Matthew Kresal looks back at 1998's The Thin Red Line.
When one reads or hears the term “war movie,” it brings with a certain amount of baggage. One perhaps thinks of the British war films of the 1940s and 1950s with stiff upper lips or Hollywood epics such as The Longest Day or Patton or Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Then you get a film that has the apparent look of the genre but is something quite different when viewed closer. The Thin Red Line, Terrence Mallick's 1998 film based on James Jones' 1962 novel set during the US Guadalcanal Campaign against the Japanese during World War II, is just such a film.
For one thing, The Thin Red Line is without many of the pretentious war film cliches and tropes. There's no big speeches about patriotism or glory or the righteousness of the cause being fought for. Not a single one of the characters presented here likely cares or thinks about that. These are ordinary men in extraordinary situations, some in the Army before the war started, others caught up in events that see there fates bringing them to this small Pacific island. As a result, their reactions to the battle are many and varied. They range from bravery to boisterous, brutality to thoughtfulness and a whole sweep of emotions in-between. The choice of voiceovers is intriguing, giving word to the emotions and thought processes taking place in the minds and behind the eyes of many of the soldiers the viewer meets. Indeed much of the film is based on those emotions rather than huge, sweeping battle sequences which is something that is likely to upset some viewers. Yet it may be for the film's betterment.
For it is brought to life by a series of strong performances. The cast is massive including both name actors in small roles and then-unknowns who've gone on to greater fame, all playing soldiers of varying ranks caught up in the incredible campaign. It's hard to argue that The Thin Red Line has any central character though both Jim Caviezel as the thoughtful Private Witt and Sean Penn's pragmatic bordering on cynical Sergeant Welsh come closest to that with their very different reactions to the events taking place around them. The massive cast also includes Elias Koteas, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson with cameos by Miranda Otto, John Travolta and George Clooney as well. The combination of on screen performances and voice overs present one of the most unique mixes of talent one is ever likely to watch.
As well as its strong performances and interesting emphasis on the human cost of war, the film is also a visual feast. Mallick and cinematographer John Toll set The Thin Red Line apart from many “war films” with lush cinematography that contrasts the beauty of the Pacific and Guadalcanal with the horror and violence of the battle being fought there. Sequences such as the opening and closing minutes are superb examples of this from both before and after the battle. Plus, for all of its focus on the human cost, the battle sequences are each superb examples of well staged and photographed chaos that celebrates not the triumph of victory but the desperation of men trying to stay alive. Backed by a haunting Hans Zimmer score that also incorporates music by John Powell, the result is powerful.
At the end of the day, The Thin Red Line is an unlikely mixing of an art house flick and a big budget Hollywood war film. It is a feast for the senses with its combination of striking visuals, superbly staged chaotic battle sequences and a haunting music score. Yet it's more than a typical war film as it examines the effects of war on the men who fight it and the contrast between the beauty of the island with the horror and chaos afflicted upon it. The Thin Red Line remains a unique look at war from one of cinema's most unique directors.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.