1998 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #375: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I do feel that when a director has achieved particular acclaim he can get away with most things. Terrence Malick is one such director who was well on his way to being a legend after helming Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s. Malick took a twenty year hiatus following Days of Heaven so when it was announced that he’d be returning to the screen plenty of actors wanted a role in his new film.

Luckily he was able to accommodate a fair few big names into The Thin Red Line, a film focusing on the Battle of Mount Austin fought in the Pacific between the Americans and the Japanese. Malick’s first cut of the film was supposedly five hours long and obviously had to be cut down substantially to half of that original length. Even then I feel that the copy of The Thin Red Line I watched was overlong and confusing in some regards. One of my main issues was that of the duelling narration between Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt and Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall. Witt’s story is that of a man who is dissatisfied with army life while Tall is trying to prove himself to his superiors who feel that a man of his advancing years shouldn’t still be at war. Because of this Tall makes some risky decisions and it’s one of his final choices that has an impact on the team. Events become even more complicated when Malick introduces another story later in the film as Ben Chaplin’s Private Bell discovers his wife wants a divorce. The fact that both Caviezel and Chaplin are given voiceovers was rather confusing as at times I couldn’t really tell the pair apart. It was only after he nobly died to save his comrades was when I realised that Witt was meant to be the hero of the piece. That alone should tell you that Malick’s script was confusing and that some of what was cut from the film may have been important. Spare a thought then for poor Adrien Brody, who prior to the release of The Thin Red Line had told people that he was the main focus of the film. After watching the film Brody’s appearance amounted to nothing more than a five minute cameo towards the conclusion. Brody was understandably upset by the decision and he feels that Malick should have at least have informed of the changes that had been made prior to the film’s screening.
But at least Brody made into the film which is more than can be said for the likes of Martin Sheen, Micky Rourke, Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton who all had their scenes cut entirely. As there are so many big names floating around it’s incredibly hard to single out one or two actors to praise their performances in the film. Nick Nolte probably gives the best turn as the weary Tall and both Sean Penn and John Cusack made good impressions during their extended cameos. Like with most Malick films, the strongest aspect of The Thin Red Line is in its visuals. John Toll’s cinematography is outstanding, especially when we follow the soldiers inside the long grass where they hide during their attacks. Toll’s point-of-view shots really make you feel part of the action and in a way add to our understanding of what war might have been like for these men. But to me there was almost too much of a focus on arty camerawork and not enough done on character development. I personally wasn’t a fan of certain characters reminiscing about their families back home and thought these scenes represented Malick’s undisciplined approach to film-making. Hans Zimmer’s score really helped the film achieve the emotional tone it was looking for especially when it accompanied The Thin Red Line’s battle scenes. But that being said, ultimately I found The Thin Red Line to be a beautifully shot war film that really never compelled me to care about specific character. Rather than changing my views about Malick as a film-maker it’s simply reinforced them and I’ve still not be able to see what others do in this supposedly great director.


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