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Thin Red Line, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 May 2002

The Thin Red Line
20th Century Fox Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, John Savage, John C. Reilly, John Travolta
release year: 1998
film rating: Four and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Terence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE is a unique war movie, a genuine art film, deeply personal, a dreamlike meditation on war, cerebral and unsentimental. In many ways, it's more like a musical composition than a movie; the way it is structured overall, as well as the clear decision to tell the story in movements rather than by conventional narrative are only two of the factors that set this film apart from all other war movies.
On many levels, the movie succeeds brilliantly; like APOCALYPSE NOW, the only other American war movie it remotely resembles, it's more about what it felt like to be in combat in the Pacific than a realistic story of how the American forces took Guadalcanal back from the Japanese. The photography by John Toll is haunting, particularly in the scenes on the first hill that the soldiers are required to take. Toward the end, there are scenes set along a jungle river; I've never seen another movie that more clearly captures the dark green but rich light of a tropical forest.

The sound by Paul "Salty" Brincat is vividly rendered, crisp and clean, remarkably realistic, and has been transferred intact to the DVD. Hans Zimmer's score is as elliptical and mysterious as the movie itself. But there are elements that get between Malick's beautiful, introspective movie and the audience. Several of the leading actors, including the two we see the most of (Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin), strongly resemble one another, particularly with their helmets on; since Malick avoids conventional dramatic scenes, it's difficult to tell the characters apart. Furthermore, some more or less emerge from the general background for a while, then disappear into it again, like John Cusack's character. Some others we so little of that we never come close to knowing anything about them as individuals. "All faces are the same man," murmurs a voice-over, which may indicate Malick deliberately cast look-alike actors in several roles. Even if deliberate, it still works against emotional involvement in the movie.

There are frequent voice-overs throughout the movie, but they're odd, philosophical mediations on war, not commentary on what we're seeing; "If I go first," a voice says, "I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters." Some of this relates to what is clearly one of the principal themes of the movie, the conflict between warfare and the natural life of the Solomon Islands, of which Guadalcanal is a part. The film is rich with images of animals and birds in the jungle around the soldiers: a crocodile here, brightly-colored parrots there, a potto climbs a tree, a thick-bodied lizard descends. Most of these are picked out in individual shots, isolated, never seen in the same frame as a human being; for the most part, the soldiers are -- understandably -- oblivious to the beauty of their surroundings.

The soldiers land at Guadalcanal without incident, but as they head up a grassy hill, Japanese troops open fire on them from well-concealed machine gun nests. Tall orders Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to take the hill no matter what, and is furious when Staros, knowing what his men are facing flatly but nervously refuses to send his men directly up the hill. The sequences centering on the assault on the entrenched Japanese emplacements are among the best in the film, and among the most exciting, tense and believable ever filmed.

There's a pause after the hill is finally taken and the Japanese routed, followed by a dizzying attack on a Japanese stronghold. Again, the brilliantly-edited sequence (the editors were Billy Weber, Leslie Jones and Saar Klein) is almost musical in the way it builds to a frantic, frenetic crescendo of clumsy action, with American soldiers pausing in their headlong rush to quickly shoot Japanese. It's a breath-taking sequence in which several of the characters we've followed are killed -- but who? Again, Malick doesn't seem to want us to be able to identify all of them.

Terence Malick has directed only two other movies, BADLANDS (1973) and DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), and didn't originally intend to direct this one, either. This movie is going to confuse some people, who are not expecting a story about WW2 to be rendered as a tone poem -- but then, that's what DAYS OF HEAVEN was, too.

Malick's concerns are not those of the usual director of a war movie, not even, for example, those of Francis Ford Coppola or Stanley Kubrick, two other outstanding directors who made their own war films. THE THIN RED LINE is deeply personal, and very carefully made; it is, one suspects, precisely the film that Malick set out to make.

The film is a bold, imaginative work, highly distinctive, beautifully photographed, and well-acted. But it's also a curiosity, a genuine art-house movie on a giant scale. The craftsmanship alone is magnificent, and there are outstanding sequences, but it's hard to say after one viewing how well it all coalesces. At times, the voice-overs sound almost pompous, even pretentious; the difficulty in telling some of the actors apart works against some scenes (you're sitting there wondering if YOU are the only person in the theater who has a hard time telling Bell from Witt, and that's distracting), but at other times, seems to underscore some of Malick's ideas. Some of the combat scenes are simply brilliant, a mad swirl of sudden death, long nerve-wracking pauses, an almost sexual excitement, and a haunting feeling that you and your buddies are all blending into one fierce, frightened creature.

I think it's going to take some time to sort out THE THIN RED LINE and what it's about, but most people who see it are likely to watch it only once. They'll probably come away impressed by some elements of this ambitious movie, annoyed by its length, and confused about just what it was they saw. But there's no doubt that it is the work of a distinctive, imaginative creator, Terence Malick.

The DVD is surprisingly lacking in extras for such a well-respected and major movie. Malick is reclusive, so it's not surprising that he didn't record a commentary track, but weren't the producers available? Perhaps Malick wanted the work to speak for itself; to those who will listen, it does so eloquently.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital
aspect ratio(s):
special features: scene selection; language choices; songs from Melanesia
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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