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The greatest fault of The Thin Red Line was its timing - it was released at
around the same time as Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. While most people
dismissed The Thin Red Line as the `other' World War II movie of 1998, it's
actually a very different kind of film - the film itself is not hurt by
similarity to Ryan but was hurt commercially due to the misconception.
easy to forget that Red was nominated for seven Oscars. This is an
extraordinary film that can stand well on its own next to
Saving Private Ryan was significant in that it visually depicted war in a realistic, gritty way. The Thin Red Line's focus is more philosophical. It is about the contradiction between the beauty of nature and the destructive nature of men. The movie cuts continuously between the external struggle of American GIs fighting to take a crucial hill from Japanese occupation on Guadalcanal - and more importantly, the internal chaos of war as every man tries to come to his own terms about matters such as morals, death, God, and love.
Unlike in Saving Private Ryan, there is nothing patriotic about this movie. In fact, there probably has never been a more anti-war film. The fighting men here are disillusioned, lost, and frightened. They don't fight for their country or "democracy" - they fight because they have to. The only priorities are survival, and - for the more humane - caring for their comrades. Renowned composer Hans Zimmer - who won an Oscar nomination for his work-captures the grim mood perfectly and allows us to hear the men's thoughts.
The characters are portrayed by a strong ensemble cast. Acting is uniformly excellent, especially Nick Nolte as Colonel Tall, who is the unfeeling commander of the ground offensive on Guadalcanal. Thoroughly unlikable, he is the closest thing to a villain in the movie. After studying war for an untold number of years, Tall sees Guadalcanal as his chance to prove himself and move up in the ranks - the men are only a tool to accomplish this goal and expendable. In one crucial scene, he orders a captain (played by Elias Koteas, in another outstanding role) to lead his men to a frontal assault against a Japanese controlled hill. When the captain suggests a more logical alternative, the colonel screams: "You are not gonna take your men around in the jungle to avoid a goddamn fight!" To this, the captain replies, `I've lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years and I will not order them all to their deaths.' Later, when the hill is taken, he is dismissed of his duties as Tall sees him as a threat to the successful achievement of his goal. Certainly, not every commander must have been that coldhearted and selfish, but surely some were, though not necessarily to that extreme.
While the acting is very good, much of the cast is relatively unknown and it can initially be hard to distinguish the characters from each other as they may appear to be very similar. They are all about the same age, have dirt smeared over their faces, and wear helmets and the same military garb. Also, the stars in this movie have very small roles. George Clooney and John Travolta are credited with starring roles while really little more than extras - clearly for marketing purposes. You will not see more than two minutes of each.
One of the main themes of the movie is the contrast between nature and men's destructiveness in war. The director, Terrence Malick, hired cinematographer John Toll to capture this on camera, and towards achieving that goal they couldn't have been more successful. The almost surreal scenery is nothing short of stunning and has the same visual impact as any special effect. The beauty of nature is always present, even when it is a setting for battle of destruction, and death.
Though the battle scenes fall short of the frightening realism in Saving Private Ryan, they are heads and soldiers above every previous attempt. One truly gets the sense that war is a chaotic, often hopeless environment where it is only a matter of luck whether you survive or get killed.
`How did we lose the good that was given us? Or let it slip away? Scatter it carelessly ... trade it for what has no worth?' The film is filled with such poetic questions as to which there are no real answers. This is definitely not a party movie. There isn't anything uplifting about it - it is downright depressing. Asides from entertainment value, however, this is a film that makes you think.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having taken the time to read scores of reviews for TTRL (including IMDb
ones here), I'm reminded of the movie subscript for this most
film: "Every man fights his own war." What a polarization exists amongst
its viewers, and a lot of emotion both ways.
I was stunned, moved, transfixed and totally absorbed by this film, even more so on subsequent viewings. I was one of the considerable number of people who, as the credits appear, sit quietly till one has to leave -- still stuck in the film's experience. I'm not angry at others who merely fell asleep. It's odd how some of the film's harsher critics seem compelled to vent their anger in disparaging comments against those who loved it -- most of those who liked the film were gentler in commenting on its critics.
In contrast to what some have written, "The thin red line" has nothing to do with the British infantry in its imperial past. Jones referred to two related quotes in his excellent book, both having to do with a thin line between sanity and insanity. Whether "justified" or not, necessary or not, there is a lot of insanity in the war experience by anyone's definition of insanity.
War exists and seems to recreate itself -- I never got the idea from Malick's film that he was preaching that we should just stop having wars. On the contrary, he takes war as a given in the human part of nature, and shows how individual human beings variously adapted (or mal-adapted!) in order to be able to keep eating, breathing and, yes, killing. The war experience is not primarily about shooting and blowing things up -- as Jones described from his own experience, it's largely about what happens between skirmishes -- strife and comradeship, fear and bravado, homesickness and freedom from past constraints, and waiting to die or to see a buddy die. People came, died, and were replaced -- much as portrayed by the cameo appearances in the film that confused or upset some viewers. Veterans always talk about how hard it is when you have to rely on your buddies (and feel for them) even though odds are most of them will die.
What is most important to me (and it doesn't have to be for anyone else, I know that) is how the eternal themes of humanity are affected and expressed in such circumstances. All great works of art have something to do with the themes of beauty, pain, triumph, despair, good and evil. There's nothing wrong with entertainment as a diversion (The Matrix was fine fun); there's room both for film for fun and for film as art. Saving Ryan's Privates was mostly good entertainment (although I found it terribly manipulative and jingoistic), while TTRL explores the themes I mentioned above, never with easy answers. If you found the voice-overs heavy-handed, maybe it's because you're used to Hollywood telling us what to think and feel and thought Malick was doing the same. Watch again and see if he's not just giving us access to various individuals' often conflicting perspectives.
As for those who think the film portrays "our soldiers" in a bad light, my family members who fought in WWII described their experiences and their reactions much as those shown in TTRL -- they were ordinary men, decent enough people, not heroes though sometimes unpredictably capable of the heroic, and devastated by their experiences. I'm proud of them for having done all they could to do what they felt was their responsibility, and to keep some humanity intact in spite of the horror. None of them told me they felt "ennobled" by war; they endured it and were badly hurt by it but didn't feel sorry for themselves, either.
In TTRL I got to see this portrayed with such compassion I wept. Even the guy (Dale) who ripped gold teeth out of the mouths of dying Japanese soldiers was no stereotypical villain -- he has his moment of grace as do they all. No one's defenses are portrayed as impregnable, not even Witt's. No stereotype himself, we see him kill over a dozen soldiers in battle, while still trying to see God in the midst of the chaos. And what a powerful scene at his life's end, fulfilling his own striving for self-sacrifice, and recognizing in a moment of epiphany where his own immortality lie. Those who couldn't find a plot line in the film must have missed the first ten minutes...
Maybe it's because of my own experience in life that I respond to this film so strongly. I endured and survived ten years of intense, inescapable unrelenting abuse as a child. I remember even as a small child trying to make sense of it all -- looking for the good, the reasons, God's plan, my purpose. Others who've survived trauma (in the Holocaust camps, on the cancer wards) often describe how such experiences focussed their attention on things that matter, beyond the physical realities they could not control. Ever since my childhood I've moved through life with a second awareness -- that examination and self-examination while "real time" goes on.
That's what Malick portrayed, for me, in this film. Maybe you think that's "sophomoric" or "pretentious". It may not seem so when you're in the midst of a struggle, or on your death bed...
P. S. I organized a special screening of this film locally for a few friends -- 400 others paid to come, by word of mouth. Over a hundred sat spell-bound as the credits scrolled by -- hushed and not wanting to leave. Fellow wounded souls, some of them, I'll bet.
The "Thin Red Line" is not an easy film to understand. It uses one of the most complex narrative structures yet produced by cinema to tell three stories (yes, it DOES have a plot): 1) the one the book wanted to tell (the book's title comes from a 19th century allusion to the British Empire's infantry [red uniforms] whose small numbers managed to 'protect' the British ["civilization" from their point of view] from the countless hordes of "savages" which the Empire ruled (this concept is regrettably racist). James Jones used this analogy to tell the story of how young American soldiers with no battlefield experience become bloodied veterans. 2) the fundamental paradox of war: to protect "civilization" (all that we hold dear) we are prepared to send young men to fight in wars. We know that in war they will see and do things that will turn them into the very "savages" that we are trying to prevent from destroying our civilization. If you believe that there are things even worse in the world than war (genocide, rule by the Axis powers) then war is not irrational, but the paradox mentioned above exists. 3) man is not distinct from nature but a part of it. Therefore, nature is both beautiful and cruel. (Like our civilization and war). To tell these stories Terence Malick used symbolic imagery, flashback, voice-overs, passages without dialogue, long close-ups of the actors' faces, changes in tempo and a haunting score. For example, his use of symbolism has been much criticized but everything has a purpose e.g. the crocodile entering the green algae covered water (nature's savagery), the native man who passes the company, after they land on the beach, walking in the opposite direction apparently oblivious of their presence (their shocked and bewildered faces reveal how they are forced to question the relevance of the reasons for which they may shortly die - the defense of civilization), the tree being choked by parasitic vines ('nature is cruel' as Lt. Col. Tall so aptly puts it), the bird being born as a soldier dies (it was not dying as many people thought - "we come from the earth and return to it" as we hear in the voice-overs), dogs eating a human corpse ("dog eat dog" - the soldiers are becoming desensitized to the violence) the same crocodile, now dead, at the end of the film being carried away as a sort of trophy (danger has receded for the moment), the coconut sprouting a palm on the empty beach in the last scene (after death comes birth - the cycle of life). There are, of course, many, many other examples. The use of flashback accompanied by voice-over to convey feelings as opposed to narrate a story must have appeared strange to anyone who never saw Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour". It was used most effectively with Ben Chaplin's character (Pvt. Jack Bell) when he thinks of his wife back home - incidentally he idolizes her in the same way we do our own culture - another metaphor. His disillusionment is profound and shows that what he was prepared to die for was only as pure as any ideal. It is often say that there was no character development. This is also false. For example, in the scene where Sgt. Welsh is speaking to Witt shortly after his arrest for being AWOL , Welsh seems to claim that it is every man for himself when he says that individual sacrifice is worthless, there is no world but this one and that each man must get through the war the best that he can. However, we subsequently see him risking his life to deliver morphine to a MORTALLY wounded man during the frontal assault on the Japanese machine gun nests. Also, Witt can not understand where evil comes from in the midst of the beauty he sees in the Melanesian village, but when he returns there he sees man arguing, enemy skulls, crabs hideously crawling around on an outstretched human hand and a child's back covered with insect bites while those people around it are seemingly uncaring. These images suggest that evil is inherent in man. Malick avoids the usual stereotypes. Although we see heroic acts (such as the taking of the machine gun nests by Capt. John Gaff's [John Cusack] team of volunteers), there are no recognizable heros. It is true that the characters are not sharply defined. When the violence comes it is against all of them i.e. all of US. Are there then any relevant negative criticisms of the movie? I would say that it did not meander as some critics alleged (every scene has a purpose) but it was unnecessarily long. There is a certain irony in this. It is said that Malick edited over 100 hours of material first to 9 hours. Understandably the studio did not accept this. He then reduced it to 6 hours and then to 3. (This helps to explain the lightning appearances by John Travolta and George Clooney, I see no problem, however, with using big name stars in such short roles - Richard Attenborough did it in "A Bridge Too Far"). With so much cherished material available, I suspect that Malick fell into the trap of opting for the maximum length that the studio would allow when more artistically efficient editing would have reduced the film to 2* hours. The balance between the action and meditative passages would have worked better if certain scenes had been cut, such as Witt's passing a wounded soldier on the way back to his company after leaving the Melanesian village the second time and also the conversation that Witt and Welsh have towards the end of the film (Welsh appears a stranger to him, suggesting that he is simply a troublemaker). Even with the exclusion of these scenes Witt would still appear a humanist and Welsh a complex "every man". Most people would agree that the film is visually stunning. As there has been very little even remotely similar in the past, it will be confusing for many people but I am convinced that this will come to be seen as a hugely important work - the most influential of the 1990s.
what many people do not know is that this film, directed by terence malick,
is without question the reason that Shakespeare in Love won the best
oscar over the much favored Saving Private Ryan. why am i saying this?
first let's deal with the movie. long? yes. too much? sometimes. but is
it good? i can not begin to describe the beauty of this
about the oscars, i only watched the film after its surprise nomination for best picture. i had seen the competition already, and it was time to check out the fifth nominee. i went to the theatre myself, and came out three hours later, went home, and i cried. not only because i was disturbed, but i loved every single character in the film. i wanted to be there for them, cry with them, fight their battle. many people who have watched the film have said the same thing to me.
the Thin Red Line is sometimes painful to watch, but only because of its realistic juxtaposition of humanity, philosophy, and the terror of war. the film does not delve into any historical fact about Guadalcanal, except that the battle itself was terrifying (as is any battle). the characters introduce themselves through voice-over narration, which accompanies much of the action. and speaking of action, there is not much in the film. more images. images of war and the lives these soldiers left behind. this was Terence Malick's intent, of course, and many people were insulted and thought it was his own pretentious self getting the best of him. "boy he's a genius.. must he show it??" sometimes it is a little pretentious, but the film would've been "just another WWII film" if it was out of Malick's hands.
i can not understand why Sean Penn is billed as the top actor or the main character of this film. he was there a lot, but the film is carried by Jim Caviezel as the beautiful and ethereal private Witt. words can not describe this performance. with as few lines as he had, Caviezel portrays the symbolic soul of Witt, and by the end of the film he will break your heart. also excellent performances from Nick Nolte and the understated Elias Koteas, who can stretch creepy (Crash) to sympathetic in the blink of an eye.
now.. let's consider hollywood. sure they love Spielberg, and sure Private Ryan was a masterpiece (and it really was), but nobody even expected the Thin Red Line to get seven oscar nods, especially for best picture. but Shakespeare in Love was the crowd pleaser, and the other two were epic war films. most hollywood "artsy" people are anti-war.. kind of like the Thin Red Line. Private Ryan seemed to be MUCH more patriotic "pro-america" than the other. so if we've got anti-war on one side, and patriotism on the other... open and shut. the votes were split between the two, and Shakespeare emerged victorious. too bad.
anyway... the Thin Red Line was definitely better than Shakespeare, and definitely a completely different film from Spielberg's. John Toll's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score work together to convey the tone of Malick's lyrical and poetic direction, and both should have won oscars. this film is nothing short of breath-taking, though understandably not for the average american moviegoer.
This film is unlikely to be appreciated by audiences reared upon a diet
of dumbed-down Hollywood action fare. However, if you're prepared to
sit down and watch THE THIN RED LINE with no interruptions and give it
the attention it deserves, you'll be rewarded with one of the most
intelligent, poetic and stunningly beautiful films you're ever likely
Director Terrence Malick's films are alive with a sense of pure cinema with every frame delivering such detail and richness that you could swear you were there. The only other person capable of bringing such an immediate sense of time and place and sheer nuance of film (although in a completely different way) is David Lean, another major league craftsman.
Here, again, Malick uses his customary voice-over device although this time as a means of vocalising the abstract thoughts of the various soldiers as they struggle to make some sense of the conflict. It's an interesting approach which allows the audience to identify with the characters in a far less superficial way than in, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (the film THE THIN RED LINE is most often and most unfairly compared to). Malick is also not afraid to take time to illustrate the continuing natural backdrop to the carnage. Mother Nature almost seems to be occupying a pivotal supporting role as a detached observer on the sidelines, calmly and inscrutably watching the chaos develop.
It's a measure of Malick's complete disinterest with the normal conventions of Hollywood that actors such as Lucas Haas, Vigo Mortensen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen and Billy Bob Thornton all spent months in Queensland Australia and the Solomon Islands filming roles that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. Blink and you'll also miss major marquee players such as John Travolta and George Clooney. The stand-out performances come from Jim Caviezel and, especially, Nick Nolte.
Nolte just seems to be getting better and better as he gets older and his portrayal of tyrant Colonel Tall is something to see. I have never seen anyone express such an impotent sense of rage, anger and fury than Nolte does here. It's a fantastic performance from a real pro and it's a mystery to me why he didn't get an Oscar.
John Toll's pristine cinematography and Hans Zimmer's wonderfully evocative (Oscar-winning) score are other strong elements. The unusual music and visuals contrast so well that Malick sometimes fades out the noise of the shouting, explosions and guns, an effect that only serves to heighten the emotional power of the experience further.
You won't see a more beautiful film about the horrors of war. Movies like this make the task of trawling through the weekly diet of dumb formulaic junk served up by Hollywood almost seem worthwhile.
This is one of the most beautifully crafted and haunting films that I have
ever seen. Not only is the amazing ensemble cast give truly beautiful,
effective performances, but the direction and cinematography combines to
create a magnificent visual and mental feast.
This story about the Guadalcanal campaign during WW2, based on the James Jones novel, weaves the lives of many characters together seemlessly, creating a philosophical/emotional experience of war. It's not just about war. It's about love, faith in yourself and others, friendship, humanity, morality and also works as a startling indictment of man's conflict with nature. The amazing opening sequence, sets up a tranquility as the character Witt, finds peace on a secluded island among the natives, a peace which is shattered by the war.
What follows is not a mindless battle-after-battle onslaught of pyrotechnics, smoke, dust and blood, but a thought-provoking, visually and verbally poetic analysis of war and humanity. In my opinion it is the greatest war film since Apocalypse now, which I believe bears more flaws than this. It's not an Us-and-Them war story about the glory of the USA defeating the evil Japs. It sticks close with the characters, as we hear the thoughts, their hopes, their fears, leading to a moving experience.
This film was released a few months after Saving Private Ryan and unfortunately did not experience the same attention that the latter film did. Ryan was an excellent film, but to offer a comparison, The Thin Red LIne treads where Ryan didn't dare. Ryan sat in the safe territory of Good vs Evil with a bit of Futility of War and a lot of American Patriotism. It seemed to be more about America at some points than about war. The Thin Red Line is about war, the people involved and the destruction it creates for the mind, the soul and for nature. It does not deviate from this to make simple contrasts and offer easy binary oppositions.
In fact, TTRL is not an easy film. Gasp, it even tries to make you think. Though the title is not really explained in the film, I believe it is implied, and could have many meanings - the line between sanity and insanity, morality and immorality, love and hate, companionship and loneliness, nature and man, war and peace. While the characters share their thoughts, deeply poetic as they are, the meaning is not thrown in your face and neither is the answer to the questions raised. In this way it is the most thought-provoking war film I've ever seen and one of the best films of all time in my book. Top ten easily.
Now to my whinge. I think TTRL was shunned unmercifully at the 1999 Oscars. Shakespeare in Love beat two brilliant films - TTRL and Elizabeth - to get that oscar, and don't get me started on Gwyneth's award. This is the best film of 1998/9, in line with Elizabeth. It's unfortunate that the two, thoug h greatly revered, did not achieve the success and attention they deserved.
Don't be afraid by its length, it's a beautiful journey, full of rich colour, sound and the reward is a deeply moving human experience, unlike any other that the past decade has offered.
The Thin Red Line has no real hero and no real plot to speak of. Due to its release the same year as Saving Private Ryan it will forever be linked to Spielberg's anti-war opus. Yet, "TRL" deserves to be compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 due to it's style and distance from the audience. The film's only character is the Charlie Company and the conflict is between humankind itself. Director Terrance Malik asks profound questions and unlike "Ryan," doesn't expect them to be answered because they simply can't be answered. Like 2001, the viewer is left with more questions than answers at the end of the film and is told in stunning visual fashion. Some critics have pointed out various flaws in the film; however, these traits are what sets TRL apart form it's peers. The stars like John Travolta and George Clooney have little screen time. They are the officers who command attention and are larger than life to the simple GI's who do the real work (and most of the acting in the film.) The characters are mostly unrecognizable and you know little about them save the main characters like Pvt. Bell. But, the faces are meant to be unrecognizable; to paraphrase the film they are simply flesh and meat made from the earth simply to return back to it. Those who criticise the lack of violence in some scenes while labeling the other scenes intense don't realize the intensity the fight scenes generalize are due to the fact that the soldiers don't know when their next battle will be and when their last breath will take place. The main character, Charlie Company, is fighting to stay alive, the only real driving force of the plot. All of the characters have different views of the war, shown through the use of random spoken narrative. There is no easy conclusion to the war and the film starts off where it began, among the animals of the pacific. Life is one huge circle and one could guess the battle for the bunker on top of the hill could be fought again and there is no possible way to stop it, (At least that is what I was able to muster of the film itself.) For myself the most haunting image was the scene when the Americans stare at their Japanese enemy after capturing the hill. Both sides seem to realize that they could be on the other side of the battle and that in war there really is no good vs. bad scenario, just what nation you're from and who you are trying to kill. Yet the question asked is why war occurs and why we must fight each other. On that note, we still have no answers. The acting and sound are superb. The direction, editing, and score are all Oscar caliber. I don't shrink from saying that TRL is the best film of 1998 and one of the greatest war films of all time; (and contrary to what some are trying to say it is a war film, that is at its core.) TRL is the only film to ever make my knees tremble and haunt me days after I saw it. If you see it, I'm sure your opinions will be just as strong as mine.
By far the best film I have ever seen. It baffles me that people could criticize this intricate metaphysical look at war, nature and humanity. The cinematography is so superb that each frame of the film stands on its own. The voice overs offer majestic reflections on the nature of war and humanity. The intensity of this film is unsurpassed.
This film is three hours of movie poetry. "Saving Private Ryan," though
brilliantly made, is a jingoistic cartoon by comparison. "Thin Red Line"
follows a company of American rifleman brought in to consolidate the Allied
grip on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1942 in the face of Japanese
invasion, but the place could be just about anywhere where war is
The company is not made up of conscripts but regular soldiers. Some of them have been in the Army more than 10 years. Some of them however have never seen real action before and this is a hot and uncomfortable location, despite the lovely tropical scenery. Some crack up, some die, some do heroic deeds. Their leaders are not particularly admirable; one is quite happy to get his men killed if he can come out of the action looking good.
Out of sight for most of the film are the Melanesian inhabitants, the Solomon Islanders, who are carrying on living as best they can while the war rages around them. Their serenity is in sharp contrast to the frenetic military activity. Of course, there is nowhere for them to go.
There is some action excitingly filmed but as in real wars much of the time is spent preparing and waiting. Personal stories unfold but at the end it is survival that matters.
The lighting and photography is quite superb, the lighting in particular fitting the mood perfectly. Filming was not actually on Guadalcanal but near Port Douglas in Northern Queensland where there is similar tropical rainforest and fauna but with much easier logistics. It took ages apparently but seems more than worth the effort.
This is probably one of the four or five greatest war films ever made, right up there with "All Quiet on the Western Front, " "Paths of Glory," "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Longest Day." Never has a movie better portrayed what it's like to be a frontline soldier.
Terrence Malick has the reputation of being an eccentric, difficult director - Kubrick without the fear of flying. Yet this is not a particularly unconventional movie - it's just that everything hangs together - the story, dialogue, performances, photography and settings. On thing is clear - this is a better interpretation of James Jones' novel than the 1964 version.
I'm very sorry I didn't get to see this film in the theatre. It is a
beautifully filmed masterpiece with a superb story, excellent acting (esp.
Nick Nolte), and a great script. It takes things way deeper than Saving
Private Ryan or most other modern war movies dare to go. Very introspective
and dreamy at times, with the camera constantly dwelling on faces, animals,
and the landscape. Merrick is never in a hurry, and this pace suits the film
The Thin Red Line asks a lot of good questions about death, war, and the ultimate meaning of life. Now that I have seen it, I'm very surprised that this film did not win picture of the year. Spielberg's film was a gritty, realistic portrayal of war. But it was also highly commercial and had a very contrived plot. In comparison, this film sort of wanders through itself and in the process helps to put you in the boots of the soldiers it portrays.
My only criticism is perhaps the film was a bit long, but I never noticed that the second time through. I can't praise this film enough. Excellent work.
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