The Thin Red Line (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"War don't ennoble men. It turns them into dogs. It poisons the soul"

Great films draw you inside of them, and this one does that. It is about war, and I think it probably gets that about right - fear, confusion, despair, agony, politics, promotions, and strategy, and then some more confusion.

Shakespeare got that confusion thing about right, didn't he? Henry V won possibly the greatest military victory in history at Agincourt. Outnumbered 5-to-1, with his infantry facing enemy cavalry, on French soil, he sued for a truce, but was denied by his French foes and forced to stand and fight. 


Despite these circumstances, he slaughtered the entire French army and most of its nobility, while losing only a few men, a triumph so staggering that France married him off to their king's daughter and recognized that he would be the next king, an honor he never lived to claim. According to contemporary accounts, Henry lost 25 men that day, while slaying 10,000 Frenchmen. So you'd think it would be pretty obvious that he was kicking some butt, but the way Shakespeare tells the story, he didn't even know how the battle was going until the victory was his and they gave him the body counts. I think Big Bill probably got this about right, as he got most things. I don't know much about war, but everybody who has told me about it says war is confusion. 

At any rate, I think that Thin Red Line is a great work of filmed literature because it doesn't use war simply to tell a story, but rather in order to try to understand mortality and our attempts to grasp it. What better venue to study the frailty of life than one filled with death's shadow? A long movie, not always a great entertainment, no cohesion, and no characters to become involved with. It is, notwithstanding these faults, a  powerful movie, with a devastating emotional impact that makes you feel the characters' cycle of fear, pain, relief, confusion.

Roger Ebert found fault with the contrast between Malick's actors, who are delivering realism, and Malick's tone, which is kind of mystical and poetic. Ebert was right about the disparity, but I liked that. I liked the fact that extreme violence on a hill 200 yards away would not prevent maneuvering for promotions and philosophical reflection on our hill. I have a feeling that it really works that way, that those 200 yards might as well be a hemisphere away. Ebert did make one very cogent point about the reflections:

"They all seem to be musing in the same voice, the voice of a man who is older, more educated, more poetic, and less worldly than any of these characters seem to be: the voice of the director".

I thought the same thing when I watched it. The characters' musings are not sufficiently distinct from one another, as if they were all the same character in different avatars. In fact, the original narration was to be done by a single voice. Billy Bob Thornton actually recorded all the musings, but then Malick decided to put the thoughts into the heads of different characters. I still thought the technique was powerful.

I found the film's greatest weakness to be that Malick could never seem to get around to advancing the story. There were lots of interesting things going on, but there seemed to be no urgency to stop all the vignettes and musings, and move on to closure. To be brutally honest, Terence Malick has never been able to tell a good straightforward story. "Days of Heaven" is a masterpiece of painterly and exotic images, but much overrated as a movie because it doesn't really go anywhere and the story is actually simplistic. Some good scenes are too short, and some scenes seem to go on forever. 

But Malick is just incomparable at the things he is good at, and his lionized overall reputation is not without justification. The film moved me, and that's what I really want from a film, to get deep inside.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no features

I just had a thought. If someone asked me to name the most powerful war film I have ever seen, I think it would not be any of the theatrical spectaculars, but Ken Burns' PBS Civil War documentary, which had a budget of about thirteen cents and pretty much had me wiping my eyes through the whole thing, by using the simple technique of reading the actual letters written by men before they went into battle, and then tracing what happened to them during and after that battle.

I will, however, change my vote if they ever make a war film with lots of bimbos and carwashes and nude beaches. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 75.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, Apollo users 75/100. These scores are consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... a loser. Produced for $52 million, it brought in only $36 million domestic gross.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is a fine work, but not really designed for crossover appeal. It is arty for a war movie, with very little of the rah-rah patriotism that you might expect. It's also long and with no central narrative. So it's too arty for the war movie crowd, and not the kind of subject to please the art house crowd. I'm not sure who will like it except true film buffs.

Return to the Movie House home page