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The Thin Red Line

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Thin Red Line

Starring: John Cusack, Sean Penn
Director: Terrence Malick
Rated: R
RunTime: 170 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Action, Drama, War

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Whatever happened to those seedy old black-and-white war movies that came out during World War 2? As a little kid who was way too young to fight during the early 1940s I used to love going to the neighborhood theater for a double feature of high-action heroics, to cheer on each time an American plane knocked out a "zero" and to laugh at the Japanese--all portrayed as cartoonish characters in their round glasses who had one word vocabularies: "Bonzai! Bonzai!" My friends and I were practically babies when we took in the dauntless deeds of our fighting men, and we were not about to believe that real people were over there getting maimed and killed nor did we have much interest in the geopolitics. There was virtually no character development, but who cared?

For all its wonderful battle scenes, not even Steven Spielberg's masterly "Saving Private Ryan" examined character all that much, though it did explore the rationale behind risking eight lives to free one surviving family member from the dangers on the front. "The Thin Red Line" is another story. When Terrence Malick, who helmed "Badlands" in 1973 (a moody thriller inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree in the 50s) and "Days of Heaven" in 1978 (yet another mood-piece, visually beautiful, about a love triangle) came back to direct his first movie in twenty years, he must have connected with something. His notice must have been held by the opportunity to address a story with a moody ambiance similar to what he built in his previous films.

"The Thin Red Line" is his version of the sprawling epic of action on one island, Guadalcanal, during World War II. Freely tossing in phrases from James Jones's 1962 novel, he sees the action from the point of view of the narrator, Private Witt (James Caviezel), who went AWOL from his unit several times to share his life with the Melanesian natives in the Solomon Islands chain. We learn early on that the island is of strategic importance to the Japanese because it could provide them with access to Australia and to the sea lanes to America. With Japanese entrenched on a part of the island, on which they have already built an airstrip, the American forces were given the mission of dislodging them and taking control of Guadalcanal.

Cinematogapher John Toll has done an amazing job of capturing the raw natural beauty of the terrain of Queensland, Australia, which was the site of much of the filming--though a part of the photography takes place on location in Guadalcanal. The gorgeous topography is the home of a variety of exquisitely colored birds and mammals of various ilks, including some spooky-looking bats and scary alligators-- who enjoy the perpetually bright, sunny days as much as the local people. Toll captures the peaceful lives of the indigenous clans, whose youngsters play calmly on the beach and never fight the way westerners are wont to do. In only one case do we see the adults squabble, though they appear leery of the Americans at first, neither welcoming them as liberators nor expressing any hostility toward them.

Beauty aside, the real purpose of the film is to capture the meditations of some of the fighting men, principally those of Private Witt and of Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), the latter frequently contemplating the far more pleasant times when he is making love with his fetching wife back home. When the principals are not meditating, they are philosophizing verbally, trading viewpoints and acting out their convictions in the way they command the men. Chief among the views are those of Private Witt, who, examining the peaceful vistas provided by nature, wonders what propels men to war. He is answered by Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) who sees instead that the vines wrap themselves around one another as though on a mission to choke the life out of the shrubbery. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) comes out with his belief that "there's no world but this one," that we should simply accept our assignments and duties and go on living as best we can with our obligations.

The assaults by the Japanese are enacted realistically, the chief action being an attmept by the Americans to dislodge a machine-gun nest which is taking all too many lives. There are moments of high tension within the U.S. unit, particularly when Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) directly refuses an order by Col. Tall to take a hill even while Tall knows the capture would involve the loss of many men.

Despite the National Geographic-style beauty throughout and some credible if not overly striking battle scenes, "The Thin Red Line" depends too much on its narrative, a series of reflections and philosophic attitudes that would be better absorbed and appreciated on James Jones's pages than on Terrence Malick's staging. Malick has utilized the names of a great many major performers--John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, John Cusack--in cameos that are so brief we can't help thinking he employed these men only for their value on the theater marquees. Their roles could easily have been assumed by extras and, in fact, one of the less-known performers in this movie, James Caviezel, is so convincing (and handsome) that we wonder how some of the more alpha males from Hollywood were able to swallow up such superior thesps. If "The Thin Red Line" did not open in a year that included Steven Spielberg's magnum opus on World War II, it would deserve more serious attention by the Academy. While it remains a powerful work with the signature moodiness or its director, its chief asset is that it may encourage us to reach for the novel.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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