Writer/director Terrence Malick can hardly be called prolific.
He made only two films (the critically acclaimed Badlands and Days Of
Heaven) in the mid-'70's, before taking a self imposed twenty year
hiatus from Hollywood. His first film in two decades is one of the
most eagerly anticipated cinema events this side of the new Star Wars
film. While it is certainly visually impressive, Malick's The Thin
Red Line is something of a disappointment, especially when compared
with Spielberg's achievement in the recent devastating and
unforgettable Saving Private Ryan.
Based on the novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line deals
with US forces fighting the Japanese army at Guadalcanal, a bitter and
costly campaign that became one of the turning points of W.W.II.
However, Malick's epic war film is a different animal to Spielberg's.
Unlike Spielberg, Malick doesn't immediately hurtle us into the
inferno of battle. Instead, he lulls us into the brutality of war
through an extended prologue. Witt (Jim Caviezel), an AWOL soldier,
lives in short-lived tranquillity in a peaceful native village
somewhere in the Pacific. He becomes part of the massive US landing
force at Guadalcanal.
The film's centrepiece is the extended and savage campaign to
destroy Japanese machine gun fortifications and take a crucial hill.
This often graphic and quite harrowing battle occupies over half of
the film's three hour running time. However, the action lacks the
intensity and ferocity of Spielberg's recreation of the fury of
warfare. It also seems to lack that gritty air of authenticity that
seemed to effectively suck audiences into the maelstrom.
The combat scenes give the audience the extremes of heroism.
But Malick is also concerned with showing the madness of battle
fatigue, and the film depicts the senseless loss of life and futile
carnage of the war. The Thin Red Line is almost a profound and almost
poetic meditation on the nature of war and how it poisons man's soul.
There's nothing noble about this bloody conflict, and, ultimately,
there are no winners. The film was shot on location, partly in
tropical far north Queensland as well as in the Solomon Islands.
Such is Malick's reputation that he had a veritable who's who
of Hollywood queuing up for small roles, including John Travolta, John
Cusack, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, and Sean Penn.
Unfortunately, though, few of the characters leave a lasting impact on
the audience, and I found that I didn't really care about them or
their fate. Nick Nolte is dynamic as the obsessed and driven colonel
who relishes his first opportunity to fight a war after fifteen years
in the army, and who doesn't care how many men have to lose their
lives in securing a vital strategic position. Caviezel brings a human
face to the film as Witt, the reluctant soldier who ultimately becomes
a hero when tested in battle.
The Thin Red Line is certainly Malick's most epic and
ambitious film to date, and it is as meticulously crafted and
evocative as his previous work. He gives this war film an almost
elegiac quality and a rare humanity. His sweeping vision is
complemented by the spectacularly gorgeous cinematography of dual
Oscar winner John Toll and the haunting score from Hans Zimmer.
Copyright © 2000 Greg King