Thin Red Line, The (1998)

Arguably Terrence Malick’s greatest work – a masterpiece of light and darkness, calmness and brutality, and the intertwining of both, in this singular war film.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review #562

Dir. Terrence Malick
1998 | USA | Drama/War/History | 170 mins | 2.35:1 | English & Japanese

NC16 (Disney+ rating) for realistic war violence and language

Cast: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
Plot: During World War II, an AWOL U.S. private living with natives on a South Pacific island is found by his commanding sergeant and must resume his training in preparation for the Guadalcanal conflict.
Awards:  Won Golden Bear (Berlinale); Nom. for 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Distributor: Disney

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – WWII, Existence
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 3 Nov 2010
Spoilers: No


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.

“This great evil, where’d it come from?” 

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 equalled 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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