' brilliant novel follows several dozen characters through the landing, marching, fighting and "off-lining" of these GIs, with many dying in a series of clashes on the windy hills of the island's interior.
Malick immediately puts his stamp on the material with a nearly dialogue-free 10-minute opening sequence that introduces AWOL Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) living in "paradise" with Melanesian villagers. The themes of showing how the fighting affects nature and how nature affects the soldiers are likewise introduced by first seeing this calm before the chaos.
A self-assured loner who misses his comrades and rejoins the war, Witt goes on to survive the horrific battles in the film's central section and continues to ponder the nature of man and war -- at one point a dead Japanese face, half-buried in the jungle muck, stares at him and talks as if it has already returned to the earth.
While there are Tolstoyian ambitions here, Malick is so unconcerned with routine drama and the battle scenes are so visceral that the film never feels unduly egg-headed, although some are bound to find it too pretentious, too demanding, too long, just too damn elegiac. The next-to-last argument could made, but it's not a serious flaw.
As for the rest of the film's superb cast, with one or two exceptions, there aren't enough superlatives to do justice to the work on display. 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) is a humorless cynic that like all his fellows gets the "white-eyed" look of terror in combat. Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) dreams of his wife back home, with Malick cutting to his sensual memories in one gambit that's somewhat overworked.
Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) is the lawyer-turned-worried warrior who commands the men against entrenched Japanese positions and, in his bravest act, defies his superior, Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte). A mad dog one minute and a decisive leader the next, Tall is one of Nolte's greatest roles, and his performance is tremendous. In a one-sided exchange with battle-tested Capt. Gaff (John Cusack) and when he relieves Staros of his command, Tall personifies the impersonal, savage thought processes that destroy or forever mark the average soldier.
Many more characters and performers stand out, particularly gung-ho Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok), ill-fated Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) and devastated-by-the-slaughter Sgt. McCron (John Savage). Used in reserve but effectively are John Travolta as a regal brigadier general -- in scenes with Tall on the tense troop transport before the soldiers make their unopposed amphibious landing -- and Adrien Brody as company clerk Cpl. Fife. George Clooney's brief moments as the new company captain near the conclusion is the one instance of the all-star approach coming up short.
Shot mainly in the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia, "The Thin Red Line" is a visual knockout -- from cutaways to indigenous animals and vegetation to the grimy, numbed faces of the survivors -- with John Toll's cinematography surpassing his Oscar-winning work on "Legends of the Fall". Likewise, the soundtrack is a marvel of craftsmanship, mixing the booms of bombs exploding and wind moving through the grass with works by Gabriel Faure, Charles Ives, Arvo Part and Hans Zimmer's meaty score.
THE THIN RED LINE
20th Century Fox
Fox 2000 Pictures presents
Phoenix Pictures in association
with George Stevens Jr.
A Geisler-Roberdeau production
Writer-director: Terrence Malick
Producers: Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau, Grant Hill
Executive producer: George Stevens Jr.
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Editors: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones
Costume designer: Margot Wilson
Music: Hans Zimmer
Casting: Dianne Crittenden
Pvt. Witt: Jim Caviezel
1st Sgt. Welsh: Sean Penn
Pvt. Bell: Ben Chaplin
Capt. Staros: Elias Koteas
Lt. Col. Tall: Nick Nolte
Pfc. Doll: Dash Mihok
Capt. Gaff: John Cusack
Sgt. Keck: Woody Harrelson
Sgt. McCron: John Savage
Running time -- 170 minutes
MPAA Rating: R