RECAP: The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line (1998): Terrence Malick

Hollywood loves to double up its tentpole movie themes, and 1998 was no exception. The more celebrated, more revered, more watched, more beloved Saving Private Ryan is a classic of the war genre.

This is the other movie. The Thin Red Line was longer and more beautifully shot, its cast of characters was larger and its moralizing stronger. But was it better?

Malick left a 20-year gap between his 1978 Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. About every male actor in Hollywood expressed interest in appearing in his return.

Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Robert Redford, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mickey Rouke, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, and Gary Oldman: all these guys performed for the movie and DID NOT make the final cut.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: American soldiers discover, even on a beautiful island, that war sucks. 

Hero (5/10)

The Thin Red Line is full of heroes and famous people. Chief among equals is Jim Caviezal, an actor so heroic that he would one day play Jesus. Caviezal plays Private Witt, a man of beatific smile and pension for going AWOL.

That’s exactly what Witt’s doing as the film begins. He’s shirtless, wandering around a village if not on Guadalcanal then near it. He enjoys the native life. It’s (in his eyes) carefree and without recrimination.

Contrast that to his life in the United States Army. Witt soon finds himself in the dark holds of a naval vessel, interrogated by Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Welsh tells Witt, “You’ll never be a real soldier.” Witt answers, “I’m twice the man you are.” Talk about a shot across the bow.

Witt has death on his mind. He ponders his mother, the way she died with grace and peace. “I just hope I can meet it the same way she did,” Witt says of his mother meeting death. He’s about to get a dose of death, as Welsh assigns him stretcher duty during the coming invasion of Guadalcanal and claims to be Witt’s best friend for doing so.

Witt disappears for much of the following battle. Avoiding the front lines, Witt can observe the carnage and save the men who most need saving. He carries through the film a sense of the other.

Welsh believes that there is only this world. Witt claims otherwise, that he has seen another world. Does he mean the world of the native islanders, or does Witt speak of Heaven or some other Great Beyond? That’s never clear to us, but it’s enough to know that Witt believes it, and that he’s certain Welsh will never see it.

Witt’s smile never leaves him during the film. His “other world” seems never far from his mind. He watches Japanese POWs, smiles. He listens to Welsh’s one-world philosophizing, smiles. He offers cigarettes to the enemy, smiles. Witt observes a card game, cries, smiles. To Witt, the war is only a stop during his soul’s journey.

But the war taints Witt, at least outwardly. After securing the Japanese airfield, Witt rejoins the villagers from the film’s opening minutes. They recoil and flee from him. Adults bicker. The stink of war might not have penetrated Witt’s soul, but he can’t wash it from his skin.

Fast forward to the end. Witt volunteers to scout the Japanese troops near Charlie Company. When he and two others spot the Japanese, they run back to warn their brethren, but are attacked. Witt again volunteers, this time to stay behind, so the other two guys can return as Witt holds back the Japanese deluge.

Calmly, Witt explains to the two other men, and to the audience, that he’s about to be left behind. That’s OK. There’s another world. We can let go. Witt chooses to die, suicide by Imperial Japanese Infantry, and returns to the clear waters of the native islanders, swimming with children.

The Thin Red Line comes fully stocked with A-listers. Actors don’t have much room to maneuver characters into masterful performances. This movie isn’t the two-headed monster of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and lesser folks, instead it resembles the everybody-plays-20-minutes ethos of the San Antonio Spurs. Caviezal is the Tim Duncan of the movie. Stoic, self-assured, powerful. He shines brightly amongst a sea of frightened, shaky men.

Villain (6/10)

The true villains are, of course, the Japanese. But they are barely onscreen until the American overrun their positions. I will devote this section to Nick Nolte.

Nolte plays Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall, perhaps the only character excited about the invasion. “You don’t know what it feels like to be passed over,” he tells one of his subordinates.

World War II is Tall’s first war, his chance to gain promotion. When the Americans finally take Hill Whatever Number they were calling it, Tall is exuberant. Perhaps he will climb the ladder now. He’s “worked [his] ass off, brown nosed the generals,” all to reach the top.

Tall won’t leave his buddies behind. After Welsh runs through fire to help a shot man, Tall congratulates him by saying he’ll recommend Welsh for the Silver Star. Welsh is less than excited about it.

Commanders fall over themselves recommending medals to each other. Tall is simply the most enthused about it.

Perhaps Tall’s enthusiasm derives from Guadalcanal’s importance. The front line guys don’t know what to make of the island, but Tall does. “Air power for thousands of miles,” he explains to one sergeant.

Guadalcanal was a lynchpin the in Japanese war strategy, and Tall believed that the battle could be the war’s turning point. He was right.

Nolte is as gravel-voiced as ever, at many times unintelligible. Nolte yelling + artillery shelling = indiscernible lines. He acts well, moving between sympathetic and dislikable, but the poor speech was a deterrent. Enough discernible actors lined up for The Thin Red Line that I question Nolte’s casting.

Action/Effects (5/10)

The primary action of The Thin Red Line focuses on the taking of Guadalcanal’s Hill Something. After a night awaiting a rosy fingered dawn, the men of Charlie Company are ready to strike the hill.

Thanks to Tall and John Travolta as Brigadier General Quintard, we understand the importance of the hill. It controls the valley which partly controls the island which could control shipping lanes to America.

The attack on that hill could be the turning point of World War II. So it begins in earnest, with a huge artillery barrage after dawn. Dozens of shells detonate atop the bunkers in the Japanese position. If any damage is done, we are left wondering, as the soldiers are.

Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) leads the initial charge up the hill. Jared Leto sends a couple scouts ahead and they get shot. The future Oscar winner looks perplexed and distraught at their deaths, but at least they found where some of the Japanese hide.

In a common technique, the camera follows soldiers through waves of waist-high grass as they ascend the hill. The Japanese answer the artillery barrage with machine gun and mortar fire, killing many.

The Americans make some progress, but many men are cut down. Malick uses these moments to focus on the general savagery of war, not only on the humans, but on all of nature.

After one man is shot, the film cuts to a just-born bird, slimy and awkwardly limbed, crawling from its hatched egg. In another scene men contend with an agitated snake slithering through the grass.

Witt is seen bearing his stretcher. He meets with an approving Welsh. Colonel Tall, back at the artillery installment, screams to his underlings on the front lines through a phone. I can barely understand Nolte at normal voice levels, so his yelling as explosions drown him out made him unintelligible. It was enough to know he was angry that the hill was not yet an American hill.

After a lull the Americans try a second push up the hill. The result is the same: they’re held back. Keck is mad because they must “capture some of these goddamned positions.” Tall is mad. Everyone’s mad. Keck dies from an ass grenade, and his final moments onscreen lasted longer than his living moments.

The day fades, and the hill remains Japanese. Tall orders Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to send his entire unit right at the bunker. Staros refuses. He won’t turn his men into cannon fodder. Tall, on one end of the line, looks like the words have induced a stroke. Staros, a lawyer back home, uses skillful wordplay to argue his way out. I feared that Tall would march right up and shoot him in the head.

Tall gave in. Staros wants to flank the bunker and awaits Tall’s arrival on the front line. This exchange was one of the movie’s tensest, including all the fights and deaths.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Witt is the proverbial star of The Thin Red Line, Staros is the backup.

Staros commands men on the front lines. He seems unwilling to sacrifice his men to the battle. In one scene Staros, awake through the night, prays for his men and himself to survive the coming strife.

The attack on the hilltop bunker brings about the tensest moment of the film, when Staros refuses to obey Tall’s order of frontal assault.

Is Staros a coward? Maybe, but has Lt. Col. Tall ever had a man die in his arms? Tall refuses to answer this question, which is enough of an answer.

Staros believes his men are his family, a common theme in The Thin Red Line. He treats them to Johnny Walker. The men thank him for standing up to Tall and saving their lives, even though it cost him his standing in the Army (a punishment or a blessing?), and Tall will recommend him for the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

Koteas brings a quiet dignity to the movie. Many of the characters don’t want to be there, and Staros is one of them, about the only guy in charge of others who feels this way.

Henchmen (2/8)

Sergeant Welsh opposes Witt, not in battle but in philosophy. They first meet in the brig of a ship floating off the Solomon Islands. Welsh assigns Witt to stretcher duty.

The pair talk down to each other. Welsh believes “there’s just this rock.” He never carries a smile. Welsh refuses award recommendation. He’s a dour guy.

But only because he feels. Late in the film he chats with John C. Reilly. Reilly observes an American dying on a hospital bed and says he feels nothing for him.

Welsh doesn’t have that numbness yet. The war remains too fresh, raw, and real. If he subscribed to Witt’s ideas, would he feel better about the course of the war?

Witt asks Welsh if he ever gets lonely. “Only around people,” Welsh says. For Welsh, Hell truly is Other People.

His most heroic moment comes during the taking of the hill. A man is shot in the stomach. He screams and writhes and is yards from a group of embedded troops. The soldier’s sounds are bringing him down.

A medic runs out to administer morphine. He’s shot immediately. There are no more medics. Welsh volunteers, foreshadowing Witt’s actions late in the film.

Welsh runs through the fire and gives the dying soldier a lethal dose of morphine. At least he will die mellow and not in agony.

Upon return, Welsh is offered recommendation for a medal. He tells ’em to shove that medal. He’s not in this for promotion, he’s just a cynic working to live through the war.

Stunts (5/6)

Countless extras were squibbed, no doubt, for The Thin Red Line. The camera lingers behind soldiers as they storm the Japanese-held hill and the barracks afterward.

That means we see many guys get shot. Americans run around, pop off a shot, shoot from the hip, take down a Japanese soldier. The hardest working stunt people in this movie might be the camera folks, just making sure they capture all the blood packs flying.

The long takes add to the film’s realism. Filming in the real world helps, too. Woody Harrelson’s ass-plosion sort of helps. Maybe. Still thinking about that one.

Combine these factors and you get a movie with realism in line with that other World War II movie of 1998, the titanically successful Saving Private Ryan.

Malick spares us the gory details. Dozens of soldiers die on screen, but never is one as gory as could be, and likely was in the real battle.

One soldier is shot in the stomach. He moans and screams for aid, but is under too much fire for the medics, one of whom is shot when running to his aid.

Welsh volunteers to run out there. He reaches him and delivers a huge supply of morphine, enough to kill the wounded soldier.

It’s enough to know that he’s in great pain. That’s called acting. We don’t see a stream of blood gushing from his torso. We don’t see pink organs strewn on the dirt. The message remains clear: this guy got hurt bad.

Oh yeah, I AM forgetting that scene earlier in which the company discovers a GI with his legs blown off. The camera lingers on his body–what’s left of it. I liked this scene because not one soldier spoke around the body.

The most dramatic action sequence occurred the morning after the soldiers initially storm the hill. Tall requests a select group of volunteers to squeeze through the grass and rocks and take the machine gun bunker mowing down the Americans.

John Cusack‘s Captain Gaff volunteers to lead a half dozen other men. They run rock to rock, dodging fire and popping off shots. For the first time we see Japanese faces, as some soldiers leave their bunkers to try killing the Americans one by one.

Mostly the Yanks prevail. They have copious grenades, which they lob like baseballs at batting practice. Once they reach the bunkers, killing the men inside is as easy as one, two, three seconds after pulling the grenade pins and dropping them inside.

How six guys could do what six battalions could not I do not understand, but that’s why I am not in wars.

Climax (3/6)

After the successful taking of the hill, Charlie Company gets a week of rest and recreation. They are more excited about this than having won the battle and protected American shipping lanes. Some choose to get stinking drunk, some break up, some are recalcitrant.

New orders come in to march up a river. We don’t know why, only that it must be done. So they do it, because soldiers follow orders. The company has a new CO, and he seems as scared as a brand new private.

One soldier suggests that they turn back, because they’ll be shot at. The CO says, without conviction, that he ought to be the guy to decide that, sounding like a child parroting adult speech. He does agree to send scouts ahead to find any Japanese troops and where their communication lines were cut.

The CO orders Fife (Adrien Brody) and another guy to scout ahead. They react with reticence. Witt volunteers. He is not scared. So they go.

The trio finds a tributary stream and hesitantly walks up it. Owls and bats watch, waiting, they seem, for carnage. Witt is the first to spot the enemy: One, two, three, then ten, a dozen more, half a hundred Japanese soldiers materializing from the forest into the stream. Plants cover their uniforms, and their camouflage effects, seen from a stationary camera several yards downstream, are excellent.

The trio start running back to warn the company, but the Japanese spot them and shoot. One guy is shot in the butt, but he, unlike Woody Harrelson, didn’t do it to himself. He also survives, at least long enough to float downriver to meet a future on a hospital ship.

Before that, Witt reaches a decision. He says that someone has to stay behind and draw their fire, so the injured man and another can return to Charlie Company and sound the alarm. Witt volunteers for the second time in less than an hour.

Witt explains to Fife that he must go. It’s Caviezal addressing the camera directly. He tells the camera that’s it’s OK to go on ahead. Malick uses Witt to tell the audience, to tell Americans, that it’s OK to leave behind the memory of hundreds of thousands of war dead. We can, generations later, move on.

Fife bites at the chance to leave, and he returns to Charlie Company and warns them. But what of Witt? He’s still in the jungle, running and shouting, making himself sound like more than one man.

The ploy works, because when Witt emerges into a clearing, the entire Japanese unit has followed him and surrounds him. Witt stands there, serene as always, knowing his plan succeeded.

Now a Japanese soldier speaks to Witt, the latter understanding nothing. Subtitles are not provided. Witt looks to be thinking. He raises his gun and is shot dead.

Downriver, Welsh buries Witt, or at least they make a false grave. What became of the Japanese unit we don’t know.

Now, finally, George Clooney appears, as some big brass talking about fathers and mothers. Welsh’s voice is heard over Clooney speaking. “They want you dead or in their lie,” Welsh narrates. Witt learned about the lie, chose to die.

Jokes (0/4)

Woody Harrelson leaps from the ground, eager to attack the Japanese. A stick pulls the pin from a grenade attached to his backside. He realizes the error and falls back on the ground. The explosion muffled beneath his butt.

“I blew my butt off,” Harrelson shouts. Is this intentionally funny? I can’t decide. On one had, there aren’t any outright jokes in the movie. On the other hand–”I blew my butt off.” And that’s a line from Harrelson, a guy who acted in a Farrelly brothers movie and Cheers. You want to laugh just looking at him.

The best line came from Nolte’s lips. “The only time you worry about a soldier is when he stops bitching.” Jokes or none, The Thin Red Line is not about to make you hate war through levity.

Setting (4/4)

Malick is a known lover of natural light, and the tropics are renowned for light. Well, isn’t everywhere on Earth known for natural light? You know what I mean. Sunny skies and gorgeous beaches. Waves of green grass and blue sea.

Most of The Thin Red Line was shot in Queensland, Australia, but some scenes from Guadalcanal made the final cut. Tropical islands are revered by millions as the most beautiful and idyllic places on Earth, and Malick’s camera does nothing to quash those thoughts.

Many pairs talking with each other are shot in the round. The camera encircles them, proving to the audience that the actors are on location and not some soundstage.

Bamboo forests, rippling rivers, and tall grasses soothe. Even the deep mud and thick mangroves beckon to viewers. The soldiers barely notice these features, so intent on their own war. They hardly notice the parakeets, sloths, bats, lizards, and other animals the film shows, unless it’s a snake right in a soldier’s face.

Fire and explosions sometimes cut swathes through the green lands. The devastated worlds accept the fire, but contain it. Instead, endemic beauty shines. At times the movie seems more interested in the landscape than the men amongst it, which adds to the film’s aesthetic qualities without detracting from the emotional weight.

Commentary (2/2)

War is hell. That’s the obvious commentary. No one, except Witt, is having a good time. And Witt dies.

Before the invasion, the men of Charlie Company scrawny and scared, flit about the ship, awaiting their invasion. Only the brass are concerned with who might be watching, promotions, glory. They won’t be on the front lines.

The Thin Red Line has other things to say. Running deep is a sense of paternalism. Captain Gaff is close at Tall’s side. He volunteers to attack the bunker on the second day of the battle.

“You’re like a son to me, John,” Tall explains to Gaff. He had hoped Gaff would volunteer.

Much later, after Staros prepares to leave the island, he explains to his men why he refused to charge the hill bunker. “You are my sons,” he says, and fathers do anything to protect their sons.

Tall and Staros have two very different desires for their subordinates, but the paternal instincts are the same. War creates a new family, one of blood brothers and fathers and sons.

Another common theme is one of nature’s cruelty. In fact, in one scene, Tall tells Staros that “nature’s cruel.” He speaks of the jungle, its choking vines. But the movie speaks generally of nature’s cruelty. One of the opening voiceovers asks, “Why does nature vie with itself?”

The Americans are concerned primarily with the Japanese soldiers. Secondarily, water. Staros demands water for the men. Tall apologizes. Gaff also begs for water. “Don’t worry about water,” Tall says. He’s “arranged” for it, but, “If they pass out they pass out.”

A soldier loses his mind during the initial charge. He raves that everyone is dirt, everyone is grass. Later he begs God to tell him why he can walk around and survive, while minutes earlier his friends were cut down.

Malick seems to say that World War II, and ostensibly all wars, are part of Man’s nature, and Man is part of nature, so war is natural. In one shot, Witt observes the face of a dead Japanese soldier, and only his face, because the rest of the corpse lies buried under loose dirt.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

A Japanese face isn’t spotted for at least an hour. The Thin Red Line is meant to mimic the experience of the American infantry on Guadalcanal, and not showing Japanese is a great way to do that.

Eventually we see inside the bunkers and barracks, but only after the Americans reach them. Some images are of a gun barrel, or a pile of bullet casings, but rarely faces, until the Yanks start shooting.

The movie managed to squeeze Miranda Otto in there, though she gets no lines save though voiceover.


  • (3) Automatic war bonus
  • (1) Hans Zimmer earned another of many Oscar nominations for his score. The music added plenty to The Thin Red Line, a film stretching nearly three hours and chock full of voiceovers and leisurely shots of flora and fauna. Zimmer’s score advances the movie, keeps it unified and coherent. Several times the music resembles a ticking clock, raising the tension.
  • I never found out what The Thin Red Line is.

Summary (42/68): 62%

The Thin Red Line says plenty about World War II and wars in general. Countless voiceovers inform viewers of the musings and fears of the soldiers on the war’s front lines.

The movie is less about war than about a soldier’s perception of war. Battle scenes do not adhere solely to killing. Often Malick cuts to images of nature or images of a home life, as if the thoughts of soldiers are elsewhere in the fighting moments.

Voiceovers plague the film throughout its entirety. Some of them needed to go. Their speakers were often unknown and said much the same things again and again. Despite these, the message and images are enough to make for a solid war movie.