The Thin Red Line is a war movie colossus based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones. The film was universally lauded by critics and nominated for 7 Academy Awards. It also runs for 2 hours and 50 minutes and is loaded with just about every male star you can imagine. This movie is beautifully shot and filled to the brim with horror of war, both with the ordinances and the humans involved. The acting was also outstanding, just what you might expect from this stable of actors.
So, what was there not to like about this war “masterpiece”? Well, just a little from my humble perspective. I would like to say at the front end that I do not think this is a bad film, and I did enjoy watching it. However, many have praised the movie as the best war film ever, and I say, “No way”.
A long running time and a load of stars is not a bad thing at all. There are many lengthy films that I have watched and enjoyed that I wished would never, ever end. I also immensely enjoy a star-studded cast of great actors playing off of each other, like in Glengarry Glen Ross. So, how did Malick use or not use some of the actors in The Thin Red Line? More on this later.
The Thin Red Line is a war film, an anti-war film, a Bro film and a mixture of philosophy, religion, humanity and the absolute terror of war. There is plenty of death and gore, but the film is more about relationship and the differing philosophy of the value of human lives vs. the overall objectives of winning the war.
Never was this philosophy more dichotomized than in the relationship between Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas). Nick Nolte delivered a blistering, neck-vein-popping performance as the valedictorian from the George C. Patton University of Ruthlessness. Captain Staros was facing absolute Hell from above on the hill with his men being mowed down like a corn field at harvest time in Iowa. He was ordered to take the hill regardless, and when he refused, there would be even worse Hell to pay from the Colonel.
The main character in the book, and supposedly in the movie was Cpl. Fife, played by Adrien Brody. But, guess what? He was barely in the film and the main focus was on Pvt. Witt, acted brilliantly by Jim Caviezel, the idealist who was in love with humanity as much as he was with his wife back in the States. Witt was a deserter, that was pulled back into the war, but he never lost his religious zeal for all of humanity, even with the final, crushing blow from back home in the form of a Dear John letter.
The relationship between Pvt. Witt and 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) framed the very essence of Mallick’s message in the movie. Witt and Welsh were polar opposites in the film. Witt believed in the innate goodness of man, and the power and glory of an afterlife. Welsh was the ultimate cynic and skeptic, believing in no afterlife and that the world was just a “world of shit”, Kubrickian Full Metal Jacket style.
The Thin Red Line had a bus-load of superstars, most of whom never showed up in the film. Brody and Clooney only had cameos, and how about Billy Bob Thorton, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, and Mickey Rourke totally left on the cutting room floor? Unbelievable.
It can be conjectured that this movie cost Saving Private Ryan the Oscar, splitting the war movie vote and allowing Shakespeare In Love to win the gold. I don’t know, but this was just another Academy misfire.
This was a unique war film, with a healthy mix of gripping combat and death, deep character development and the stark difference in philosophy of those willingly and unwillingly participating in the war. It is about evil and idealism, and the inevitable and awful consequences of war, a never-ending story.
7.5/10.0 With the Goatesians Rating of an Unusual War Film, Certainly Worth Watching
- “Do you ever feel lonely?” -Private Witt
- “Only around people.” -Sergeant Welsh
- “Everything a lie… Everything you hear, everything you see… So much to spew out… They just keep coming, one after another… You’re in a box… A moving box… They want you dead, or in their lie. Only one thing a man can do – find something that’s his, and make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” -Sgt Welsh
- “War don’t ennoble men. It turns them into dogs… poisons the soul. -Pvt. Witt
- “It’s not necessary for you to ever tell me that you think I’m *right*. Ever. We’ll assume it. -Lt. Col. Tall [To Captain Staros]
- “No matter how much training you got, how careful you are… it’s a matter of luck whether or not you get killed. Makes no difference who you are or how tough a guy you might be. If you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time, you’re gonna get it.” -Sgt. Storm