Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.

Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theatre of war, but throughout the cinematography by John Toll keeps reminding viewers the action is set in a beautiful place and oftentimes on a beautiful day. Even when Woody Harrelson accidentally blows off his rear end with a grenade you notice the lush vegetation around the soldiers and the blue sky above.

Supposedly the movie was to focus on Adrien Brody’s Cpl. Geoffrey Fife, but instead after months of editing the final cut puts the emphasis on Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt, who is first seen living with the natives in the South Pacific after having abandoned the army. To call him the protagonist would still be generous since after he is found and imprisoned the story then focuses on the invasion of a key Japanese location in Guadalcanal and Witt only rejoins the action later during the battle.

There is an interesting conflict between Lt. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), who seems like the kind of army man that sees the American flag every night in his sleep, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who is hesitant to attack a Japanese controlled hill. It is easy for Tall to bark orders about taking that hill no matter how many lives might be lost, but Staros is the one on the front line seeing his fellow soldiers get killed as they attempt to defeat the Japanese soldiers who are shooting at them from an elevated position inside bunkers. Understandably, Stavros feels this battle might need a new strategy.

That main battle is about all you get in terms of plot. Throughout the rest of The Thin Red Line you get brief glimpses of a wide cast that includes John Cusack, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Thomas Jane, Tim Blake Nelsom John Travolta, and even George Clooney for a brief moment. Even Mickey Rourke had some scenes, but they ended up being cut out of a first five-hour first cut. You get some brief scenes about life at home for some of these characters, but also many random scenes of the landscape, vegetation, and natives. The result is quite poetic amid the very graphic violence depicted on screen, but one wonders what the main plot is supposed to be.

I recently saw a stand-up special by Patton Oswalt in which he talks about how there are many male directors who will shoot hours and hours of footage and declare it a masterpiece. Then a woman calmly walks into the editing room to try to sort out the mess into a coherent movie. That might be a generalization, but it seems to have been the case with The Thin Red Line since editor Leslie Jones spent seven months editing the massive amount of footage. Eventually Billy Weber and Malick himself also participated in the editing process, resulting in the theatrical cut and the diminished screen time of many actors.


The end result is a movie that has a vague plot about the effect war has on soldiers and also about the beauty in the world when people are not busy trying to shoot each other. Every shot that does end up on screen is gorgeous, but you do wish there was a more straightforward narrative in order to remain engaged during the pauses in combat. 

      

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…