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.