The Thin Red Line (1998) Poster

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A diagnosis
gabbagabbahey8 April 2000
The greatest fault of The Thin Red Line was its timing - it was released at around the same time as Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. While most people dismissed The Thin Red Line as the `other' World War II movie of 1998, it's actually a very different kind of film - the film itself is not hurt by similarity to Ryan but was hurt commercially due to the misconception. It's easy to forget that Red was nominated for seven Oscars. This is an extraordinary film that can stand well on its own next to Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan was significant in that it visually depicted war in a realistic, gritty way. The Thin Red Line's focus is more philosophical. It is about the contradiction between the beauty of nature and the destructive nature of men. The movie cuts continuously between the external struggle of American GIs fighting to take a crucial hill from Japanese occupation on Guadalcanal - and more importantly, the internal chaos of war as every man tries to come to his own terms about matters such as morals, death, God, and love.

Unlike in Saving Private Ryan, there is nothing patriotic about this movie. In fact, there probably has never been a more anti-war film. The fighting men here are disillusioned, lost, and frightened. They don't fight for their country or "democracy" - they fight because they have to. The only priorities are survival, and - for the more humane - caring for their comrades. Renowned composer Hans Zimmer - who won an Oscar nomination for his work-captures the grim mood perfectly and allows us to hear the men's thoughts.

The characters are portrayed by a strong ensemble cast. Acting is uniformly excellent, especially Nick Nolte as Colonel Tall, who is the unfeeling commander of the ground offensive on Guadalcanal. Thoroughly unlikable, he is the closest thing to a villain in the movie. After studying war for an untold number of years, Tall sees Guadalcanal as his chance to prove himself and move up in the ranks - the men are only a tool to accomplish this goal and expendable. In one crucial scene, he orders a captain (played by Elias Koteas, in another outstanding role) to lead his men to a frontal assault against a Japanese controlled hill. When the captain suggests a more logical alternative, the colonel screams: "You are not gonna take your men around in the jungle to avoid a goddamn fight!" To this, the captain replies, `I've lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years and I will not order them all to their deaths.' Later, when the hill is taken, he is dismissed of his duties as Tall sees him as a threat to the successful achievement of his goal. Certainly, not every commander must have been that coldhearted and selfish, but surely some were, though not necessarily to that extreme.

While the acting is very good, much of the cast is relatively unknown and it can initially be hard to distinguish the characters from each other as they may appear to be very similar. They are all about the same age, have dirt smeared over their faces, and wear helmets and the same military garb. Also, the stars in this movie have very small roles. George Clooney and John Travolta are credited with starring roles while really little more than extras - clearly for marketing purposes. You will not see more than two minutes of each.

One of the main themes of the movie is the contrast between nature and men's destructiveness in war. The director, Terrence Malick, hired cinematographer John Toll to capture this on camera, and towards achieving that goal they couldn't have been more successful. The almost surreal scenery is nothing short of stunning and has the same visual impact as any special effect. The beauty of nature is always present, even when it is a setting for battle of destruction, and death.

Though the battle scenes fall short of the frightening realism in Saving Private Ryan, they are heads and soldiers above every previous attempt. One truly gets the sense that war is a chaotic, often hopeless environment where it is only a matter of luck whether you survive or get killed.

`How did we lose the good that was given us? Or let it slip away? Scatter it carelessly ... trade it for what has no worth?' The film is filled with such poetic questions as to which there are no real answers. This is definitely not a party movie. There isn't anything uplifting about it - it is downright depressing. Asides from entertainment value, however, this is a film that makes you think.
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Every movie-goer sees his own film...
Dr. Don-21 May 1999
Warning: Spoilers
Having taken the time to read scores of reviews for TTRL (including IMDb ones here), I'm reminded of the movie subscript for this most controversial film: "Every man fights his own war." What a polarization exists amongst its viewers, and a lot of emotion both ways.

I was stunned, moved, transfixed and totally absorbed by this film, even more so on subsequent viewings. I was one of the considerable number of people who, as the credits appear, sit quietly till one has to leave -- still stuck in the film's experience. I'm not angry at others who merely fell asleep. It's odd how some of the film's harsher critics seem compelled to vent their anger in disparaging comments against those who loved it -- most of those who liked the film were gentler in commenting on its critics.

In contrast to what some have written, "The thin red line" has nothing to do with the British infantry in its imperial past. Jones referred to two related quotes in his excellent book, both having to do with a thin line between sanity and insanity. Whether "justified" or not, necessary or not, there is a lot of insanity in the war experience by anyone's definition of insanity.

War exists and seems to recreate itself -- I never got the idea from Malick's film that he was preaching that we should just stop having wars. On the contrary, he takes war as a given in the human part of nature, and shows how individual human beings variously adapted (or mal-adapted!) in order to be able to keep eating, breathing and, yes, killing. The war experience is not primarily about shooting and blowing things up -- as Jones described from his own experience, it's largely about what happens between skirmishes -- strife and comradeship, fear and bravado, homesickness and freedom from past constraints, and waiting to die or to see a buddy die. People came, died, and were replaced -- much as portrayed by the cameo appearances in the film that confused or upset some viewers. Veterans always talk about how hard it is when you have to rely on your buddies (and feel for them) even though odds are most of them will die.

What is most important to me (and it doesn't have to be for anyone else, I know that) is how the eternal themes of humanity are affected and expressed in such circumstances. All great works of art have something to do with the themes of beauty, pain, triumph, despair, good and evil. There's nothing wrong with entertainment as a diversion (The Matrix was fine fun); there's room both for film for fun and for film as art. Saving Ryan's Privates was mostly good entertainment (although I found it terribly manipulative and jingoistic), while TTRL explores the themes I mentioned above, never with easy answers. If you found the voice-overs heavy-handed, maybe it's because you're used to Hollywood telling us what to think and feel and thought Malick was doing the same. Watch again and see if he's not just giving us access to various individuals' often conflicting perspectives.

As for those who think the film portrays "our soldiers" in a bad light, my family members who fought in WWII described their experiences and their reactions much as those shown in TTRL -- they were ordinary men, decent enough people, not heroes though sometimes unpredictably capable of the heroic, and devastated by their experiences. I'm proud of them for having done all they could to do what they felt was their responsibility, and to keep some humanity intact in spite of the horror. None of them told me they felt "ennobled" by war; they endured it and were badly hurt by it but didn't feel sorry for themselves, either.

In TTRL I got to see this portrayed with such compassion I wept. Even the guy (Dale) who ripped gold teeth out of the mouths of dying Japanese soldiers was no stereotypical villain -- he has his moment of grace as do they all. No one's defenses are portrayed as impregnable, not even Witt's. No stereotype himself, we see him kill over a dozen soldiers in battle, while still trying to see God in the midst of the chaos. And what a powerful scene at his life's end, fulfilling his own striving for self-sacrifice, and recognizing in a moment of epiphany where his own immortality lie. Those who couldn't find a plot line in the film must have missed the first ten minutes...

Maybe it's because of my own experience in life that I respond to this film so strongly. I endured and survived ten years of intense, inescapable unrelenting abuse as a child. I remember even as a small child trying to make sense of it all -- looking for the good, the reasons, God's plan, my purpose. Others who've survived trauma (in the Holocaust camps, on the cancer wards) often describe how such experiences focussed their attention on things that matter, beyond the physical realities they could not control. Ever since my childhood I've moved through life with a second awareness -- that examination and self-examination while "real time" goes on.

That's what Malick portrayed, for me, in this film. Maybe you think that's "sophomoric" or "pretentious". It may not seem so when you're in the midst of a struggle, or on your death bed...


P. S. I organized a special screening of this film locally for a few friends -- 400 others paid to come, by word of mouth. Over a hundred sat spell-bound as the credits scrolled by -- hushed and not wanting to leave. Fellow wounded souls, some of them, I'll bet.
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A haunting exploration of the meanings of life, death and war through the eyes of a group of disenchanted soldiers
ephor2 November 2001
This is one of the most beautifully crafted and haunting films that I have ever seen. Not only is the amazing ensemble cast give truly beautiful, effective performances, but the direction and cinematography combines to create a magnificent visual and mental feast.

This story about the Guadalcanal campaign during WW2, based on the James Jones novel, weaves the lives of many characters together seemlessly, creating a philosophical/emotional experience of war. It's not just about war. It's about love, faith in yourself and others, friendship, humanity, morality and also works as a startling indictment of man's conflict with nature. The amazing opening sequence, sets up a tranquility as the character Witt, finds peace on a secluded island among the natives, a peace which is shattered by the war.

What follows is not a mindless battle-after-battle onslaught of pyrotechnics, smoke, dust and blood, but a thought-provoking, visually and verbally poetic analysis of war and humanity. In my opinion it is the greatest war film since Apocalypse now, which I believe bears more flaws than this. It's not an Us-and-Them war story about the glory of the USA defeating the evil Japs. It sticks close with the characters, as we hear the thoughts, their hopes, their fears, leading to a moving experience.

This film was released a few months after Saving Private Ryan and unfortunately did not experience the same attention that the latter film did. Ryan was an excellent film, but to offer a comparison, The Thin Red LIne treads where Ryan didn't dare. Ryan sat in the safe territory of Good vs Evil with a bit of Futility of War and a lot of American Patriotism. It seemed to be more about America at some points than about war. The Thin Red Line is about war, the people involved and the destruction it creates for the mind, the soul and for nature. It does not deviate from this to make simple contrasts and offer easy binary oppositions.

In fact, TTRL is not an easy film. Gasp, it even tries to make you think. Though the title is not really explained in the film, I believe it is implied, and could have many meanings - the line between sanity and insanity, morality and immorality, love and hate, companionship and loneliness, nature and man, war and peace. While the characters share their thoughts, deeply poetic as they are, the meaning is not thrown in your face and neither is the answer to the questions raised. In this way it is the most thought-provoking war film I've ever seen and one of the best films of all time in my book. Top ten easily.

Now to my whinge. I think TTRL was shunned unmercifully at the 1999 Oscars. Shakespeare in Love beat two brilliant films - TTRL and Elizabeth - to get that oscar, and don't get me started on Gwyneth's award. This is the best film of 1998/9, in line with Elizabeth. It's unfortunate that the two, thoug h greatly revered, did not achieve the success and attention they deserved.

Don't be afraid by its length, it's a beautiful journey, full of rich colour, sound and the reward is a deeply moving human experience, unlike any other that the past decade has offered.
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every man fights his own war...
newonpluto17 May 2000
what many people do not know is that this film, directed by terence malick, is without question the reason that Shakespeare in Love won the best picture oscar over the much favored Saving Private Ryan. why am i saying this? first let's deal with the movie. long? yes. too much? sometimes. but is it good? i can not begin to describe the beauty of this film.

about the oscars, i only watched the film after its surprise nomination for best picture. i had seen the competition already, and it was time to check out the fifth nominee. i went to the theatre myself, and came out three hours later, went home, and i cried. not only because i was disturbed, but i loved every single character in the film. i wanted to be there for them, cry with them, fight their battle. many people who have watched the film have said the same thing to me.

the Thin Red Line is sometimes painful to watch, but only because of its realistic juxtaposition of humanity, philosophy, and the terror of war. the film does not delve into any historical fact about Guadalcanal, except that the battle itself was terrifying (as is any battle). the characters introduce themselves through voice-over narration, which accompanies much of the action. and speaking of action, there is not much in the film. more images. images of war and the lives these soldiers left behind. this was Terence Malick's intent, of course, and many people were insulted and thought it was his own pretentious self getting the best of him. "boy he's a genius.. must he show it??" sometimes it is a little pretentious, but the film would've been "just another WWII film" if it was out of Malick's hands.

i can not understand why Sean Penn is billed as the top actor or the main character of this film. he was there a lot, but the film is carried by Jim Caviezel as the beautiful and ethereal private Witt. words can not describe this performance. with as few lines as he had, Caviezel portrays the symbolic soul of Witt, and by the end of the film he will break your heart. also excellent performances from Nick Nolte and the understated Elias Koteas, who can stretch creepy (Crash) to sympathetic in the blink of an eye.

now.. let's consider hollywood. sure they love Spielberg, and sure Private Ryan was a masterpiece (and it really was), but nobody even expected the Thin Red Line to get seven oscar nods, especially for best picture. but Shakespeare in Love was the crowd pleaser, and the other two were epic war films. most hollywood "artsy" people are anti-war.. kind of like the Thin Red Line. Private Ryan seemed to be MUCH more patriotic "pro-america" than the other. so if we've got anti-war on one side, and patriotism on the other... open and shut. the votes were split between the two, and Shakespeare emerged victorious. too bad.

anyway... the Thin Red Line was definitely better than Shakespeare, and definitely a completely different film from Spielberg's. John Toll's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score work together to convey the tone of Malick's lyrical and poetic direction, and both should have won oscars. this film is nothing short of breath-taking, though understandably not for the average american moviegoer.
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Malick's Heavenly War
pmov4 March 2000
This film is unlikely to be appreciated by audiences reared upon a diet of dumbed-down Hollywood action fare. However, if you're prepared to sit down and watch THE THIN RED LINE with no interruptions and give it the attention it deserves, you'll be rewarded with one of the most intelligent, poetic and stunningly beautiful films you're ever likely to see.

Director Terrence Malick's films are alive with a sense of pure cinema with every frame delivering such detail and richness that you could swear you were there. The only other person capable of bringing such an immediate sense of time and place and sheer nuance of film (although in a completely different way) is David Lean, another major league craftsman.

Here, again, Malick uses his customary voice-over device although this time as a means of vocalising the abstract thoughts of the various soldiers as they struggle to make some sense of the conflict. It's an interesting approach which allows the audience to identify with the characters in a far less superficial way than in, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (the film THE THIN RED LINE is most often and most unfairly compared to). Malick is also not afraid to take time to illustrate the continuing natural backdrop to the carnage. Mother Nature almost seems to be occupying a pivotal supporting role as a detached observer on the sidelines, calmly and inscrutably watching the chaos develop.

It's a measure of Malick's complete disinterest with the normal conventions of Hollywood that actors such as Lucas Haas, Vigo Mortensen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen and Billy Bob Thornton all spent months in Queensland Australia and the Solomon Islands filming roles that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. Blink and you'll also miss major marquee players such as John Travolta and George Clooney. The stand-out performances come from Jim Caviezel and, especially, Nick Nolte.

Nolte just seems to be getting better and better as he gets older and his portrayal of tyrant Colonel Tall is something to see. I have never seen anyone express such an impotent sense of rage, anger and fury than Nolte does here. It's a fantastic performance from a real pro and it's a mystery to me why he didn't get an Oscar.

John Toll's pristine cinematography and Hans Zimmer's wonderfully evocative (Oscar-winning) score are other strong elements. The unusual music and visuals contrast so well that Malick sometimes fades out the noise of the shouting, explosions and guns, an effect that only serves to heighten the emotional power of the experience further.

You won't see a more beautiful film about the horrors of war. Movies like this make the task of trawling through the weekly diet of dumb formulaic junk served up by Hollywood almost seem worthwhile.
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Visually Stunning And Philosophically Daring
CalRhys18 July 2014
One of the most visually stunning and philosophically daring war films ever made. In 1978, Terrence Malick made the hit classic 'Days of Heaven', for 20 years after its release, Malick didn't create a single film, that was until the release of 1998's World War II epic 'The Thin Red Line; my God was the wait worth it. 'The Thin Red Line' is a complex and moving depiction of war that happens to act as one of the most realistic portrayals of WWII ever displayed, both visually and psychologically. Literally Malick emerged from hiding to create this gem of a classic that portrays the chaos of war. Despite being the same release year as the much more successful 'Saving Private Ryan', Malick's war flick will go down in Hollywood history as a truly special masterpiece.
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A different, enthralling war film.
Warman-230 December 1998
The Thin Red Line has no real hero and no real plot to speak of. Due to its release the same year as Saving Private Ryan it will forever be linked to Spielberg's anti-war opus. Yet, "TRL" deserves to be compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 due to it's style and distance from the audience. The film's only character is the Charlie Company and the conflict is between humankind itself. Director Terrance Malik asks profound questions and unlike "Ryan," doesn't expect them to be answered because they simply can't be answered. Like 2001, the viewer is left with more questions than answers at the end of the film and is told in stunning visual fashion. Some critics have pointed out various flaws in the film; however, these traits are what sets TRL apart form it's peers. The stars like John Travolta and George Clooney have little screen time. They are the officers who command attention and are larger than life to the simple GI's who do the real work (and most of the acting in the film.) The characters are mostly unrecognizable and you know little about them save the main characters like Pvt. Bell. But, the faces are meant to be unrecognizable; to paraphrase the film they are simply flesh and meat made from the earth simply to return back to it. Those who criticise the lack of violence in some scenes while labeling the other scenes intense don't realize the intensity the fight scenes generalize are due to the fact that the soldiers don't know when their next battle will be and when their last breath will take place. The main character, Charlie Company, is fighting to stay alive, the only real driving force of the plot. All of the characters have different views of the war, shown through the use of random spoken narrative. There is no easy conclusion to the war and the film starts off where it began, among the animals of the pacific. Life is one huge circle and one could guess the battle for the bunker on top of the hill could be fought again and there is no possible way to stop it, (At least that is what I was able to muster of the film itself.) For myself the most haunting image was the scene when the Americans stare at their Japanese enemy after capturing the hill. Both sides seem to realize that they could be on the other side of the battle and that in war there really is no good vs. bad scenario, just what nation you're from and who you are trying to kill. Yet the question asked is why war occurs and why we must fight each other. On that note, we still have no answers. The acting and sound are superb. The direction, editing, and score are all Oscar caliber. I don't shrink from saying that TRL is the best film of 1998 and one of the greatest war films of all time; (and contrary to what some are trying to say it is a war film, that is at its core.) TRL is the only film to ever make my knees tremble and haunt me days after I saw it. If you see it, I'm sure your opinions will be just as strong as mine.
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Superb, emotive filmmaking
kevin-19315 December 1999
I'm very sorry I didn't get to see this film in the theatre. It is a beautifully filmed masterpiece with a superb story, excellent acting (esp. Nick Nolte), and a great script. It takes things way deeper than Saving Private Ryan or most other modern war movies dare to go. Very introspective and dreamy at times, with the camera constantly dwelling on faces, animals, and the landscape. Merrick is never in a hurry, and this pace suits the film well.

The Thin Red Line asks a lot of good questions about death, war, and the ultimate meaning of life. Now that I have seen it, I'm very surprised that this film did not win picture of the year. Spielberg's film was a gritty, realistic portrayal of war. But it was also highly commercial and had a very contrived plot. In comparison, this film sort of wanders through itself and in the process helps to put you in the boots of the soldiers it portrays.

My only criticism is perhaps the film was a bit long, but I never noticed that the second time through. I can't praise this film enough. Excellent work.
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The most influential film of the 1990s
RogerKapur2 March 1999
The "Thin Red Line" is not an easy film to understand. It uses one of the most complex narrative structures yet produced by cinema to tell three stories (yes, it DOES have a plot): 1) the one the book wanted to tell (the book's title comes from a 19th century allusion to the British Empire's infantry whose small numbers managed to 'protect' the British ["civilization" from their point of view] from the countless hordes of "savages" which the Empire ruled (this concept is regrettably racist). James Jones used this analogy to tell the story of how young American soldiers with no battlefield experience become bloodied veterans. 2) the fundamental paradox of war: to protect "civilization" (all that we hold dear) we are prepared to send young men to fight in wars. We know that in war they will see and do things that will turn them into the very "savages" that we are trying to prevent from destroying our civilization. If you believe that there are things even worse in the world than war (genocide, rule by the Axis powers) then war is not irrational, but the paradox mentioned above exists. 3) man is not distinct from nature but a part of it. Therefore, nature is both beautiful and cruel. (Like our civilization and war). To tell these stories Terence Malick used symbolic imagery, flashback, voice-overs, passages without dialogue, long close-ups of the actors' faces, changes in tempo and a haunting score. For example, his use of symbolism has been much criticized but everything has a purpose e.g. the crocodile entering the green algae covered water (nature's savagery), the native man who passes the company, after they land on the beach, walking in the opposite direction apparently oblivious of their presence (their shocked and bewildered faces reveal how they are forced to question the relevance of the reasons for which they may shortly die - the defense of civilization), the tree being choked by parasitic vines ('nature is cruel' as Lt. Col. Tall so aptly puts it), the bird being born as a soldier dies (it was not dying as many people thought - "we come from the earth and return to it" as we hear in the voice-overs), dogs eating a human corpse ("dog eat dog" - the soldiers are becoming desensitized to the violence) the same crocodile, now dead, at the end of the film being carried away as a sort of trophy (danger has receded for the moment), the coconut sprouting a palm on the empty beach in the last scene (after death comes birth - the cycle of life). There are, of course, many, many other examples. The use of flashback accompanied by voice-over to convey feelings as opposed to narrate a story must have appeared strange to anyone who never saw Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour". It was used most effectively with Ben Chaplin's character (Pvt. Jack Bell) when he thinks of his wife back home - incidentally he idolizes her in the same way we do our own culture - another metaphor. His disillusionment is profound and shows that what he was prepared to die for was only as pure as any ideal. It is often say that there was no character development. This is also false. For example, in the scene where Sgt. Welsh is speaking to Witt shortly after his arrest for being AWOL , Welsh seems to claim that it is every man for himself when he says that individual sacrifice is worthless, there is no world but this one and that each man must get through the war the best that he can. However, we subsequently see him risking his life to deliver morphine to a MORTALLY wounded man during the frontal assault on the Japanese machine gun nests. Also, Witt can not understand where evil comes from in the midst of the beauty he sees in the Melanesian village, but when he returns there he sees man arguing, enemy skulls, crabs hideously crawling around on an outstretched human hand and a child's back covered with insect bites while those people around it are seemingly uncaring. These images suggest that evil is inherent in man. Malick avoids the usual stereotypes. Although we see heroic acts (such as the taking of the machine gun nests by Capt. John Gaff's [John Cusack] team of volunteers), there are no recognizable heros. It is true that the characters are not sharply defined. When the violence comes it is against all of them i.e. all of US. Are there then any relevant negative criticisms of the movie? I would say that it did not meander as some critics alleged (every scene has a purpose) but it was unnecessarily long. There is a certain irony in this. It is said that Malick edited over 100 hours of material first to 9 hours. Understandably the studio did not accept this. He then reduced it to 6 hours and then to 3. (This helps to explain the lightning appearances by John Travolta and George Clooney, I see no problem, however, with using big name stars in such short roles - Richard Attenborough did it in "A Bridge Too Far"). With so much cherished material available, I suspect that Malick fell into the trap of opting for the maximum length that the studio would allow when more artistically efficient editing would have reduced the film to 2* hours. The balance between the action and meditative passages would have worked better if certain scenes had been cut, such as Witt's passing a wounded soldier on the way back to his company after leaving the Melanesian village the second time and also the conversation that Witt and Welsh have towards the end of the film (Welsh appears a stranger to him, suggesting that he is simply a troublemaker). Even with the exclusion of these scenes Witt would still appear a humanist and Welsh a complex "every man". Most people would agree that the film is visually stunning. As there has been very little even remotely similar in the past, it will be confusing for many people but I am convinced that this will come to be seen as a hugely important work - the most influential of the 1990s.
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A poem of a picture
Philby-319 April 1999
This film is three hours of movie poetry. "Saving Private Ryan," though brilliantly made, is a jingoistic cartoon by comparison. "Thin Red Line" follows a company of American rifleman brought in to consolidate the Allied grip on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1942 in the face of Japanese invasion, but the place could be just about anywhere where war is fought.

The company is not made up of conscripts but regular soldiers. Some of them have been in the Army more than 10 years. Some of them however have never seen real action before and this is a hot and uncomfortable location, despite the lovely tropical scenery. Some crack up, some die, some do heroic deeds. Their leaders are not particularly admirable; one is quite happy to get his men killed if he can come out of the action looking good.

Out of sight for most of the film are the Melanesian inhabitants, the Solomon Islanders, who are carrying on living as best they can while the war rages around them. Their serenity is in sharp contrast to the frenetic military activity. Of course, there is nowhere for them to go.

There is some action excitingly filmed but as in real wars much of the time is spent preparing and waiting. Personal stories unfold but at the end it is survival that matters.

The lighting and photography is quite superb, the lighting in particular fitting the mood perfectly. Filming was not actually on Guadalcanal but near Port Douglas in Northern Queensland where there is similar tropical rainforest and fauna but with much easier logistics. It took ages apparently but seems more than worth the effort.

This is probably one of the four or five greatest war films ever made, right up there with "All Quiet on the Western Front, " "Paths of Glory," "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Longest Day." Never has a movie better portrayed what it's like to be a frontline soldier.

Terrence Malick has the reputation of being an eccentric, difficult director - Kubrick without the fear of flying. Yet this is not a particularly unconventional movie - it's just that everything hangs together - the story, dialogue, performances, photography and settings. On thing is clear - this is a better interpretation of James Jones' novel than the 1964 version.
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A Beautiful Film
aw41211 January 2000
By far the best film I have ever seen. It baffles me that people could criticize this intricate metaphysical look at war, nature and humanity. The cinematography is so superb that each frame of the film stands on its own. The voice overs offer majestic reflections on the nature of war and humanity. The intensity of this film is unsurpassed.
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Theater of Ideology
JFHunt30 June 2006
When I was about 7, I first saw Rocky on TV and I didn't really understand it. It wasn't until I was 18 that I came to the conclusion, that it was the greatest movie ever made. At 22, that all changed when I first saw On The Waterfront. Fully aware now that Brando was a god. The ultimate male. Never not shocking, bruiting desire. At 24 it was a toss up between Eyes Wide Shut and Casablanca. Cruise controls a certain air and Bogart was the coolest guy to ever live. Now I am at the crossroads of life and The Thin Red Line.

This movie just does it for me. The fact that the whole story is told through poetry is quite a unique thing to do. To tell a story through words. And nowadays, by doing so they take a lot of risks. In all fairness this movie sacrifices capturing the general audience, for words that go together so beautifully. I wish more people could understand how great this movie really is and not try to compare it to other classics like Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. It's a different kind of war movie. This one's on humility's side.

Though it took me some time, The Thin Red Line has become my favorite war movie. I've always been a fan of Penn, this movie introduced me to Caviezel. He seems to capture his part with a justful beauty.

It's hard for me to pick a favorite scene. The dialog between Penn and Caviezel is powerful. I have to admit that the conversations between him and Penn made the movie for me. They seem to be trying to out act each other. For example, when Caviezel says that he is twice the man that Penn is in one of the opening scenes. Penn gives him this look. I can only describe as a peaceful calm. One of intelligence that comes with age. Instead of overreacting to the comment, he sits back and understands it. I guess that's more of the writer's doing, but it is a beautiful thing.
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Pretty, but empty and pretentious
Danimal-719 August 1999
THE THIN RED LINE is the story of Company C, a U.S. Army unit during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal. It must attack a hill occupied by Japanese soldiers. You now know the entire plot of THE THIN RED LINE, and yes, it is every bit as boring as it sounds.

THE THIN RED LINE is subject to the same critique as THE PHANTOM MENACE: it's nobody's story. Most of the characters (with two merciful exceptions) are boring and literally interchangeable; more than one reviewer has confused one character with another.

The voice-over narration consists of maundering banalities disguised as philosophy. At one point one of the G.I. narrators (who? who knows or cares?) mumbles, "Who's killing us?" The Japanese soldiers are killing you, of course! And you're killing them! What could be more obvious or banal? Another pompously suggests that all humans are part of one universal soul. Are we seriously to believe that two men such as Col. Tall and Cap. Staros, with such different outlooks on life and diametrically opposite reactions to violence, have the same "soul?"

Oddly for a movie so obsessed with imagery (particularly of the lush jungle), THE THIN RED LINE consistently tells us what is happening to the characters, rather than showing us. Officers beg for water for their men, lest the poor sods pass out, but we never see a soldier pass out or even gulp the last drip from a canteen. Show us, Malick! Show us the crusted salt dried on the baked skin of a man who has no water left in his body for sweat! Show us the field surgeon losing his ability to care what happens to the men, don't just have him tell us about it! Show us Arnold Schwarzenegger getting blown to pieces while Rick Moranis survives, don't give us a line like, "No matter how strong or well trained you are, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you're going to get it." Show us what's happening to the people, not to the !@#$% papaya tree!

The movie is also scandalously inaccurate. Any war veterans in the audience will giggle to see two dozen Japanese voluntarily surrender to Company C alone. In reality, Japanese soldiers were almost never captured alive, and when they were it was usually because they were too badly hurt to resist further. Even worse is the portrayal of the native Solomon Islanders, who are made out as living a serene and peaceful life untouched by the war. In fact, the natives of Guadalcanal were very unhappy about being invaded by the Japanese, and made crucial contributions to the American victory by carrying water, ammunition and other supplies to the troops, rescuing American wounded, and as coastwatchers warning the G.I.'s of attack by air or sea. All of this was at great risk to their lives. The movie's treatment of them as passive flower children is inaccurate, patronizing and downright insulting. Also, the idea of a soldier with multiple AWOL offenses not being court-martialled is absurd. This is World War II, when they shot Private Slovik for desertion.

In all fairness, the cinematography is breathtaking. Also, the acting is uniformly high-quality, with Nick Nolte as Col. Tall and Elias Koteas as Cap. Staros providing very strong performances, especially considering the weakness of the script they had to work with. The battle scenes are kinetic, giving you the feeling you are charging alongside the troops, and they manage to convey some pathos despite the film's refusal to let us connect with the characters. Only these elements save THE THIN RED LINE from being a total loss.

Bloody but detached, contemplative but witless, visually beautiful but emotionally dead, THE THIN RED LINE is not worth renting. Hard-core film buffs might want to watch it on TV for the acting and for John Toll's flawless cinematographic technique.

Rating: ** out of ****.
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Only around people
petra_ste9 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
It's tempting sometimes for those who write a movie review to treat it as a math test: count the mistakes to see how good it is.

Terrence Malick's sprawling, humanistic The Thin Red Line transcends that. In theory, its flaws are there for all to see. Structurally, it's a mess. It's too long. Pacing in the second half is cumbrous and stammering, the task to squeeze a final cut from all filmed material reportedly herculean. Cameos by celebrities like Clooney or a pencil moustached Travolta in unsubstantial roles are more a jarring distraction than an asset.

And yet... as John Toll's luscious cinematography shows atolls with crystal-clear waters, jungles pierced by sun rays, crocodiles sinking in swamps and snakes slithering on emerald grass, something unique happens. The Thin Red Line goes beyond a war movie about Guadalcanal and becomes richly textured, engrossing epic. Armies clash, and so do different philosophies. Malick plays with time and memory, quotes Proust, Homer and the Gospel, imbues the movie with a mystical quality. The five major players - Caviezel, Koteas, Penn, Chaplin and Nolte - provide deeply felt performances, while Zimmer crafts an haunting score enriched by Melanesian songs of rare beauty.

Malick's best, and on the short list of cinema's greatest movies, The Thin Red Line is a breathing, pulsating thing, incomplete and flawed and awe-inspiring as life itself can be.
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Too many stories.
JamesRoy24 January 2005
The tagline on this movie, "Every man fights his own war" is disturbingly apt. I say it's apt because we get to see the private war of several of these men. Unlike most movies, which focus on one, maybe two main plots (plot and subplot) this movie gets far too carried away with too many stories. Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Jim Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney and others each played a top-billing kind of role. Each of them had a story that we were supposed to care about. But that's too many stories, and in the end the movie comes across as scattergun and ad hoc. Two stories handled well, and I'd have been happy. But that many? Sorry, it's all a bit much.

Look at Saving Private Ryan. Two main stories - Tom Hanks' character and his journey, and James Ryan. The rest is important, and valuable. The young communications officer, for one. Tom Sizemore's crusty sergeant. But Hanks' Capt Miller was the man with the real journey, and we care about him, which is why we keep watching.

A friend who knows some of the crew from the filming of Thin Red Line (in North Queensland) tells me that much of the cinematography involved wandering through the rainforest filming filler of shrubs and birds and dripping water. And watching the film, I'd believe it. The photography was breathtaking, but in my opinion a movie needs more than pretty pictures to deserve a Best Picture Oscar nomination. A story, for example. A real, human story with characters you care about. I don't think it's too much to ask.
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Two camps or Where's the Hollywood exec when you need him?
mk-1731 January 1999
Sometimes directors get so great everyone is afraid to edit their "masterpieces".

Reading the other commentators, I see two camps: I didn't get/how could you not get it.

I think I got it. I saw the movie basically as a commentary on the paradox of nature as both beautiful and cruel. Take the Eden-like first scene and the symbolic nature of that one soldier's perfect beautiful "good" wife. Later in the movie, both idealizations of nature turn out to be false. The "good" wife turned bad reminded me of Conrad's one symbolic female character in Heart of Darkness turned on its head.

Basically, nature vs. man is a false dichtomy

Nature as paradise via Theocritus versus nature as wilderness via the Bible, another false dichotomy.

In Hegalian terms, what is the synthesis? What is the true view of nature? Can it be expressed with words, or only imagery and poetry? Sorry for the intellectual allusions, but I think this is where the movie was going.

What is nature and what is man's place in it? Tough questions, Malick has no answers. Unfortunately he spent three hours on it. Meaningless dialogue and pseudo-intellectual babble use up at least an hour of screen as the movie never ends.

Within this quagmire of crap is an astounding battle scene, a brilliant performance by Nick Nolte, amazing cinematography, some half-developed fascinating themes.

Like the last 45 minutes of Apocalapse Now, this movie was too ambitious. If the director would have just saved face, cut the hour of crap, the movie would have been just as profound, more entertaining, just as ambigious in a good way, and well, just plain awesome.

What a waste of potential. There really was a masterpiece hidden in there. To think, the irony is -- if the film had the discipline of commercialism it would have made better art.
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A glorious failure; stunning yet overdone
success13 July 1999
"The Thin Red Line" is a beautiful, shocking and tragic film about the futility of war and the hopelessness that the soldiers on both sides faced in the wake of Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, it is also a confusing mess of philosophy, poetry and disconnected images. The film could have been improved had Malick chopped off the last hour's worth of film and gotten rid of the pointless voice-overs--the same problem which plagued another of Malick's films, "Days of Heaven."

The beginning of the film evokes an almost Biblical beauty with its images of a paradise and a people soon to be lost as the Japanese and Americans meet in combat. And once the film enters that combat, it can only be described as amazing. Even more than "Saving Private Ryan," this film shows how terrible and pointless battle can be. Men get shot down before they can even take a step forward, a soldier accidentally kills himself with a grenade, the enemy remains almost unseen until halfway through the film--and when we see them they are not die-hard Japanese troops but rather sad, tired and ragged men who are in a situation that is as hopeless as the Americans are. And even worse, Lt. Colonel Tall, played brilliantly by Nick Nolte, is obsessed with taking Guadalcanal at all costs, ignoring the concerns and needs of his own troops in the process. The relationship between Koteas' Staros and Nolte is well-developed throughout the film. And when the climax of battle takes place at the airstrip, the camera swirls around the confusing mayhem of soldiers fighting and cowering--the scenes are both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

And had the film ended right after this point, it would have been perfect. But it just keeps going on and on, adding in useless bit-parts for actors like Clooney and shots that make no sense, while also spewing out more meaningless philosophical babble. Throughout the last half I kept screaming for the film to end, but it did not. And when it finally did, the last two or three shots seemed tacked-on--I would have preferred a last shot of the boat going away from the rock and then a fade to black.

In the end, "The Thin Red Line," is three films in one. It is a stunningly realistic war movie, a colorful National Geographic documentary, and an inane romantic/philosophical tone poem. Taken together, the film falls apart--although it is a glorious failure. But had the first element stood alone, it would have been something truly special.
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I'm not sure if I watched the same flick
eclaycamp6 June 2000
I'm not sure if I watched the same flick as the others who have had positive things to say about this movie ... I just found this movie to be lacking and dragging. This one isn't for the faint of heart folks.

The plot is pretty basic. It could have been better executed by cutting some of the unnecessary elements. As is, it drags the movie out and makes it very difficult to watch. The movie as a whole could have benefitted from cutting a half an hour out of it. As is, it is nearly unwatchable to me. I have no problem with peaks and valleys in a movie, in fact I believe that peaks and valleys are keys to holding the audience through the picture. This film is just one long valley though.

I was impressed with the talent associated with this movie. I recognized may names and thought that such a group would surely translate into a great performance overall. As it is, not one of the characters in this movie gave me any reason to care. I just didn't feel any energy from them. They were just too flat and one dimensional.

Some of the scenes were above average in this film, particularly the jungle scenes, but after other war films, these scenes also came off as a little flat. Locations were exotic enough. The actual visuals of the movie just didn't hit me. I'm not asking for Matrix special effects, but something. I just didn't get that out of the film.

All in all, it is one movie that I just couldn't take. I didn't get a sense of urgency, wrong or anything out of this movie. It just didn't move me intellectually or emotionally. It has to be the movie I've been the most disappointed with in the last 3 years.
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Boring and pretentious Warning: Spoilers
The most boring, over pretentious movie that I have ever seen. It had potential, but disappoints.

The cast is a who's who of the Hollywood ultra-left...Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, Sean Penn, etc., these guys playing soldiers is about as believable if they had used PeeWee Herman, Judge Joe Brown, Steve-O, Rush Limbaugh, and Clay Aiken...I watched this movie with my grandfather who was actually in Guadalcanal...he actually laughed out loud at some of the scenes and dialog and it wasn't because this movie had any humor, this was a guy who had to turn off Saving Private Ryan after about 10 minutes because the scenes reminded him too much of the war and he wasn't in the German campaign.

PROS - excellent cinematography, an unintentional hilarious scene of John Travolta playing a WWII military...uh actually all these half of the cast in military uniforms is funny CONS - almost 3 hours of boredom with endless pseudo-art dream sequences, flashbacks, and similar stuff.
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Among the worst
Tgrossi12 February 1999
This movie is quite simply one of the worst I have ever had the displeasure of enduring. With the possible exception of the cinematography, this film has no redeeming qualities. The arrogance of the director and cast that they might actually pass this movie off as "deep" is sickening. Basically, in the three LONG hours of this film, only about twenty minutes of dialogue are spoken: hardly enough to offer any hope of character development for the movie's endless cast leading men. Another third of the movie is occupied by long pauses voiced-over with "poetic" inner monologue which sounds like it was written by an over-ambitous (and overly confident) college film major. (e.g. "The closer you get to Caesar, the more you fear.") And as for the critical praise of the film, I am baffled; I guess Terrence Mallick should be congratulated for his modern-day version of "The Emperor's New Clothes".
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Wrong War
merylmatt9 December 2009
I remember seeing this in the theater when it came out. I just re-watched it on DVD. Anti-war, yes, it is. Artsy, yes. What bothers me the most about this movie is that it is really a Vietnam war movie, characters expressing anti-war and anti-authority sentiments not found in WW2. If these actions and characters were set in Vietnam, I'd rate it higher.

But it is not. I've studied WW2 for over 30 yrs and been in the military. Soldiers did not refuse orders back then. They rarely do so now. Yes, soldiers learn of the horrors and waste of war.

The Japanese did not surrender in WW2 as depicted in this movie - they killed themselves or made banzai charges, but they died rather than surrender. The battle scenes lacked realism, the explosions looked like something from the 1960's. The terrain doesn't look like Guadecanal. Soldiers were terribly thirsty but back then they 'manned up'. Colonels didn't have friendly chats with Captains to get them to attack. They gave orders and it was done.

Anti War and the horrors can be depicted in much tighter, shorter scripts than this. I agree the director was self-indulgent and is vastly overrated as an artist.
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throb-512 February 1999
I waited in line to see this film when it was in limited release. I am familiar with Mallick's work and was really excited about this film. I wanted to leave 45 minutes into it. Between the hideous narrative device and painfully long sequences of symbolic imagery involving leaves, I was amazingly dissapointed. The camera work is dazzling, the scenery is beautiful but the story and simplistic message is embarassing. It took me a long time to realize the film had many narrators because the language and intonation was the same for everyone. I wanted to love this film.
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I was very disappointed in this movie after all the hype.
Patton-27 February 1999
I was very disappointed in this movie after all the hype.

I'll start with what I liked - which wasn't much. 1. The Movie is a war movie. Hollywood should make more of them. 2. The Movie is beautifully filmed. 3. Nick Nolte is awesome in this movie. He deserves an Oscar nomination. 4. The battle scenes were great.

What I hated: 1. The length. I was looking at my watch wishing I had chosen to go to Shakespeare in Love which was playing in the same Theater. 2. The Screenplay - there wasn't one 3. The narrative style. The flashbacks made me feel disoriented and lost. I'd be watching the guys on the island and then they would cut to a girl in a swing. I kept thinking ok, where am I now? The flashbacks were totally unnecessary. 4. Besides Nick Nolte the acting in this movie was bad.

Rating: 6
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Wittgenstein's Red Line of Abstraction
tedg16 March 2001
I met Malick in 68-69 at MIT where I was taking a degree in philosophy. MIT had the decade before gone through a soul-searching re-evaluation of the type of scientist it was producing, and concluded that they could do much better in working toward well-rounded citizens. So by the end of the 60's they had collected - for a few years only - perhaps the strongest collection of newly emergent thinkers in the humanities. And it was quite a rich stew of ideas for a young person, the most exciting place in the world for the humanities for perhaps five years.

Malick came in with this pack, concerned with newly emerging ideas about meaning and language. The philosophy establishment was forming a new split (US and Continentals) largely characterized by how to reinvent Wittgenstein's insights but with a more friendly rationale. Chomsky was shaking one world, formal abstraction for computers another. Exciting --- moreso than today. But Malick was not a verbal communicator, nor a logician, nor an academic (all sides of the same thing). So he dove into practical visual semiotics.

He is not a brilliant man, merely a journalist. But he does seem to be particularly honest and understands some damned good, solid, human ideas compared to other filmmakers. One can really see this early MIT exposure in 'Red Line.'

We can thankfully forget plot -- there is not meant to be any story. In fact, the war is only used here as a canvas of motion, abstractions of 'regular' life, colliding and sometimes adhering to souls, sometimes destroying them. The device is to build the film around the sounds: narrative voiceovers (current and remembered), natural sounds, haunting music. The images are attached to the sounds, which are derived from abstractions. This is exactly the reverse of Spielberg, which is why there cannot be any comparison to 'Private Ryan,' or any other film that is 'about' something. It is why Malick can never 'explain' his films.

The execution is hypnotic. I wonder what the six-hour version is like. The editing (and particularly of the sound) is unusual, so transports us beyond the strangeness of tropics, war, history. That editing is much like Van Morrison's music: it establishes the rhythm only as a reference to dance around, peeking in and out. The relationship of the rhythm within the shots to the rhythm of the shots is very bluesy.

Having no story opens new possibilities and creates unfamiliar problems. An opportunity is that the film can have many centers: the meditator in the midst of the attack on the camp; the squabble of the villagers; the transport of the ship; the need to look at our own dogtags. The challenge is how to end. When you stick to a formula like Spielberg, you just turn the crank and the climax lifts and comes down, and the story finishes. No story, no formula, so Malick brackets with the transport to and from the island, by the aging of the southern rookie, and by the exit from and re-entry to a world of unfamiliar characters. That they are played by familiar actors (Travolta, Clooney) oddly emphasizes the point.

It must have been educational to work on this film, which is why every intelligent actor (or an actor with an intelligent agent) wanted to participate: one can see direct influence in Penn's 'The Pledge' and Cusack's 'High Fidelity,' both highly abstract.

Penn knew exactly what he was doing here. He moves in the action, as an actor must. But he places his character offscreen in the abstract voiceovers. That's the 'real' Welsh, and the film's image only an abstraction. He truly understands presenting many dimensions simultaneously. Harrelson doesn't, but that's the point with Keck. I wonder why Depp didn't make the cut?
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More of a powerful ego than a powerful movie.
jayricky12 March 1999
Normally I would refrain from casting a negative review of a movie, with the belief that I may have just been in a negative mood, or that I've somehow missed the big picture- but this particular film has forced me into a number of firsts for myself- many more than it created for the movie industry. I have never walked out of a movie before in my life, but I felt I had no choice in this instance. I have no idea how much time this movie had left in it when I left- I spent as much time as I could dealing with the imagery, voice overs and the desperate attempt to save this movie with the big name characters.

While I could see where Terry was going with this one, I felt this film was far too pretentious and egotistical for my liking- and apparently for many others. It definitely tried to be a powerful movie, but ended up to be a powerful bore- I wish I could have had the choice to bore a hole in my head rather than to have wasted 2+ hours of my life and $7.50.

I feel the 'deep' voice-overs and flashbacks that just seems to be misplaced from some other movie and thrown into this one. This movie is an outrage, nothing more- nothing less. It's said by a select handful of movie-goers as the best movie of the 1990's- to each their own. Truthfully, I was bored through the entire movie. No, I did not walk into the theater expecting a big shot-em-up movie- but I did expect a plot, character development and after a couple of hours I was expecting an end to this tragedy, and soon. But as I felt it was never getting there, I was overcome with the urge to get up and walk out (as I had noticed that at least half of the viewers had already done by that point) but I stuck it out- and half an hour later, I thought, "What am I doing here?"

Visually, this was a good movie. The nature scenes, although seemingly misplaced as well, were also quite nice- but it couldn't make up for the ego of this movie.

I think this film would have not instilled so much rage in me if it had not been nominated for so many awards- expecially best film. Beating out so many other movies that far more deserved such an honor was a crime- and will be an even bigger crime if it is bestowed this grand award. Trying to be so 'un-Hollywood' was a mistake. While I can appreciate this idea, and much of what should have come from this movie, I wish I had never wasted my time. This is definitely not the best film of the year and will be forgotten as quickly as Clooney and Travolta's brief appearances. Too artsy for its own good, too pretentious and TOO long. I wish I had a few more good things to say about this movie, since it is seemingly such a beloved movie of the critics, but I just can't. This movie is nothing more than just a scam to make people believe it's deeper than it really is and is deserving of the 7 or however many Oscars it was wastfully nominated...
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