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USA 1999
Directed by
Terrence Malick
170 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Thin Red Line

There ain't nothin' good to be said about war and Terrence Malick's film says it mighty well. Set during the battle for Guadalcanal during WW2, this engrossing version of the James Jones novel (which I haven’t read and which was previously filmed in 1964 with Keir Dullea and Jack Warden), interpellates the usual scenes of combat carnage with the voice-overed thoughts of various men caught up in it, these often twinned with lambent images of Nature’s indifferent beauty. Indeed the opposition between Nature and Man which is central to the film is articulated in the opening section by Jim Caviezel ‘s Pvt. Witt. The latter is the closest the film comes to having a lead character as we see Witt and another soldier who have gone A.W.O.L. revel in a Polynesian idyll. They are arrested and eventually find themselves thrown into the hell of an assault on a Japanese-held hill. The assault constitutes the middle section of the film before it enters on its third stage, a kind of post-combat sequel which returns to the manner of the more personally reflective first stage.

Released the same year as the better-known but much more conventional Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line was Malick’s first film since Days Of Heaven in 1978.  It is an impressively ambitious film brilliantly photographed by John Toll but the main battle sequence aside (which needs to be seen on a big screen for full impact) is less about the action or historical specifics than it is a philosophical/poetic reflection on war in general as man’s business (much is made of the father-son relationship). In this respect particularly in the third section it tends to lose traction especially as despite emanating from different characters all the reflections have the same literary (and non-realistic) quality, as if each man were merely a facet of an authorially-determined consciousness. One is inclined to wonder whether this whole section, particularly with its return to combat is necessary and whether some judicious shaping could have achieved the same effect, if not more, by eliminating some of the reiterative material in what feels like an over-long film.

In this respect the most individuated and engaging performances come from Nick Nolte as a career soldier for whom the war is his last chance for validation and Sean Penn as a dourly cynical N.C.O. whose running debate with the metaphysically-inclined Witt constitutes the film’s main thematic thread. Despite the all-star cast list many of the big names, notably John Travolta and George Clooney, only appear incidentally.




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