It has been said that in the year of the epic World War II dramas, Saving Private Ryan is the emotionally impactful war film while The Thin Red Line is the intellectually meaningful war picture.
I say poppycock.
Based on James Jones’ novel, The Thin Red Line’s shifting narrative is shown through the different perspectives of a group of soldiers in the battle of Guadalcanal and often told through the random thoughts racing through their battle-weary minds. Brought in to relieve an embattled Marine unit, Company C attempts to overtake a Japanese airfield in an exhausting twenty-four-hour firefight. Balancing the horrific realities of battle against the beautiful landscape, Terrence Malick explores the uncertainty and fears of the young soldiers as they contemplate concepts like war and courage.
The star-studded cast, fine actors all, unfortunately hurts this quiet film. Because we are introduced to new characters throughout the entire movie, and many of the characters are never fully explored, the appearances of George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and John Travolta can often pull us out of the film. The main focus of the story however is the relationship between Col. Toll (Nick Nolte) and 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), two confused men being eaten alive by their inner demons. Their performances are chilling.
Malick hasn’t directed a picture since Days of Heaven in 1978. If taking a twenty-year exile from moviemaking produces results as stunning as The Thin Red Line, then all directors should pay heed. The Thin Red Line is a beautifully-photographed film, at once poetic and discordant. It is as much a gutwrenching experience as a thought-provoking one, the horrors of war no less shocking without the gore.