Dark tale of one man's determination to survive his tour of duty. Separated from his new wife after only eight days of marriage, private Doll suddenly decides that he will no longer blindly follow the orders of his superiors, following his own mind instead. What follows are a series of poorly planned attacks, in which Doll saves the day, time after time; eventually leading to the taking of the Elephant in the battle of Guadalcanal during World War II. Sgt. Welsh, Doll's immediate line officer grows an affinity for Doll, helping him through his first Kill, but never quite allowing himself to admit his admiration for the young soldier. The final scene of the movie brings home the true horror of war and the meaninglessness of it all. Written by
The film's title comes from James Jones's novel and, in turn, from an old saying. In the movie, Captain Stone, played by Ray Daley, says, "I remember an old Midwest saying, 'There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.' " See more »
The Thin Red Line: the insanity of war and what men do to survive.
For those who have read the James Jones novel, you should know that that the production team for this movie paid little heed to the original text. And, that's a shame, because the true horror and insanity of war as described by Jones is missing: instead, what you see is an attempt at a psychological explanation in the guise of one of the characters, Private Doll (Keir Dullea).
Briefly, the story concentrates upon Doll a somewhat nervous but seemingly normal soldier at first -- showing how he gradually degenerates into a killing machine who not only wants to kill the enemy in this case, the Japanese garrison at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands but eventually the soldiers of his own company as well. War is hell, as we know, but is that a likely result from the stress of battle and a crazy desire to survive at any cost? Apparently so, according to the screenwriter and director.
Inexplicably, top sergeant Welch (Jack Warden), who in the novel really is as crazy as hell, is portrayed instead as a tough but sincere -- no-nonsense veteran (who's character for the movie is no doubt modeled on Duke Wayne's portrayal of Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, ) who pushes Doll to the limits, goading him all the time in order to help make Doll a better soldier and thus survive the war. Does he succeed? You be the judge, should you see the movie.
The other characters of the novel are virtually ignored, except for the tussle between Col. Tall (James Philbrook) and Capt. Stone (Ray Daley) that rams home the point that nice guys always finish last. Like I said, war is hell... And, in a daring departure for the times, the overt homosexuality between Doll and Fife in the novel is actually hinted at, visually and in the dialog, on quiet a few occasions.
I liked the black and white cinematography; it brought back memories of the Iwo Jima classic and Duke Wayne. The overall production, however, lacked the realism of that, and other classics (All Quiet on the Western Front , Paths of Glory , The Rats of Tobruk  and others), the special effects were hardly special, and the overall effect was one of a cheap production done over a few weeks somewhere in southern California (none of the terrain even vaguely resembled a tropical rain forest as exists at Gaudalcanal).
For the times, the production was about equal to any B-movie you'd see at a Saturday afternoon cinema or drive-in, and about as exciting. As a piece of Hollywood production history, it's worth seeing, I guess. For a more serious and far superior production, however, see Terence Malick's presentation of The Thin Red Line from 1998.
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