Thin Red Line, The (1998): Malick’s Comeback, Lyrical WWII Drama with Top Notch Cast

Terrence Malick, the brilliant, iconic filmmaker, is not a conventional storyteller, as was manifest in his first two films, “Badlands” in 1974 and “Days of Heaven” in 1978.

Malick has not made a feature in 20 years, and so when his metaphysical anti-war film, The Thin Red Line, was released, in 1998, there was much reason to celebrate. Fulfilling expectations, the movie was an artistic highlight of the year as well as of Malick’s career.

The film’s high-profile cast is composed of the best actors of their generation, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, George Clooney, Ben Chaplin, and newcomer Jim Caviezel, who plays the lead.

Deviating from most Hollywood war films, “Thin Red Line” does not contain many combat scenes, and, remarkably, it steers clear of typical battle dialogue. Instead, the film is a graceful, elegiac adaptation of the 1962 novel by James Jones (who had also authored “From Here to Eternity,” made into an Oscar-winning film).

Nominally, the narrative’s focus is on the campaign to take Guadalcanal Island in 1942. The fighting men include both officers and enlisted soldiers of Charlie Company, whose task is to take the island. The story begins at a nameless hill atop which the enemy is stationed with machine guns entrenched in the bunkers

The opening is lyrical, describing two AOWL, G.I.s hiding out in a Melanesian village. The soldiers are clearly out of place. The exquisite beauty of the surrounding Nature just makes the sudden bursts of bloody violence all the more grotesque and remarkable.

Individuals (and their stories) emerge from the mass ensemble and then disappear again in the crowd.  Conflicts between the men erupt, and various soldiers have crisis moments, before they vanish into a crowd of green uniforms. The personal stories (sort of subplots) seem to be interwoven in the mud and blood of the war context.

Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is a ranking officer who has finally found the “right” war for him. Under his command are Captains Staros (Elias Koteas) and Gaff (John Cusack), Sergeants Keck (Woody Harrelson) and Welsh (Sean Penn). Each one of these commanders determined to protect the men in his command in his own way.

A slippery, haunting work of poetry rather than a fully realized and conventional narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, “Thin Red Line” presents Malick’s powerfully memorable vision of war. Malick seems to accept the fact that war is inane and beyond human comprehension.

When “Thin Red Line” was released, for many critics, it was a movie easier to admire than to really love.  It boasts some wonderful elements, including gorgeous, lyrical imagery, created by the cinematographer of John Toll, who is one of the few artists to have won two consecutive Oscars in his field.

“Thin Red Line” received 7 Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and screenplay adaptation, but it didn’t win any kudos (see below).  The movie was in the unfortunate position of following Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” a more accessible WWII film of 1998.

Mainstream viewers found the story line too amorphous, the narrative elliptical, the pacing deliberate. Even so, by standards of art films, it was a solid box-office success, and Malick’s only commercially successful picture.

Oscar winning cinematographer John Toll (“Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall”) was up for his third Oscar. His strongest competition was Janusz Kaminiski, who won for “Saving Private Ryan.” Hans Zimmer’s score (in a radical departure from earlier works, such as “The Lion King”, “As Good As It Gets”) compliments Malick’s style but proved to be too subtle for Oscar voters’ taste.


Oscar Nominations: 7

Best Picture

Director: Terrence Malick

Screenplay (Adapted): Terrence Malick

Camera: John Toll

Music (Original Score): Hans Zimmer

Film Editing: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, Saar Klein

Sound: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Paul Brincat

Oscar Awards: None


Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn)

Corporal fife (Adrien Brody)

Private Witt (Jim Caviezel)

Private Jack bell (Ben Chaplin)

Captain Charles Borsche (George Clooney)

Captain John Gaff (John Cusack)

Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson)

Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas)

Second lieutenant Whyte (Jared Leto)

Private Doll (Dash Mihok)

Private Tills (Tim Blake Nelson)

Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte)

Sergeant Storm (John C. Reiley)

Private Mazzi (Larry Romano)

Sergeant McCrow (John Savage)

Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta)

Running time: 166 Minutes