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LGM Film Club, Part 345: The Thin Red Line

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For the second film in my post-birthday favorite film marathon, I chose a bit of a dark horse–Terence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line. I’ve loved this since the first time I saw it in the theater. That was a memorable experience because the audience thought they were going to get Saving Private Ryan–Pacific Theater Edition and instead got a real film. Other than the enormous battle scene to take the ridge–equal in my opinion to SPR’s battle scenes–this was a thoughtful and beautiful film and not a bunch of stereotypes and tropes that fit more comfortably into 1950s B movies. But that’s not what people wanted.

When I did my Best Movies of World War II list, which I mostly stick to despite commenters reminding me of a few I forgot, I had The Thin Red Line in 5th and I think that’s about right. Given the incredible film to come out of this truly global experience, that’s awfully high, but it’s a beautiful movie.

That said, I hadn’t seen it in many years. The only real difference between when I first saw it and now though is that after this, Malick’s self-indulgence on the nature shots got way way over the top in Tree of Life and other films, to the point that they were ridiculous and became a cliche in themselves. But here is where he first developed that and he does so to great effect. The voiceovers here are so powerful–the soldier in such love with his wife but then she leaves him, the scene where we stare at the dead Japanese soldier’s face peeking through the ground as he speaks to us from the grave, etc. Damn. Like Tarkovsky combined with one of the great battle scenes every filmed. And what a scene that is! From Nick Nolte’s bitter colonel who has been passed up for general time and time again to Elias Koteas’ deeply humane captain who doesn’t want to send his men to the slaughter to the structure of the scene itself, it’s deeply powerful.

There are two demerits to the film, both rather small. The first is that there are too many Big Star Guest Appearances. The Travolta one at the beginning of the film isn’t so bad because at the time you don’t know that he is going to be there for only a minute. The Clooney appearance later is distracting though. But many of the smaller roles are held by fairly big name actors and yet are meaty enough that they work. It wasn’t necessary to cast John Cusack as the young ambitious officer who volunteers to lead the raid to the top of the ridge, but it works. Malick didn’t have to cast Woody Harrelson as the sarge who dies in the battle after throwing himself on a grenade to save his men, but that definitely works. Adrien Brody was still pretty early in his career so it might be a little jarring to see him in a small role as a pretty inept solider, but you have to overlook that.

Second, too many of the voice overs have southern accents that are hard to tell apart, especially considering they don’t necessarily connect up with shots of their characters. I realize this is because Jones tended to write southern characters in his books, but there’s no good reason to keep this in the movie. Having clearly distinct accents–and since most of these actors were putting on a southern accent they really just needed to talk and not do a Boston accent or something–would have really helped tie this all together.

But whatever, it may not be a perfect movie, but it’s damn close. And it’s sure as shit better than Saving Private Ryan.

The other thing about this film is that there were hours of work cut from the film. Originally, it was something like 6 hours long. Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, and Mickey Rourke all had characters completely cut from the final film. Moreover, Brody’s part was originally much larger. But this is what happens when you work with Malick. It doesn’t always work–Lord knows–but when it works, it really works.

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