Oscar Vault Monday – The Thin Red Line, 1998 (dir. Terrence Malick)

Malick was one of the most acclaimed directors in the 1970s, with two highly acclaimed dramas – 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven. He then disappeared for nearly twenty years before production of The Thin Red Line started. The result is an astounding WWII ensemble based on the novel of the same name by James Jones (who’s other book, From Here To Eternity was turned into a film in 1953 and won 8 Oscars). There is a version of The Thin Red Line from 1964 that I’m told is more true to the book; I’ve yet to see it. I also don’t really care if it’s more true to the book because I love what Malick did with this story. This film is one of my Top Ten Films of All Time. It was nominated for 7 Oscars in 1998 although it didn’t win a single award. It was up against Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare In Love, Elizabeth and Life Is Beautiful.

Originally when I rented this about 9 years ago I was going through a big George Clooney phase, only to discover that he is barely in the film, but more on that later. I have since then rewatched the film countless times. I truly feel it is a masterpiece. I think there are aspects of it that aren’t for everyone, but are true Malick-isms. His use of voice-overs, for one, as well as long shots of scenery. This film also contains one of my favorite scores of all time, composed by Hans Zimmer.

The film was up for 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography – John Toll, Best Film Editing, Best Dramatic Score (the Academy split Dramatic and Comedic Score into two categories for a few years in the 90s), Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. I understand, I suppose, why this film lost Best Cinematography to Saving Private Ryan – that storming of Omaha Beach scene in SPR is breathtaking. But I still feel, as a whole, the cinematography John Toll did throughout this film is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It also lost Dramatic Score to Life Is Beautiful and to be honest I don’t even remember what that score sounds like. I think this film suffered from not having enough people see the film before voting ended.

Apparently the original cut of this film was just under 6 hours. A 3-hour narration by Billy Bob Thonrton as well as scenes by Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke were all cut from the film. Also cut was much of Adrien Brody’s role, which in the script was one of the main characters. Even with all this cutting the film is about 170 minutes long. I, for one, would love to see the 6 hour version. There’s a rumor that a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray is on its way. I do so hope this is true, because currently the film is only available in a pretty vanilla “Fox War Classics” DVD.

As I said above, the film has a large ensemble cast and I’m going to talk about a few of my favorite performances:

James Caviezel as Pvt. Witt is the heart of this film. A lot of his performance is in his eyes and I really dig that in a performance. I love it when an actor can say more with his eyes than with dialogue. Although Sean Penn got top billing on all the advertisements, Caviezel is undeniably the real star.

Sean Penn as 1st Sgt. Edward Welsh is also quite wonderful. He and Caviezel have great chemistry together. Their scenes together are electric. Like Caviezel, a lot of his performance is with his face and eyes. This is definitely one of my favorite Penn performances.


I think Elias Koteas is one of the great underrated actors of his generation and his performance as Capt. James ‘Bugger’ Staros is definitely his best. It is both subtle and courageous. His love of life and respect for his men is palpable and I find his unwillingness to sacrifice his men for a mission he knows will fail awe-inspiring. This character, and performance, is perhaps my favorite in the whole film.

Ben Chaplin gives another particularly heartbreaking performance as Pvt. Bell, the bulk of which is voice over memories of his wife – played by Miranda Otto (one of the few women in the movie), as well as reactions to letters sent by her. I love this character because it shows another side of the war – what got left behind – and how helpless both the soldier and those he left behind really are.

Woody Harrelson has a small part as Sgt. Keck, but it is particularly heartbreaking. I don’t really want to spoil what happens if you haven’t seen the film, but his major scene really packs a wallop.

Dash Mihok gives quite a poignant  performance as Pfc. Doll. We see his character several times throughout the film, first before he lands at Guadalcanal and lastly as he leaves, at which point he is a completely changed man.

Nick Nolte gives an explosive performance as the desperate for action Lt. Col. Gordon Tall. Nolte has this vein in his forehead that, for the bulk of his screen time, is completely bulging.

Adrien Brody who, as I said above, was supposed to have quite a large part, does quite a lot with the limited screen time given to Cpl. Fife. Again, it’s a performance that owes a lot to Brody’s expressive eyes. Apparently the Brody was only 22 or 23 at the time of filming.

John Cusack also has a bit part as Capt. John Gaff. Most of his scenes are with either Nick Nolte or Sean Penn and Cusack more than holds his own against the two.

Jared Leto has a very small part as 2nd Lt. Whyte, and really the only reason I bring it up is I wanted to post a photo of his pretty eyes.

Lastly, I come to George Clooney who is literally on the screen for about 30 seconds as Capt. Charles Bosche towards the very end of the film. He is exceedingly charming in those 30 seconds though.

This is truly a phenomenal film that holds up to and deserves multiple viewings. If you’re interested in buying the film, you can do so here.

About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on May 31, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. A simply amazing film – probably my fave Malick film, just edging out DAYS OF HEAVEN, but depending on my mood on a given day, that is my fave film of his. But THE THIN RED LINE is astounding – such a powerful, moving film that manages to be thoughtful and exciting. The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is amazing and really does justice to this film’s stunning cinematography.

  2. yeah, the criterion release is a masterpiece. some shots i wish were a bit sharper, but it is definitely worth seeing.

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