Tuesday, November 29, 2022

#2,871. The Thin Red Line (1998) - War in the Pacific Triple Feature


It must be twenty years since I last watched Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and I had forgotten what an incredible motion picture it is. A masterfully shot war film with brilliantly staged battle scenes, The Thin Red Line is, like Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven before it, also lyrical in its approach, waxing poetic about life, love, violence, and death, yet doing so in a way that never detracts from the movie’s more intense sequences. If anything, it enhances them.

Based on James Jones’ 1962 novel of the same name, The Thin Red Line centers on the 1942 battle of Guadalcanal, when U.S. marines took on the Imperial Japanese army. With a star-studded cast, the movie takes us from the initial days of the campaign, when the marines, under the leadership of Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), found themselves outmatched and outnumbered by the Japanese. As Col. Tall, ignoring the odds against them, demanded that his troops press on, his subordinates, including Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas), Lt. John Gaff (John Cusack), and Sgts. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Maynard Storm (John Savage), and Brian Keck (Woody Harrelson) were locked in the fight of their lives, losing troops by the dozens.

The marines would eventually take a vital hill as well as the airfield that was the operation’s ultimate goal, but even then, the battle was far from over.

Along with the actors already mentioned, The Thin Red Line features Jim Caviezel as Pvt. Witt, Ben Chaplin as Pvt. Bell, Adrien Brody as Cpl. Fife, Jared Leto as 2nd Lt. William Whyte, Tim Blake Nelson as Pvt. Tills, John C. Reilly as Sgt. Storm, and Nick Stahl as Pvt. Beade. Also turning up in cameos are John Travolta as Brig. Gen. Quintard and George Clooney as Capt. Bosche, with Mirando Otto appearing in several flashbacks as Pvt. Bell’s wife.

Now, that’s one hell of a cast, and if I’m being honest, it is a bit distracting each time a big star appears on-screen. But Malick balances his actors perfectly, giving each their moment to shine while also moving the story along at a brisk pace.

Some get more screen time than others. As the movie opens, Jim Caviezel’s Pvt. Witt, who has gone AWOL, is living among the Melanesian natives of the South Pacific. He is eventually found and taken into custody, at which point his direct superior, Penn’s Sgt. Welsh, removes him from combat duty and orders him to act as a stretcher bearer during the Guadalcanal campaign. Pvt. Witt and Sgt. Welsh will share several scenes together, with their differing philosophies taking center stage. Pvt. Witt is a firm believer in the afterlife, while Sgt. Welsh, who has seen his share of horrors, cannot fathom a world beyond the one he knows.

Their spiritual debates are but one of the film’s many introspective moments. Time and again, Pvt. Bell, played wonderfully by Ben Chaplin, reflects on the love he has for his wife, and the hope that they will one day be reunited. “Why should I be afraid to die?”, Bell says, narrating his own flashback, “I belong to you. If I go first, I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters”.

And yet, even with its meditative tone, The Thin Red Line is a highly effective war film, conveying the chaos of warfare and never shying away from the carnage. Several characters are killed over the course of the movie, and there are moments, especially during the initial battles, that are as tense as anything you’d find in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It is both a nerve-racking World War II movie and a Terence Malick film through and through, and this duality is what makes The Thin Red Line such a rewarding experience. It is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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