Terrence Malick is a very strange Hollywood entity that’s made not that many films over the course of over 40 years. His first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were met with huge success. After these two achievements, Malick disappeared off the face of the earth until 1998 when he released his World War II epic The Thin Red Line. This is around the same time that Spielberg released what I consider to be the best war movie ever made, Saving Private Ryan, but there are people who believe that Malick’s film is right up there with it. While I will say that it is one of the most memorable and well made war films to come out of Hollywood, it may also be one of the weirdest.
After being picked up on an island in the South Pacific after going AWOL, Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) is chewed out by Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and sent to Guadalcanal to be a part of a siege to secure Henderson Field from the Japanese. While on the island, the mass of soldiers have to secure Hill 210, which causes devastating casualties for the American forces. As the battle rages on and the days begin to pass by even slower, every soldier looks death in the eye through the sights of their guns and has to come to terms with the life that he’s led, the inevitable future that lays ahead, and the possibility that they may never return home to the world that they know and have created for themselves.
The Thin Red Line is an outstanding example of a war movie, and I’m not sure how many people would deny that. While many war films deal with the European front, this movie deals with the battle that was raging on in the Pacific, specifically on Guadalcanal. This movie takes a really long time to get started, but when the battle finally gets going it doesn’t let up for a really long time. The original cut of this movie goes on for a little over 5 hours, and this is a rare time where I’d actually love to see the full 5 hour version because the 3 hour one that we have is so enthralling I feel like I need to see more. The combat is so intense and realistic that I began feeling anxious for the soldiers onscreen, even though I knew well enough that it was a movie. Not only is this a very intense movie, but the scenes of battle are shot in the most intricate and beautiful of ways. The camera sweeps over the battlefield in such a fashion that I can’t say I ever saw before. That is where Malick’s vision truly shines, and it’s almost blinding.
So the battle scenes are all excellent and beautifully shot, but also the quieter scenes are shot in such a way that we see all of the beauty of nature that stands idly by as men wage their wars. It’s a pretty strong antiwar message done well, but things do tend to get a little weird. There are parts throughout the movie where the characters give these long winded soliloquies about the turmoil that they face everyday and the toll it’s taking on their lives and their beliefs. Seriously, this movie would gain a lot of points if those voice overs were taken out completely. It’s melodramatic and distracting because people simply don’t talk like that, especially when it’s already been established that it’s definitely not how that character talks normally. It’s just way too over the top, but that’s really my only complaint with this movie.
The Thin Red Line has a very odd story behind the making of it that makes it something of a Frankenstein monster masterpiece. Malick is known for taking an absurd amount of time to edit his movies, and this is a clear example of how far he’ll go to ensure he gets the picture he wants. Adrian Brody’s character went from being a lead to a secondary character who barely even speaks. The opposite goes for Caviezel, who’s character became the main focus of the story. The cast of actors in this movie is huge, but a lot of them end up being only cameos. Like I said, this movie was originally 5 hours long, so a lot of their screen time got cut. Still, Malick knew what he wanted and the final product is great.
Plain and simply, The Thin Red Line is one of the best war movies ever made. There’s been countless, both old and new, but this movie has a certain beauty to it that Terrence Malick is known for capturing. That’s what really makes it stand out. Unfortunately, the film does lose points for the weird voice overs that more than border on the pretentious side. While that is a flaw, the rest of the movie is an epic masterwork of human drama and war.