Twenty years ago, The Thin Red Line (1998) hit theaters nationwide. I wonder how many people still remember this thought-provoking film. It had a tough competitor that year at the Oscars: Saving Private Ryan (1998). Not only that, but it lost the Best Picture Academy Award to a frankly forgettable film: Shakespeare In Love (1998).
I’ll admit it: the only reason I watched this movie in the first place was because it had George Clooney. Yet, it’s a film I return to often because there’s something about it rarely seen in other war movies. It seems war movies have a focus on violence and gore. While The Thin Red Line has its share of violence and gore, its focus is unique compared to most war films.
Poetry in War
When I first watched The Thin Red Line, I was reminded of the novel A Farewell to Arms. The Thin Red Line adopts the same sort of detached prose that the novel portrays. However, The Thin Red Line takes a different route than the novel in that its focus is not stationary. Instead, it takes us on a mental journey through many of the individuals of the military unit, introducing us to their fears, their loves, and their individual narratives.
The film is poetic. It takes war — what we normally associate with pain, violence, and heartbreak — and it immortalizes those feelings through the most beautiful words. It tries to express those feelings that most war movies try unsuccessfully to convey through stilted dialogue or body language.
I truly appreciate that The Thin Red Line isn’t just one of those war movies that’s just there to throw blood and gore in your face. It’s a movie with a deeper meaning behind it. It’s a movie that shows the human side behind the soldiers we often see portrayed as reluctant killing machines, never really getting an explanation for why they are the way they are. The characters are more than unfeeling, hardy men — they are beautiful creatures capable of the most magnificent thoughts.
One of the things I love about war films is that they can usually round up a stellar cast. The Thin Red Line is no different in this respect. The film features a cast with George Clooney, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Cusack, John Travolta, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, John Savage, Nick Stahl, and Tim Blake Nelson.
There are a few casting choices that I particularly want to point out. Jared Leto? Perfect. The Thirty Seconds to Mars singer is a phenomenal actor and, though his role is brief in this film, he plays it with the signature emotion that I expect from him. Woody Harrelson? I love it. I can’t believe that the innocent, stupid Woody from Cheers managed to pursue such a rewarding career in drama. He is able to convey fear so perfectly.
And Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn — the main characters — are remarkable in their roles. In his usual soft-spoken way, Jim Caviezel plays the part of carefree, gentle soldier wonderfully. Sean Penn is always able to bring his signature gruffness to his roles to create a begrudgingly lovable character.
I’m going to say it: The Thin Red Line should have gotten an Oscar and it was robbed of one. It was nominated for not one, not two, but seven Oscars. And how many did it win? Zero.
We talk about Leonardo DiCaprio being nominated six times over the years and only winning one. But I feel like The Thin Red Line is probably the biggest loser here. The Thin Red Line had a beautiful score including indigenous songs performed by Melanesian choirs, and yet it lost in that category. It lost to Shakespeare in Love in the Best Picture category — a film that most people don’t even remember. It didn’t even win any of the technical categories (though it’s hard to go up against Saving Private Ryan in cinematography and editing).
All I’m saying is that this film deserved way more than it got. Maybe if it hadn’t come out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, it would have stood out more as the masterpiece it is. Or maybe if the Academy wasn’t the most biased organization in Hollywood (who decided it was a good idea to give The Shape of Water an Oscar?), then maybe this incredible war film would receive the praise it deserves.
When the Movie is Better Than the Book
This is one of those few cases where I can honestly say the movie is ten times better than the book. No offense to James Jones, the author of the novel The Thin Red Line, but your writing is…lacking. In the novel, there was more of a focus on sexuality and homoerotic material than the poetry that the movie chooses to focus on. As great as these elements would have been in any other novel, they felt very out of place in the book (as out of place as they sound here, I assure you that it was much more jarring in the book).
I commend director Terrence Malick for tiptoeing through the novel and picking out only the most important parts, embellishing where necessary. It’s hard to create a movie from a book when the book itself sucks. Yet, Malick is able to create a deeply moving film about war and how it affects its participants.
To be honest, when one reads the book, it’s hard to find a narrative. You get the idea that there’s a war on and that the author is going for a philosophical point of view, but that’s about it. This is what Malick is able to nail in the film adaptation — there’s a narrative and a purpose. The philosophy doesn’t feel fake like it does in the novel; it’s simply a film showing the inner thoughts of soldiers in the fight for their lives.
The one thing I don’t particularly enjoy about this film is that it tends to ramble. However, this is something I cannot fault Terrence Malick for, as the novel the film is based on rambles on for hundreds of pages about nothing. It was definitely a tough one to get through.
It just seems like the inner monologues of the soldiers are dragged out to the point of incoherence. Malick keeps the characters talking in hopes that if they speak long enough they’ll hit on something truly powerful. However, what Malick failed to realize is that simplicity is best. What the soldiers say in paragraphs could have been succinctly stated in their first lines.
If we’re being honest, that rambling is probably why this movie falls short to Saving Private Ryan. SPR examines the same themes and verbalizes them in fewer words than The Thin Red Line does, which makes it more entertaining and also more meaningful to the masses.
Beautiful Piece of Cinema
Overall, The Thin Red Line is a spectacular film both visually with its sprawling green hills and verbally with harshly realistic monologues. Of course, it has its setbacks — it tends to ramble and at times the story moves slower than your average war film.
Yet, it remains an amazing example of what war movies can be. It shows every Ted Kotcheff out there that war movies don’t have to be violent to get their point across. Rather, war can be expressed through the most delicate of words and the most depressing of emotions and body language. It’s all a matter of choreographing it all to create a film that viewers will never forget.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on The Thin Red Line? Comment down below!
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