It’s WWII and American troops are struggling to gain ground against the Japanese on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. With commanding officer Colonel Tall (Nolte) desperate for glory, the soldiers have been sent to attack a seemingly-impregnable hillside position and are suffering heavy casualties as a result. Amongst the men battling for their life – and contemplating the meaning of war – are Private Witt (Caviezel), who’s recently returned from being AWOL, Private Bell (Chaplin), Captain Staros (Koteas) and Sergeant Welsh (Penn)…
As star-studded WWII epics both released in 1998, it’s perhaps inevitable that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan were destined to be compared with one another. Importantly though, despite the surface-level similarities, they are very different movies. For while Spielberg’s take on World War II offered broad appeal and found deserved success with its crowd-pleasing combination of blood-soaked brutality and a straightforward rescue mission, Malick’s stab is much more philosophical, artistic and contemplative.
That’s not to say that The Thin Red Line is actionless, mind you, as a vast proportion of its mammoth running-time (which borders on the three-hour mark) is dedicated to superbly-realised battle sequences. That said, Malick’s is a far less graphic experience (the camera tastefully refuses to show us the gory bits), with the emphasis here on internal contemplations of war and how interconnected man is with each other and nature. Or something like that. Pure Malick, there’s deep philosophising, poetic musings and sumptuous scenery porn, meaning that it will be prove too arty and overly-ponderous for some. But although many will complain about the seemingly endless shots of marines wading through long grass (and there are a few), it’s undoubtedly a beautiful movie full of striking imagery, while Hans Zimmer’s swelling central theme, Journey To The Line, is nothing short of stunning.
Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that The Thin Red Line is uneven. With the first assembled cut running at five hours (which took seven months to edit), Malick significantly re-jigged the movie – and it shows. In the final cut, all footage of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, Jason Patric and Lukas Hass was removed, while the likes of John Travolta and George Clooney end up as distracting minor cameos. Most outrageous of all though, Adrien Brody turned up at the premiere to find that his part – which he was told was a significant one “to carry the movie” – had been reduced to two lines and mere minutes of screen time. The cast who do survive provide powerful performances (including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin, James Caviezel and Elias Koteas), but the messy, noticeably re-edited narrative means that nobody gets a real satisfying journey.
In many ways, The Thing Red Line is a stunning, gorgeous-looking piece which elevates the war movie to new heights. However, the re-editing and re-jigging inevitably leaves us with a final product which is too uneven and abstract to achieve true greatness – despite working brilliantly for long stretches.