The Thin Red Line (1998)

thin red line poster 1998 movie
9.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 10/10
Visuals: 10/10

Great looking, great cast

Story is largely interpretive and leaves it up to the viewer

Movie Info

Movie Name: The Thin Red Line

Studio:  Geisler-Roberdeau Phoenix Pictures

Genre(s): War/Drama

Release Date(s): December 22, 1998 (Premiere)/December 25, 1998 (US)

MPAA Rating: R

thin red line jim caviezel island

War isn’t bad when go AWOL on a Pacific island

A military operation in the Pacific is getting dangerous.  Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) has never been one for the war.  He sees his own path in life and the path of his commanders rarely intersects with it.  As Witt and his platoon attempt to take an island from the Japanese in Guadalcanal, the soldiers face how they perceive the battle they are fighting.  Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) finds himself butting heads with his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) as his men are penned down.  The battles are fierce, but it is the time between the battles when the war is fought inside.

Directed by Terrence Malick (who also wrote the screenplay), The Thin Red Line is a war drama.  The movie adapts the 1962 James Jones novel which takes its title from a 1890 Rudyard Kipling poem called “Tommy”.  Following a twenty year break after Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s film received positive reviews and Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #536).

thin red line pacific war island soldiers wwii

A different war from the war in Europe

1998 was the year of Elizabeth and World War II.  All of the films nominated featured one or the other.  While Shakespeare in Love took home the big award many of the technical awards went to Saving Private Ryan.  Of the five films nominated, both “dark horse” films were my favorite of the genre.  Elizabeth was a smart and tightly acted period drama, and The Thin Red Line was an existential look at war and how it affects the soldiers involved.

The Thin Red Line has fighting, but it is largely about what happens between the gunfire and bombings.  It gets in the head of the soldiers and shows how a soldier can choose his path even when following orders.  It questions the ideas of orders and the common good, and if the loss of many to save even more is worth the cost.  Witt is an introspective soldier who isn’t gung-ho, but he is there for his soldier “family”…a family that is often eaten up and spit out.  He is “just a private”, but he still has to make the sacrifices that are expected from him.

thin red line sean penn nick nolte elias koteas

A clash of ideas

The cast of the movie is expansive, and many of the actors were up-and-comers at the time.  Jim Caviezel has a stare that gets the picture.  It isn’t fearful but it isn’t compliant.  Until the premiere, Adrien Brody thought he was the star (his character of Geoffrey Fife was lead of the book) and discovered that most of his scenes were cut.  Sean Penn takes a secondary lead as kind of an observer of everything while a multitude of actors including Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, Johns C. Reilly, John Savage, Donal Logue, Thomas Jane, and Nick Stahl among others also play in the movie.  I particularly like the dynamic between Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas.  While Nolte comes off as a heavy, it is obvious that Koteas has misjudged his complacency toward the death of soldiers.

thin red line jim caviezel adrien brody

Who’s the star here?

Like most Terrence Malick movies, Malick really knows how to create a scene.  The visuals of the movie are great and the beauty of the lands is evident as the characters are absorbed into the island’s nature.  This is a great contrast when the bullets start flying.  It also captures the true fear of the soldiers when the silence is shattered by the arrival of their enemies like in the river scene.

Though I can praise The Thin Red Line, it isn’t for everyone.  It is long, methodical, and barely has a plot.  People might go into it expecting a war film along the lines of Platoon or Saving Private Ryan and get an art picture along the lines of Ingmar Bergman.  Putting The Thin Red Line next to Malick’s The Tree of Life, you can see the direct similarities.  Malick followed The Thin Red Line with The New World in 2005.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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