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The Thin Red Line

Year: 1998
Production Co: Phoenix
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Jim Caveizel, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C Reilly, John Travolta, Adrien Brody, Dash Mihook, John Cusack, Ben Chaplin, Jared Leto, Miranda Otto

Proof again that your reaction to a movie depends on where you are in your film-watching life and screen education. This was the first Terrence Malick movie I'd watched at the time, and knowing nothing of the rest of his oeuvre or the very distinctive creative place he'd end up in with The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, I didn't really have any idea how to take it. With 16 years of hindsight (as I write this review), I think it needs to be reconsidered in the context of his particular style.

I first watched it because – after Saving Private Ryan – I was interested in seeing this other movie about the Second World War. At the time all I really talked about was how the US Army obviously only recruited poets waxing lyrical about soul, sky and spirit rather than shooting guns.

But, unlike much of Malick's later work (especially To the Wonder, which has virtually no in-camera dialogue), The Thin Red Line tells a straighter, more traditional narrative with none of the steretypes or tropes you expect, and the whispered, nonsensical poetry his characters speak off-camera in later films kept on a leash.

When AWOL GI Witt (Caviezel) is picked up on an idyllic island in the South Pacific and reprimanded by his Sergeant, Welsh (Penn), he's thrust back into the fight as the American Army prepares to invade Guadalcanal, a small island held by the Japanese that might prove pivotal in the war.

The progress up the grassy cliffs to the Japanese gun placements is bloody and agonisingly slow under the orders of thoughtful pacifist Staros (Koteas) and gruff, shouty Colonel Tall (Nolte), who's overcoming his own lack-of-authority issues.

It's the most active of Malick's films, and he has no bones about showing the ferocious violence of war any more than Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan. American and Japanese soldiers are mown down with gory abandon even while the movie cuts to a signature Malick shot looking up into the trees while wheeling in a slow circle or tracking down a richly textured jungle river.

Like always it's far less about the advancement of plot and much more about a dreamy mood and the musings of the characters as they try to make sense of the slaughter around them – something audiences at the time wouldn't have realised about Malick and which I think would have led to most of the negative reactions people had.

I've also read that everyone seems to think they're making a different film than Malick does, a criticism I can understand. I remember reading at the time how Adrien Brody believed he'd be the lead character, but ended up another bit player in the drama that mostly concerns Caviezel's morose grunt opening himself to the universe like a shaman.

It's also obvious Malick ended up with a very different film than the one he set out to find, sidelining names like John Travolta and George Clooney to single scenes each. Either that or he went in planning to capture a huge amount of disparate material to mould into whatever he decided he was looking for. Love or hate Malick's films, that's the true mark of an auteur.

It's much more solid than the flimsy To the Wonder (and has far more confident sense of movement), makes more sense than the free-wheeling, ill-disciplined The Tree of Life, and it's as epic in scope as The New World. And like everything he's made since, absolutely beautiful to look at.

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