The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)
  • Time: 170 min
  • Genre: Drama | War
  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Cast: Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Stahl


In World War II, the outcome of the battle of Guadalcanal will strongly influence the Japanese advance into the Pacific theater. A group of young soldiers is brought in as a relief for the battle-weary Marines. The exhausting fight for a strategically-positioned airfield that allows control over a 1000-mile radius puts the men of the Army rifle company C-for-Charlie through hell. The horrors of war form the soldiers into a tight-knit group; their emotions develop into bonds of love and even family. The reasons for this war get further away as the world for the men gets smaller and smaller until their fighting is for mere survival and the life of the other men with them.


  • ‘The Thin Red Line’ is perhaps one of my personal favorite movies of all time. It marks the return of the notorious seclusive writer/director Terrance Malick, who had not completed a film in twenty years prior to this one’s release.

    This is not your typical war drama. It is so much more. It has everything your normal combat movie would cover, excellently shot battle sequences and explores the turmoils of war. You see first hand how the characters slowly begin to lose their grip on reality, as innocence if the first causality of war.

    Malick handles the story by starting out with two American soldiers who go AWOL, somewhere on a small island filled with natives in the Pacific Ocean. This segment, to me at least, in the greatest sign that life really is beautiful. After the AWOL soldiers are back in the navy’s possession, that’s when we are introduced to Guadalcanal, a small island with a Japanese airfield.

    What follows are incredibly scenes of action, some surpassing the likes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Platoon.’ The soldiers question, in great detail, why they are fighting this war (Not politically but philosophically.) The movie is long, sure, but needs to cover a great amount of information.

    The cast is phenomenal. Nearly every actor with a speaking role, (and a few without,) have become big name actors. The best performances comes from the veteran actor Nick Nolte, who plays an aging Colonel. Who he didn’t earn himself a Best Supporting Actor nod, or a win, I do not know.

  • This movie marks the return of Terrence Malick, whose last film Days of Heaven, was released twenty years earlier. This movie is a great example of filmmaking. It has a gripping storyline, stunning visuals and stellar performances from a cast with more stars that has ever been seen.

    The movie recounts a fictionalised version of one of the battles in the Guadalcanal Campaign during the Pacific War in WWII. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) has been found after going AWOL and is reassigned to Charlie Company under the leadership of First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Led by Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), the men in the battalion are charged with capturing and controlling an island currently held by the Japanese.

    The story is accompanied by narration from various soldiers who all ponder the point of war. This narration is usually voiced over stunning landscapes of Queensland (where the film was shot). The narration does not extend as far as the battle scenes, which have Hans Zimmer’s beautiful score drowning out the sounds of war. One scene where this is especially prevalent is when the battalion finally takes the Japanese camp. The soldiers run through the camp and kill all who aren’t surrendering, but if you were to close your eyes and listen, this is not the image that you get.

    There are four main characters that most of the action focuses on. Caviezel, Nolte, Penn and Elias Koteas all carry most of the plot. But it’s the cameos that take you off guard. Stars like Adrien Brody, George Clooney, Jared Leto, John Travolta and Woody Harrelson all have tiny parts in the film. I can only imagine that this was due to their excitement at hearing that Terrence Malick was making a film after twenty years and jumped at the opportunity to work with the acclaimed director.

  • The Thin Red Line is one of American cinema’s great ironies. After two decades out in the filmmaking wilderness, director Terrence Malick popped up from nowhere to deliver one of the most unique war films ever made. Only his third feature after Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line received numerous acclaims, the highlight of which was the prestigious Golden Bear award from Berlin.

    The film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director – the former ignominiously given to John Madden’s overrated period drama Shakespeare in Love (1998), and the latter rightly given to Steven Spielberg’s more superior WWII drama Saving Private Ryan.

    Therein lies the irony. In any other year, Malick’s film would have at least secured an Oscar, but fate seems to have charted a less glorious path for his film. Twelve years on, The Thin Red Line still lives in the shadow of “the other great WWII film” of 1998. It is a tragedy of sorts because while Saving Private Ryan is visceral and entertaining, I always find myself drawn back to the haunting qualities of Malick’s work.

    Very obviously, The Thin Red Line features extraordinary cinematography and camerawork by John Toll. He employs crane and steadicam shots that seem to glide effortlessly over the landscape, especially that of the grassy hills as soldiers make their ascent. Even in scenes of frantic action, the camera weaves past explosions and gunfire like a flying bat avoiding rock walls. Such is the artistry of the camera language that it feels like poetry in motion.

    The Thin Red Line stars a killer A-list cast including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jim Caviezel. However, it also features redundant cameo roles by John Travolta and George Clooney. The film follows a company of American soldiers as they trudge up a grassy hill in Japanese-occupied Guadalcanal, and later, their attack on a small makeshift camp built by the enemy.

    This is essentially the main driving plot of the film, but Malick (in his usual self) deviates from it by introducing fleeting cutaways to a romance reverie that could have been distracting when first seen in 1998, but as the director’s anti-narrative modus operandi would later inform us (in films like The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011)), it is part of his abstract storytelling style that he would continue to refine.

    Malick’s trademark intercutting of tranquil scenes of nature also allows a fair amount of symbolic juxtaposition with chaotic scenes of warfare. The startling irony of war is laid bare here. Soldiers do battle with each other on the hills and in the jungles; these are huge environments that appear to swallow the men who fight in them.

    Does nature, at any moment, care about the actions of these men? Does the death of a young soldier on foreign land amount to anything nobler than a writhing baby bird on the ground waiting to die, as shown by Malick?

    The Thin Red Line lacks the urgency and sustained tension of any other war film out there, but perhaps that is its greatest strength. It is a singular work never equaled in the genre, and with repeated viewings, one could make a case for it to be Malick’s magnum opus.

    GRADE: A

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