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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 Greg King
3 stars out of 4

Writer/director Terrence Malick can hardly be called prolific. He made only two films (the critically acclaimed Badlands and Days Of Heaven) in the mid-'70's, before taking a self imposed twenty year hiatus from Hollywood. His first film in two decades is one of the most eagerly anticipated cinema events this side of the new Star Wars film. While it is certainly visually impressive, Malick's The Thin Red Line is something of a disappointment, especially when compared with Spielberg's achievement in the recent devastating and unforgettable Saving Private Ryan.

Based on the novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line deals with US forces fighting the Japanese army at Guadalcanal, a bitter and costly campaign that became one of the turning points of W.W.II. However, Malick's epic war film is a different animal to Spielberg's. Unlike Spielberg, Malick doesn't immediately hurtle us into the inferno of battle. Instead, he lulls us into the brutality of war through an extended prologue. Witt (Jim Caviezel), an AWOL soldier, lives in short-lived tranquillity in a peaceful native village somewhere in the Pacific. He becomes part of the massive US landing force at Guadalcanal.

The film's centrepiece is the extended and savage campaign to destroy Japanese machine gun fortifications and take a crucial hill. This often graphic and quite harrowing battle occupies over half of the film's three hour running time. However, the action lacks the intensity and ferocity of Spielberg's recreation of the fury of warfare. It also seems to lack that gritty air of authenticity that seemed to effectively suck audiences into the maelstrom.

The combat scenes give the audience the extremes of heroism. But Malick is also concerned with showing the madness of battle fatigue, and the film depicts the senseless loss of life and futile carnage of the war. The Thin Red Line is almost a profound and almost poetic meditation on the nature of war and how it poisons man's soul. There's nothing noble about this bloody conflict, and, ultimately, there are no winners. The film was shot on location, partly in tropical far north Queensland as well as in the Solomon Islands.

Such is Malick's reputation that he had a veritable who's who of Hollywood queuing up for small roles, including John Travolta, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, and Sean Penn. Unfortunately, though, few of the characters leave a lasting impact on the audience, and I found that I didn't really care about them or their fate. Nick Nolte is dynamic as the obsessed and driven colonel who relishes his first opportunity to fight a war after fifteen years in the army, and who doesn't care how many men have to lose their lives in securing a vital strategic position. Caviezel brings a human face to the film as Witt, the reluctant soldier who ultimately becomes a hero when tested in battle.

The Thin Red Line is certainly Malick's most epic and ambitious film to date, and it is as meticulously crafted and evocative as his previous work. He gives this war film an almost elegiac quality and a rare humanity. His sweeping vision is complemented by the spectacularly gorgeous cinematography of dual Oscar winner John Toll and the haunting score from Hans Zimmer.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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