Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #596
Number of Views: Four
Release Date: December 25, 1998
Box Office: $98, 100,000
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 170 minutes
Director: Terrence Malick
Producers: Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau, Grant Hill
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematography: John Toll
Score: Hans Zimmer
Editing: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, Saar Klein
Studios: Fox 2000 Pictures, Phoenix Pictures, Geisler-Roberdeau
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Dash Mihok, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, John Savage, John Travolta, George Clooney, Miranda Otto, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Thomas Jane, John Dee Smith, Kirk Acevedo, Mark Boone Junior, Arie Verveen, Tim Blake Nelson
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Hans Zimmer “Light”
 Hans Zimmer “Journey to The Line”
“War don’t ennoble men. It turns them into dogs… poisons the soul.”
War is ugly, period. Lines become blurred, then crossed, innocence is stolen, faith and endurance tested beyond the extreme, and ultimately many lives are frittered. For what? Ownership? Superiority? National pride? Or simply bragging rights years after the dust of its many needless casualties has been stolen away by the wind? With risk of sounding very much like the film I’m about to appraise, what does it all mean? To pacifists like myself, precious little. However, you try telling a seventeen-year-old child that what they have signed up for isn’t absolutely necessary. Without purpose, how can any man be expected to take point and lay his life on the line? It throws up a thousand questions and Terrance Malick’s first film after a twenty-year hiatus, The Thin Red Line, is disinterested in supplying all the answers. Yet it speaks in a multitude of tongues all at once and is all the more monumental because of it.
“We’re living in a world that’s blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it.”
I’ve watched a lot of contemporary war movies depicting various historical battles in my time as a student of film and there have been some real bone shakers populating the front lines. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down all shine like beacons but my personal darling has always been Oliver Stone’s Platoon. That was until recently when I viewed it back-to-back with Malick’s ensemble piece and found even that masterful work left wanting. To shed a little further light, The Thin Red Line clocks in at just shy of the three-hour mark. However I have just completed my fourth tour of duty merely ten days after my previous excursion and it felt every bit as rich and vibrant, perhaps even more so. It packs such an emotional clout that 170 minutes feel like little more than sixty. Yet, just like Malick’s similarly stirring The New World and The Tree of Life, its numerous detractors often cite it as pretentious claptrap.
adjective: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed.
Here’s where my dick and balls begins to itch in unison. You see, should a filmmaker attempt to make an artistic statement, reach into our chests and massage those organs and do so not by purely following orders, then this word is banded about like it’s going out of fashion. Malick does so here by not adhering to conventional narrative and refusing to focus his film on any one particular character. Instantly he is labelled a pompous asshole and his very best efforts are considered conspicuous. By seasoning his dish with lashings of poetry extracted from James Jones’s 1951 novel From Here to Eternity presented by way of voice-over, some critics and audiences were left cold and felt a distinct disconnect to the story he was attempting to relay. It’s funny as 170 minutes with this particular band of brothers left me feeling some way from detached. Indeed, by the time I was delivered back to the shoreline, I felt every bit as battered and broken as every last “lucky” survivor. Now that sure as hell ain’t disengagement in my book.
“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
The Thin Red Line tells the semi-fictionalized tale of the Battle of Mount Austen, Guadalcanal, during the second world war and the men of C Company in particular as they endeavor to seize the fearsome Hill 210 from the Japanese and wrestle the territorial advantage from the enemy’s hands. Their sole task is capturing this mound and at whatever cost that may be. Sounds like a doddle right? Not when their adversaries are dug in at the summit and raining down on them with all manner of shrapnel doom from their elevated position.
“I’ve lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years and I will not order them all to their deaths.”
This is particularly disconcerting to Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) who has the thankless task of marching his less than merry and increasingly parched surrogate sons to their agonizing ends on account of gaining the upper hand for his superiors. One such overseer is Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), a tough talking yes man who has spent an eternity being passed over for recognition and sees this as his one chance to redeem himself for years of brown-nosing his own leaders for a solitary sniff of the cheese.
“I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.”
Also critical to proceedings is habitual deserter Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), a gentle reflective soul whose gaze is permanently distracted from the pain and suffering all around him by the sheer beauty of the isle and every living creature that inhabits it. That said, his commitment to his brothers in arms is unwavering, and he is prepared to both fight and die for the cause, regardless of whether or not he agrees with it.
“My dear wife, you get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, filth, and noise. I want to stay changeless for you. I want to come back to you the man I was before.”
Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) yearns to be reunited with his soul mate Marty (Miranda Otto) and spends any downtime dreaming of the day when it is finally realized. Meanwhile, 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) has no time or reason to fantasize as he doesn’t possess the same kind of emotional motivation. Neither does he feel numb and, instead, finds himself occupying the uncomfortable middle ground where his wits are the only thing he can bank on. All three men are key to our investment but, by no means, is a solitary soldier around them merely token.
“Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself. Each like a coal thrown from the fire.”
Bookended by immense tranquility, the entire midsection revolves around the shattering assault on Hill 210. Bullets fly, tensions rise, orders are refused point-blank, blunders cost lives, and important questions are raised as to what the hell a human life is actually worth in relation to the bigger picture. Malick’s pitch-perfect screenplay ensures that every conceivable pawn is provided with suitable light and shade and not a single character is shown in simple black and white. One minute you may well feel like wringing a neck or two but, the very next, it is likely you’ll be offering a shoulder rub before the next bruising encounter.
“All they sacrificed for me. Poured out like water on the ground. All I might have given for love’s sake. Too late. Dying. Slow as a tree.”
Inner monologue is used to maximum effect, particularly in Nolte’s scene with Brig. Gen. Quintard (John Travolta) prior to insertion when we are afforded true insight into how he really feels about selling his soul in exchange for a shout at becoming the man he always dreamed to be. As a result, he is some way from his projected waypoint and positively suffocating inside. We are let in on a secret that none of his men know and neither can they learn his weakness as it would compromise their all-important self-belief and, in turn, the mission at hand.
“Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made. All things shining.”
John Toll’s cinematography is way in excess of sublime and captures the beauty in the very eye of this beast of war majestically throughout. Shot primarily in Australia, with occasional jaunts to the Solomon Islands, it truly is a joy to behold from a visual viewpoint and feels almost as poetic from an optical perspective as it does through narrative. In addition, the score from Hans Zimmer is as grandiose as they come, whilst never once feeling intrusive or overblown. Ironically for a motion picture so dignified in its approach, there were numerous altercations during the lengthy shoot, while Adrian Brody was less than enthused to find almost all of his dialogue falling to the wayside, along with around forty-five minutes of additional shot footage that never made the final cut. To be fair, Malick perhaps should have informed the actor before he took his seat at the premiere expecting to be the leading man, only to be left with a mere five minutes of screen time and barely two lines of dialogue to rub together. That said, when it all hangs together so damn beautifully, it’s hard to argue with the director’s logic.
“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
Malick’s reputation preceded him, to the point where every swinging dick in the industry wished to recruit for his widely anticipated comeback feature. Consequently, The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture but, criminally, didn’t land a solitary statue. With Saving Private Ryan released in close proximity and offering a far more patriotic view of the second world war, it seemed inevitable that this would be cast aside and admittedly Spielberg’s film is a masterpiece. But it is my opinion that Malick’s effort trumps it in one significant area.
“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
It simply has more heart and, most critically, soul. The media of film is at its most magnanimous when placing you in the shoes of its protagonists and making you feel a part of something. Should you be looking for escapism then walk on by as this is far more a case of entrapment for the hapless troops of C Company as they kill their fellow-man for reasons increasingly obscured, with little to no room for manoeuvre. It’s pressure cooker stuff for sure but offset by lush visuals and a sense of serenity that serves it astonishingly well from first frame to last.
“I might be your best friend, and you don’t even know it. “
Special mention must also go to the performers right across the board as every last man standing or falling gives an account of himself some way past creditable. Penn, Nolte, and Koteas are all utterly superb, Englishman Chaplin delivers a syllable-perfect Appalachian accent and emotes with every longing stare, while Caviezel’s turn as peace-loving Witt undoubtedly made his career, not to mention snagging him the part of Jesus himself in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
“We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?”
We truly believe that he has seen another world, far less ravaged than the one he finds himself cornered in and not just because of any opening exposition either. Nobody refuses to tow the line and the result is a family unit that we cherish deeply. Indeed, it says something when the likes of Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, and others besides found their footage ending up on the cutting room floor.
“You are my sons, my dear sons. You live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.”
Having now returned to Vietnam for a war record-equaling fourth stint with Platoon, there is no longer any question in my mind that The Thin Red Line is the marginally more memorable overall movie. Let’s not get this twisted, Stone’s film is a bona fide masterpiece, and has lost none of its luster in the thirty years since its release. That said, Malick’s magnum opus eclipses it by reaching that much deeper into the human spirit and taking the time to flirt with mother nature while it’s at it, thus adding an additional layer of investment to a final product which is polished to within an inch of its life but without feeling overly manufactured or the slightest bit cold. I’m with Martin Scorsese on this one as he once named it the second best motion picture of the nineties and I’m hard pushed to argue the toss as it is all that and a fair few bags of chips besides. Be advised that this isn’t for everyone and some may consider Malick’s approach too avant-garde and little more than a ploy to tug at those heartstrings. For the rest of us, it’s one war that is as effortlessly prepossessing as it is downright ugly.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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