The Thin Red Line

1998, Movie, R, 166 mins


Call it the anti-Saving Private Ryan: Terrence Malick's graceful, chaotic adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel about the bloody, attenuated campaign to take Guadalcanal Island in 1942-43 (he also wrote From Here to Eternity), is an intensely internalized portrait of external pandemonium, a slippery, insidiously haunting work of poetry rather than brilliantly realized pulp. It most closely resembles APOCALYPSE NOW, both in its vaguely hallucinatory ambiance and because it's set on the Pacific front: Malick's soldiers are as out of place in the jungle as Coppola's, and the scenery's riotous beauty makes the sudden bursts of bloody violence just that little bit more grotesque. The protagonists are the officers and enlisted men of Charlie Company, whose orders are to take the island, starting with a nameless hill topped by enemy machine gunners entrenched in a fortified bunker. With the exception of a deceptively lyrical opening involving two AWOL GIs hiding out in a Melanesian village, the movie is as chaotic as the campaign. Individuals emerge from the ensemble and then disappear into the crowd, their stories woven together in blood and mud. The ranking officer in the fray is Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), an aspiring Patton who's finally found his war. Under him are Captains Staros (Elias Koteas) and Gaff (John Cusack), Sgts. Keck (Woody Harrelson) and Welsh (Sean Penn) -- each determined in his own way to protect the men he commands -- and hundreds of grunts with little more on their minds than trying not to lose them in the muck and gore. Conflicts arise and get lost in the fray, soldiers have their moments in the spotlight, then vanish into the sea of green uniforms. By aiming for the head rather than the gut, Malick has pretty much guaranteed that his film won't capture the audiences Spielberg's has. But it's a powerful, memorable vision of war well worth experiencing. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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