This serious-minded but flawed effort at bringing James Jones's later World War II novel to the screen might have languished in film vaults had reclusive director Terence Malick not resurfaced with a newer version, the likely spur to this video release. This first attempt, lensed in 1964, offers glimpses of what may have attracted Malick to the project.
Jones's story focuses on two American soldiers during the Guadalcanal campaign, the newlywed draftee Private Doll (Keir Dullea) and Sergeant Welch (Jack Warden), the hardened veteran. Doll is determined to survive whatever the cost, disobeying orders if it will improve his chances; Welch is dutiful yet calculating, resorting to deliberate acts of madness to toughen up his troops by showing them war's own absurdity by example. The clash between the private and the sergeant thus becomes the core to the film, focusing on the "thin red line" between sanity and insanity and depicting how that line blurs for both protagonists.
As directed by veteran Andrew Marton (55 Days in Peking), the film is at its best during sweeping battle sequences capturing the gritty horror of hand-to-hand combat, as the Americans try to take an impregnable wall of caves held by the Japanese enemy. Less successful are portentous scenes and dialogue that underscore this evident parable with a heavy hand; there's a self-conscious art film spin that misfires.The original black-and-white Cinemascope negative shows wear and tear, and early copies betray serious problems in their optical transfers. --Sam Sutherland
One of the cinema's great disappearing acts came to a close with the release of The Thin Red Line in late 1998. Terrence Malick, the cryptic recluse who withdrew from Hollywood visibility after the release of his visually enthralling masterpiece Days of Heaven (1978), returned to the director's chair after a 20-year coffee break. Malick's comeback vehicle is a fascinating choice: a wide-ranging adaptation of a World War II novel (filmed once before, in 1964) by James Jones. The battle for Guadalcanal Island gives Malick an opportunity to explore nothing less than the nature of life, death, God, and courage. Let that be a warning to anyone expecting a conventional war flick; Malick proves himself quite capable of mounting an exciting action sequence, but he's just as likely to meander into pure philosophical noodling--or simply let the camera contemplate the first steps of a newly birthed tropical bird, the sinister skulk of a crocodile. This is not especially an actors' movie--some faces go by so quickly they barely register--but the standouts are bold: Nick Nolte as a career-minded colonel, Elias Koteas as a deeply spiritual captain who tries to protect his men, Ben Chaplin as a G.I. haunted by lyrical memories of his wife. The backbone of the film is the ongoing discussion between a wry sergeant (Sean Penn) and an ethereal, almost holy private (newcomer Jim Caviezel). The picture's sprawl may be a result of Malick's method of "finding" a film during shooting and editing, and in some ways The Thin Red Line seems vaguely, intriguingly incomplete. Yet it casts a spell like almost nothing else of its time, and Malick's visionary images are a challenge and a signpost to the rest of his filmmaking generation. --Robert Horton
A powerful frontline cast - including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney - explodes into action in this hauntingly realistic view of military and moral chaos in the Pacific during World War II.
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