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Movie Reviews

The Thin Red Line



Released: 28 February 1999 (UK)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn

Certificate: 15 (UK)

Reviewed By: Anne Iredale

This has got to be the most unusual war movie ever made. It didn’t do well at the box office in the U.S. but it has achieved a cult status following its DVD release. Despite being nominated for seven Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, it was overshadowed by the more commercial Saving Private Ryan, which was also released in 1998. Forget John Wayne and action packed heroics. There is action here but it is essentially a lyrical exploration of the horror of battle. There is heroism but it is in the context of each soldier’s individual philosophy. It’s strange to describe a war film as beautiful but, even as the Battle of Guadalcanal rages, the film makes a claim for the beauty of the human soul.

The setting is World War II in the South Pacific and C-Company must drive out the Japanese from the island. The problem is the machine gunners holed up in a bunker on top of the hill. As they try to take the hill, it becomes almost a suicide mission. In a series of voice-overs, we get to know some of the soldiers. Most of the leading actors were not well known at the time and stars in the shape of George Clooney and John Travolta took cameos. The cinematography is excellent and the Hans Zimmer score is sympathetic. Private Witt (James Caviezel) is prone to going AWOL and has been staying in a native Melanesian village. He has found peace there but is caught and forced back to the war. He wonders about the nature of evil. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) draws strength from his wife as he imagines her waiting for him. He wonders about the nature of love. Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) is a cynic who feels detached from his fellow man. Into this mix comes Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), bitter about being passed over for promotion and intent on his men getting results.

Shots of the jungle reveal a parallel struggle in nature but beauty too. Witt is the key to the story. He feels there is something else beyond all the horror. War is man made in this jungle but beauty and evil coincide. C-Company has been to hell and back but the company sees that the Japanese soldiers are like them and not just faceless enemies. This is a movie that explores courage in a realistic way. Bravery is when you are afraid but carry on and the fear here is palpable but the soldiers are connected to each other and to something inside them that gives them strength.

The Thin Red Line won’t appeal to everyone. It is slow paced and has more in common with European cinema than Hollywood. It demands thought on the part of the audience and the characters are complex. The reward is a dream like journey into what it is to be a human being.

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