The Thin Red Line

USA 1998

Film still for The Thin Red Line

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

1942, Guadalcanal. US soldiers land on the island, hoping to take it back from the Japanese. At first, they encounter no resistance. C for Charlie company ventures into the jungle, discovering the corpses of some colleagues who've gone before them. Their progress is halted and they sustain many losses when they attempt to climb a hill heavily fortified by the Japanese. Lt Colonel Tall is adamant that they must take the hill, but Captain Staros is reluctant to commit his men on a mission he fears will kill many unnecessarily so he disobeys Tall's order.

Eventually, a small group of soldiers outflank the enemy and are able to destroy the Japanese machine-gun post. The company marches forward, coming face to face with the enemy, who are terrified and in disarray. Many Japanese are killed and captured. Tall, exultant about the success of the operation, announces the company is to have a week's leave away from the front. The men spend their time off by the sea. Private Bell learns his wife (of whom he is always thinking) is leaving him for another man. First Sergeant Welsh, a pragmatist who takes a very cynical view of the motives behind the war, argues with Private Witt, a young idealist who refuses to conform with army rules. Staros is relieved of his command by Tall. The soldiers return to the front. An operation in the jungle goes wrong. Witt's courage saves the company, but he is killed by the Japanese. Bloodied and dishevelled, the soldiers leave the island.


In his first two films, Terrence Malick evoked rustic America with a detail and lyricism which belied the brutal stories he was telling. Badlands (1973) seemed as much a Depression-era travelogue as a film about two murderous delinquents. While seeing the locusts ravage the fields in Days of Heaven (1978), you were likely to be so enraptured by the imagery you might forget a farmer's livelihood was being destroyed by them. Malick's characters always seemed detached from the events they were witnessing. His use of voiceovers heightened the sense that they were outsiders looking in at a world to which they didn't really belong.

The Thin Red Line, Malick's first film in 20 years, shares a naive, dream-like quality with its two predecessors. The difference here is that the James Jones novel from which the director took his screenplay is not about a few estranged individuals. It is a sprawling, messy account of the experiences of dozens of soldiers in the face of war. The director is far more of a stylist than the novelist whose work he is (at least slightly) bowdlerising. Where Jones gives us long chunks of ungainly but compelling prose, Malick aims for poetic symbolism.

In the first half of the film, he fails to differentiate between individual characters. Before the fighting begins, we're shown Private Witt enjoying an idyllic interlude on an unspoiled island retreat. Witt, at least as conceived by Malick, has more in common with Montgomery Clift's martyr-like Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (1953) than with the opportunistic, slightly sleazy figure in Jones' book. Here, he's a visionary at odds with military discipline but always open to his surroundings. When, as constantly happens throughout the film, there are cutaways to insects, animals or birds, it is as if we are seeing them through his eyes.

Although Witt is depicted in detail, many of the other characters from the book are mere thumbnail sketches. Sgt Welsh's grumblings about how the war is being fought for capitalism are reduced to a few asides about "property, property". We don't see the gay affair between two of the soldiers nor does Malick show arguably the most poignant and grotesque scene in the book, in which one GI, while defecating, is surprised by a Japanese soldier. Whereas Jones was able to offer a multiplicity of perspectives and to suggest how each individual soldier was experiencing the same events in radically different ways, Malick can only hint obliquely at what his characters are feeling, however many voiceovers he uses. Surprisingly, Colonel Tall is made more prominent here, with Nick Nolte playing him much the same way as Sterling Hayden did the mad general in Dr. Strangelove (1963). It's an impressive portrayal of a career soldier so steeped in military arrogance he's lost his moral bearings. But by putting such emphasis on him, Malick moves the focus away from the pivotal figure of Captain Staros - named Stein in the book - so it's hard to understand why his soldiers are so dismayed when Tall relieves him of his command.

In one key sense, this adaptation is absolutely faithful. Like Jones, Malick shows war as something messy and inchoate. He's often accused of not knowing how to fashion a narrative, but that's to his advantage here. The film benefits from its random shifts in mood - the way it changes voices and lurches between moments of breathtaking beauty, stretches of relative tedium and sudden bloody battle scenes. Whatever its ideological bias or historical oversights, The Thin Red Line is hugely effective as a film about the absurdity of war. There is no respite. Apart from the scenes in which Bell remembers the wife he misses so much, we never escape the island. Under Witt's benevolent gaze, it may seem a paradise, but the further the soldiers delve into the jungle, the more hellish it becomes. The most frustrating sequence is the assault on the hill crowned by a Japanese machine-gun post. Each time the soldiers near the top they are sent, like Sisyphus, spiralling back by the gunners.

In many war movies, the battle scenes are an end in themselves. (No review of Saving Private Ryan neglected to mention how "realistic" the Omaha-beach landings were.) In The Thin Red Line the battle scenes merely provide the backdrop to Malick's rambling, quizzical inquiries into military behaviour and the nature of evil; he's more interested in metaphysics than machismo. It is an extraordinary achievement to have made a big-budget war film which seems so utterly personal. For all the dissonant voices, the star cameos, the awesome cinematography, this is Malick's vision alone. The island setting only reinforces the sense that he is a Prospero pulling all the strings.


Robert Michael Geisler
John Roberdeau
Grant Hill
Terrence Malick
Based on the novel by
James Jones
Director of Photography
John Toll
Billy Weber
Leslie Jones
Saar Klein
Clarinda Wong
Production Designer
Jack Fisk
Hans Zimmer
©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Production Companies
A Fox 2000 Pictures presentation
From Phoenix Pictures
in association with George Stevens Jr
A Geisler Roberdeau production
Executive Producer
George Stevens Jr
Associate Producers
Michael Stevens
Sheila Davis Lawrence
US Production Supervisor
Rosanna Sun
Production Co-ordinator
Serena Gattuso
2nd Unit Co-ordinator
Julie Sims
Production Managers
Vicki Popplewell
Solomon Islands/ Guadalcanal Unit:
Amanda Crittenden
Unit Production Manager
Grant Hill
Unit Managers
Dick Beckett
2nd Unit:
Paul Messer
Solomon Islands/ Guadalcanal Unit:
Simon Lucas
Location Managers
Murray Boyd
2nd Unit:
Todd Fellman
Solomon Islands/ Guadalcanal Unit:
Robin Clifton
LA Post-production Units:
Ken Haber
Post-production Supervisor
Jessica Alan
2nd Unit Director
Gary Capo
Assistant Directors
Skip Cosper
Karen Estelle Collins
Simon Warnock
Jennifer Leacey
Andrew Power
2nd Unit:
Toby Pease
Keri Bruno
Tom Read
LA Post-production Units:
L. Dean Jones
Sean Hobin
Lisa Brookes
Script Supervisors
Chrissy O'Connell
2nd Unit:
Pam Willis
Solomon Islands/ Guadalcanal Unit:
Alexandra W.-B. Malick
Script Co-ordinator
Emily Saunders
Dianne Crittenden
Barbara Collins
ADR Voice:
L.A. MadDogs
Solomon Islands 2nd Unit:
Reuben Aaronson
Camera Operators
Brad Shield
2nd Unit:
Leigh MacKenzie
LA Post-production Units:
Steve Campanelli
Mike Thomas
Steadicam Operator
Brad Shield
Visual Effects
Animal Logic
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Chris Godfrey
Visual Effects Producer:
Fiona Chilton
Visual Effects Designer:
Simon Whiteley
Senior Digital Compositors:
Kirsty Millar
John Breslin
Justin Bromley
Digital Compositor:
Robin Cave
Pre-visualization Compositor:
Grant Everett
3D Animator:
Ian Brown
System Administrator:
Glen Sharah
Digital Film Services
Special Effects
Brian Cox
Senior Technician:
David Hardie
Patrick Carmiggelt
Paul Gorrie
Pauline Grebert
John Neal
Peter Parry
Albert Payne
Pieter Plooy
Walter van Veenendaal
Model Makers
Mark Powell
Gary Sherline
Trevor Smith
Dallas Wilson
Graphic Artist
Matthew Willaton
Art Director
Ian Gracie
Set Decorators
Richard Hobbs
Suza Maybury
LA Post-production Units:
Rosemary Brandenburg
Scenic Artist
Peter Collias
Storyboard Artists
Mark Lambert Bristol
David Russell
LA Post-production Units:
Jay Gibson
Greg Pallini
Guideo Helmstetter
Costume Designer
Margot Wilson
Costume Supervisor
Kerry Thompson
Military Webbing
Phil Eagles
Jim Dedman
Make-up/Hair Design
Viv Mepham
Make-up Artists/Hairdressers
Angela Conte
Toni French
Joan Petch
Chiara Tripodi
Rebecca Smith
Tracey Garner
Sarah Urquhart
LA Post-production Units, Additional:
Michele Burke-Winter
Sue Kalinowski
Titles/Opticals Consultant
Rob Yamamoto
Scarlet Letters
End Credits
Cinema Research Corporation
Pat Doyle
Pacific Title/Mirage
Additional Music
Francesco Lupica
Cosmic Beam Experience
John Powell
Gavin Greenaway
Bruce Fowler
Yvonne S. Moriarty
Additional Music Arrangements
Klaus Badelt
Music Supervisor
Rosanna Sun
Music Co-ordinator
Maggie Rodford
Air Edel Associates Ltd
Composer Wrangler
Moanike'Ala Nakamoto
Music Editors
Lee Scott
Adam Smalley
Music Scoring Mixer
Alan Meyerson
Scoring Recordist
John Rodd
Technical Score Adviser
Marc Streitenfeld
"Annum Per Annum" by Arvo Pärt, organ performed by Andrew Lucas; "Requiem - In Paradisum" by Gabriel Fauré, performed by Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Armin Jordan; "The Prophecy from the Village of Kremnus" by/performed by Arsenije Jovanovic; "Sit Back and Relax" by/performed by Francesco Lupica; "The Unanswered Question" by Charles Ives, performed by The Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by John Adams
Sound Design
John Fasal
Claude Letessier
Co-sound Supervisor
Robb Wilson
Sound Mixers
Paul 'Salty' Brincat
LA Post-production Units, Additional:
Susan Moore-Chong
2nd Unit Sound Recordist
Greg Burgmann
Re-recording Mixers
Andy Nelson
Anna Behlmer
Additional Mixer
Jim Bolt
Robert Renga
Craig 'Pup' Heath
Supervising Sound Editor
J. Paul Huntsman
Dialogue Editors
Patrick J. Foley
John F. Reynolds
Virginia Cook McGowan
Sound Effects Editors
Christopher S. Aud
John V. Bonds Jr
Jayme S. Parker
Andrew M. Sommers
Mark Mangino
Hugh Waddell
Rick Canelli
Thomas J. O'Connell
Lee Lamont
Karyn Foster
Voice-over Supervisor
James Simcik
Jeffrey Rosen
John B. Roesch
Hilda Hodges
Carolyn Tapp
Mary Jo Lang
David Horton Jr
Shin Watarai
Tomo Miyaguchi
Key Military:
Mike Stokey
Aircraft Co-ordinator
Bruce Simpson
Marine Co-ordinator
Lance Julian
Action Vehicle Co-ordinator
Tim Parry
Stunt Co-ordinators
Glenn Boswell
LA Post-production Units:
Raleigh Wilson
Key Armourer
John Bowring
Peter Cogar
Amanda Kirby
Allen Mowbray
Bob Parsons
Scott Warwick
Guy Bourke
John Curtis
Doug Haywood
Owen O'Malley
John Rayner
Ray Seaver
Ralph Simpson
Sean Penn
First Sergeant Edward Welsh
Adrien Brody
Corporal Fife
James Caviezel
Private Witt
Ben Chaplin
Private Bell
George Clooney
Captain Charles Bosche
John Cusack
Captain John Gaff
Woody Harrelson
Sergeant Keck
Elias Koteas
Captain James 'Bugger' Staros
Nick Nolte
Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall
John C. Reilly
Sergeant Storm
Arie Verveen
Private First Class Dale
Dash Mihok
Private First Class Doll
John Savage
Sergeant McCron
Kirk Acevedo
Private Tella
Penny Allen
Witt's mother
Melanesian villager
Simon Billig
Lieutenant Colonel Billig
Mark Boone Junior
Private Peale
Norman Patrick Brown
Private Henry
Jarrod Dean
Corporal Thorne
Matt Doran
Private Coombs
Travis Fine
Private Weld
Paul Gleeson
First Lieutenant Band
David Harrod
Corporal Queen
Don Harvey
Sergeant Becker
Kengo Hasuo
Japanese prisoner
Ben Hines
assistant pilot
Danny Hoch
Private Carni
Robert Roy Hofmo
Private Sico
Melanesian man walking
Tom Jane
Private Ash
Melanesian villager
Polyn Leona
Melanesian woman with child
Jared Leto
2nd Lieutenant Whyte
Simon Lyndon
medic 2
Gordon MacDonald
Private First Class Earl
Kazuki Maehara
Japanese private 1
Marina Malota
Michael McGrady
Private Floyd
Ken Mitsuishi
Japanese officer 1
Ryushi Mizukami
Japanese private 4
Tim Blake Nelson
Private Tills
Larry Neuhaus
Taiju Okayasu
Japanese private 6
Takamitsu Okubo
Japanese soldier
Miranda Otto
Marty Bell
Larry Romano
Private Mazzi
Kazuyoshi Sakai
Japanese prisoner 2
Masayuki Shida
Japanese officer 2
John Dee Smith
Private Train
Stephen Spacek
Corporal Jenks
Nick Stahl
Private First Class Bead
Hiroya Sugisaki
Japanese private 7
Kouji Suzuki
Japanese private 3
Tomohiro Tanji
Japanese private 2
Minoru Toyoshima
Japanese sergeant
John Travolta
Brigadier General Quintard
Terutake Tsuji
Japanese private 5
Steven Vidler
2nd Lieutenant Gore
Melanesian guide
Todd Wallace
Will Wallace
Private Hoke
Joe Watanabe
Japanese officer 3
Simon Westaway
first scout
Dan Wyllie
medic 1
Yasuomi Yoshino
young Japanese
John Augwata
Joshua Augwata
John Bakotee
Immanuel Dato
Michael Iha
Emmunual Konai
Stephen Konai
Peter Morosiro
Amos Niuga
Jennifer Siugali
Carlos Tome
Selina Tome
Melanesian extras
20th Century Fox (UK)
15,253 feet
170 minutes 36 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
Prints by
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011