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The Thin Red Line is a famous book about the battle of Guadalcanal by author James Jones. It is a philosophical work about the internal and external battles the various soldiers go through. In 1998, it was made into a movie by legendary reclusive auteur filmmaker Terence Malick, whose films specialize in deep philosophizing, sumptuous nature photography, and internal dialogue by multiple characters. Malick used the film to expound on the idea that "all men have got the same soul" and are part of nature, therefore warfare is just an example of mankind fighting against himself.
The film features Loads and Loads of Characters (still more in the book) who each have their own perspectives on the battle raging around them, although most of the characters seem to be surprisingly thoughtful and articulate in their internal monologues, despite (or perhaps because) the ever present threat of impending death.
The film is also notable for being pitted against Saving Private Ryan both at the time it came out and ever since, with the two (very different) war films being (perhaps unfairly) compared to each other and various film critics taking sides. This is owing to the fact that it depends on what kind of war movie you are looking to see.
Both movies are visceral, but Saving Private Ryan would probably be described as "action packed" and expounding the attitude that "war is hell, but sometimes necessary and we will never understand what the Greatest Generation went through." (It could even be said to have popularized this nostalgic approach to WWII.) Whereas The Thin Red Line would probably be described as "philosophical" and immersive, expounding the philosophy that men don't really know why they fight because they are part of nature, and make excuses for their violent nature.
See also From Here to Eternity, also by James Jones.
This work contains examples of:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: A truly crushing example with Bell and his wife.
- America Wins the War: Oh so averted. There is nearly no Patriotic Fervor shown in the movie, not even of the "positive, honest and cheerful" variety. The movie tries hard to avert Do Not Do This Cool Thing and focuses more on the mundane lives and suffering of individual soldiers.
- An Aesop: Or rather, thought-provoking questions. The central themes of the movie seem to be: "Is war an inevitable part of human civilization or not? Is war just a nonsensical tragedy or does it have some bright side as well? Does nature suffer from war at least as much as humans?" The answer is up to you, dear tropers...
- Private Witt invokes this in one of his inner monologues:
This great evil, where does it come from?
How'd it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from?
Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us, robbing us of life and light?
Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known.
Does our ruin benefit the earth?
Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?
Is this darkness in you, too?
Have you passed to this night?
- All-Star Cast: More than Ocean's 11. According to one critic, "everyone in Hollywood auditioned for the film," because Malick was a mysterious legend who hadn't made a film in 20 years.
- Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, George Clooney, John Travolta, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Savage. (Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke also starred, but didn't make the final cut.)
- A Father to His Men: Capt. Staros is specifically described as this.
Staros: You're like my sons. (...) You are my sons.
- Anyone Can Die: And they do.
- Arcadia: The Melanesian village; Witt's memories of life on the farm; private Bell's memories of his wife.
- Armchair Military: Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta) and captain Charles Bosche (George Clooney).
- Attack! Attack! Attack!: LTC Tall's repeated orders to attack the ridgeline.
- Auteur License: To quote That other Wiki:
"(The producers) gained the director's confidence by "catering to his every whim," providing him with obscure research material, including a book titled Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, an audiotape of Kodo: Heartbeat Drummers of Japan, information on the Navajo code talkers... making his travel plans and helping the director and his wife Michele get a mortgage."
- Billing Displacement: It's more than a little baffling why Sean Penn got top billing.
- You'll also see George Clooney's name and face plastered on ever poster, trailer and box cover to do with this film. He turns up in the background of one scene near the very end of the movie.
- Blade of Grass Cut: The entire film. Regarding Malick's vision of the film, the producers said,
"Malick's Guadalcanal would be a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison, as Terry used to call it, of war. Much of the violence was to be portrayed indirectly. A soldier is shot, but rather than showing a Spielbergian bloody face we see a tree explode, the shredded vegetation, and a gorgeous bird with a broken wing flying out of a tree."
A unit is like a family. Every family has a father, that's me. Sergeant Welsh here is the mother.
- Compressed Adaptation: Partly an artifact of the film's compression from the original 6-hour cut. Let's put it this way: Adrien Brody's character (Cpl. Fife) is the lead character of the book and the star of the 6-hour cut, Witt's character (Prewitt) dies in From Here to Eternity, Dash Mihok's character (Pfc. Doll) is the focus of the 1968 film by Cinemascope, and Pvt. Train was meant to be an Audience Surrogate.
- Death Is Dramatic: Subverted in a darkly hilarious way when Sgt. Keck accidently pulls the pin off his own grenade while strapped to him. He himself felt the entire thing to be a very stupid mistake.
- Death Seeker: Sgt. McCron (John Savage), after a Break the Cutie moment when we see him praying with his men in the hull of the landing craft.
Why did they have to die and I'm still here? Huh!? I can stand right here, and not-- one-- bullet!
- Demoted to Extra: Adrien Brody was cast in the lead role. You'd be forgiven for not noticing he was even in the movie.
- Development Hell: that other Wiki states --
Malick began adapting The Thin Red Line on January 1, 1989. Five months later, the producers received his first draft that was 300 pages long ... Malick spent years working on other projects ... By January 1995, Geisler and Roberdeau were broke and pressured Malick to decide which one he would complete ... In April 1997, three months before filming, Sony pulled the plug while crews were building the sets... 20th Century Fox agreed to put up $39 million of the budget with the stipulation that Malick cast five movie stars from a list of 10 who were interested.
- Dissonant Serenity:
HalfThe entire movie, but especially the tracking shots through the tall-grass during the hill assault.
- Doing It for the Art: Practically the whole film is internal monologue.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted in general. The film is pretty brutal, warfare is not depicted as something overly glamourous and there's not a word about patriotism (or any other high ideals for that matter). The tone is pretty much very down-to-earth.
- Truth in Television: There are no Red Shirts, no Five-Man Band and few archetypal characters, unlike most war films. All the soldiers have slightly different personalities but generally tend to absorb the personality of their unit. Anyone Can Die, and new faces come in and go throughout the film, like they would in a real unit (the book was based on James Jones' real life experience) subverting the standard fictional narrative arc. Much of the film's narrative is experienced in the characters' heads, and the climactic battle that serves as a formative experience for the entire unit occurs in the first half of the film. In the rest of the film we observe the aftermath.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: LTC Tall
- Dueling Movies: The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan
- During the War: War Was Beginning long beforehand.
- Epic Movie: See All-Star Cast above. The unseen Director's cut of the film is 6 hours long.
- Expy: The characters are all recapitulated from Jones' previous novels. In From Here to Eternity, Witt is named Prewitt, is a boxer, and dies in that book.
- The Film of the Book: Two of them. Both are pretty faithful to the source material, though this second one is basically a mix of Adaptation Expansion and Pragmatic Adaptation.
- Foreshadowing: Witt's mom's death.
- Ghibli Hills: the Melanesian village.
- Glory Hound: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte). "You're young. Y-you've got your war. This is my first war."
- Grey and Gray Morality: Both the Japanese and American soldiers commit atrocities and suffer During the War.
- Good Looking Privates: necessitated by the all-star cast, but partially averted insofar as everyone looks alike.
- Harbinger of Impending Doom: The Navy cruiser arrives off the coast of the Melanesian paradise looking for Witt and Train.
- Heroic BSOD: Sgt. McCron (John Savage) is mentally broken shortly into the film when his entire platoon is wiped out, causing him to have a bad flash back to his experiences as a soldier in another life.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: James Caviezel, aka "Jesus", plays a spiritual role here as well.
- Malick specifically cast actors (dozens of famous actors) who look like each other, to put forth the message that all the soldiers are part of a unit and fundamentally different aspects of the same person. With lots and lots of (then-unknown) actors cast because they look very similar to lots and lots of (famous) actors who all wanted to appear in a Malick film, and with most of the dialogue being internal monologue, you have a situation where it's easier for people who haven't read the book to tell. the characters apart by the actor playing them.
- A few flashbacks and somewhat surreal sequences reveal that Ben Chaplin's character is married to Eowyn.
- Hope Sprouts Eternal: The very last scene shows a coconut sprouting on the beach.
- Hungry Jungle: Col. Tall: "You see those vines? How they twine around, swallowing everything? Nature's cruel."
- The Ishmael: Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody's character) in the book.
- It Never Gets Any Easier: "Have you ever had anyone die in your arms, sir?"
- It Gets Easier: "How many men? Lives will be lost in your company... You're just not tough-fibered enough."
- Knight in Sour Armor: Welsh (Sean Penn).
Welsh: The world's blowing itself to hell just about as fast as we can arrange it. Only one thing a man can do - find something that's his, and make an island for himself.
Welsh: Still believing in the beautiful light? I wish I knew how you did that. Because me, I can't feel nothing.
later: Where's your spark now? (cries over Witt's grave at the end)
- Loads and Loads of Characters: It's been said there's only one character in the movie, and it's Charlie company.
- Long Take: Some of the tracking shots during the hill assault.
- Mauve Shirt: Sgt. Keck, after tremendous build-up, dies accidentally and horribly shortway into the film when he pulls the pin instead of the grenade.
- Meaningful Echo: Witt's opening monologue about his mother. Can double as a Tear Jerker on a repeat viewing. (It's quite possible due to the nature of the movie, and its length that you have forgotten exactly what he said at the start.)
- The Messiah: Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel) as a philosophically Buddhist hick ingenue who undergoes a spiritual awakening after going AWOL to live in a Melanesian Village, and later sacrifices himself for his troops after Sgt. Welsh, his "only friend," demoted him to hospital detail for being too disobedient and pacifist; Caveizel invoked this trope here several years before starring in The Passion of the Christ.
- The Neidermeyer: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), a "Captain Queeg"-like character, only more effective.
- True to form, he is pitted against Capt. Staros.
Staros: We had a man, gut shot out, on the slope, sir. It created quite an upset.
Tall: Fine! Fine! Now what about those reinforcements!
Staros: My company alone cannot take that position, sir.
Tall: You're not going to take your men into the jungle to avoid a god damned fight.
Now do you hear me, Staros! I want you to attack. I want you to attack right now with every man at your disposal. Now attack, Staros!
Tall: (later) It's never necessary to tell me that you think I'm right. We'll just... assume it.
Staros: We need some water... the men are passing out.
Tall: The only time you should start worrying about a soldier is when they stop bitchin'.
- Partly subverted in that he secretly has a low opinion of himself, as revealed in the internal monologue.
Tall (while following General Quintard around): Shut up in a tomb. Can't lift the lid. Played a role I never conceived. What I might have given for love's sake... too late.
- Mind Screw: If "all men got one big soul", then every soldier's internal monologue is really the same character trapped in a different body. But only Witt realizes this.
- Noble Savage: The Melanesian village. The first one Witt goes AWOL on is paradise on earth, untouched by Western ways. The second one is scarred by war and the people avoid him like the plague.
- Obi-Wan Moment: Witt's death.
- The Resenter: Lt. Col. Tall was passed over for promotion.
- Scenery Porn: The entire film. Some entire scenes consist of contemplative shots of a coconut growing on the beach, water falling off leaves, birds and animals trying their best to ignore the carnage.
- Sergeant Rock: First Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn).
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several.
- Shout-Out: The narration paraphrases a lot of poets.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids: Private Witt is constantly taunted by his superiors for being a naive dreamer.
- Southern-Fried Private: The highly-articulate variety.
- Standard Snippet: Journey To The Line has become one.
- Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Bell's wife.
- Token Good Teammate: Witt.
- War Is Hell: And apparently not just for humans. Many of the most haunting shots in the movie involve nature being destroyed and ravaged by war. One particularly gruesome scene is a close-up of a mortally scorched baby parrot, slowly twitching and dying in the burnt grass. Damn.
- There's also a scene in which a soldier remarks that he had seen burnt corpses of both men and dogs...and there isn't really any difference between them.
- What You Are in the Dark: A character removes teeth from (either live or dead) Japanese prisoners using pliers, then later has an emotional breakdown and throws the bag of teeth away.