Terence Malick’s dreamlike war picture The Thin Red Line is set in the South Pacific during World War II and centres on a company of US troops – C for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division – at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands during 1942.
The narrative is structured loosely around monologues from its large cast of characters.
Stars and unknowns line up together, with the bigger names mostly taking small parts (John Cusack, Woody Harrelson) or walk-ons (John Travolta, George Clooney) which leaves the focus on lesser-known actors (Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin) and relative unknowns (Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Dash Mihok), all of whom deliver strikingly memorable performances.
Nick Nolte, in top form as ageing battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Tall, bluntly orders his men to take Hill 210 where a well-concealed Japanese bunker at the top of the hill, bristling with machine guns, commands the approaches – it’s a suicide mission that will further his career at the expense of their lives.
He doesn’t blink, but his thoughts reflect the same turmoil and self-disgust that gnaw at the openly compassionate Captain James Staros (Koteas).
Private Doll (Mihok) learns that nobody is what he pretends to be in this man’s army, including Private Bell, beautifully played by Chaplin, whose sexual fantasies about his wife (Miranda Otto) can’t erase the hard fact that she has left him for another man.
Penn, as First Sergeant Walsh, struggles to maintain his shell of cynicism by riding Corporal Fife (Brody), a reformed coward, and Private Witt (Caviezel), a Kentucky-bred idealist – until they realise that virtue is meaningless in a war that defines them only as cogs in a combat machine.
As all the narrative monologue voices converge on the battlefield – and the battle scenes rank with the greatest ever filmed – The Thin Red Line grows steadily in power and poetic grandeur.
The haunting camerawork (from great cinematographer John Toll) captures the lush beauty of the rainforest and serves as a counterpoint to the scenes showing the devastating effect of American and Japanese invaders on this serene island, from its Melanesian inhabitants to the shelling that reduces vegetation and wildlife to dead ash.
The Thin Red Line remains remarkably ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of combat, the random cruelty of war and, indeed, of nature itself.
Some background footage was shot at Guadalcanal, the actual setting for the story, but the island was malaria-ridden and too rugged and remote to sustain a movie crew, so most of the filming, which involved 250 actors and 200 crew members, took place in the Daintree Rainforest and on Bramston Beach in Queensland, Australia, about 1,000 miles southwest of Guadalcanal, across the Coral Sea.
After 100 days in Queensland, filming the set-piece battle for Hill 210, the shoot then moved to the Solomon Islands for the next 24 days to film the jungle scenes. The last three days of filming took place on the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island (about 20 miles southwest of Long Beach, California).
The Thin Red Line received numerous accolades, including seven Oscar nominations, six Satellite Awards from the International Press Academy, and a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film earned $98.1 million in worldwide box office receipts.
First Sergeant Edward Welsh
Corporal Geoffrey Fife
Captain Charles Bosche
Captain John Gaff
Captain James ‘Bugger’ Staros
Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall
John C. Reilly
Private First Class Dale
Private First Class Doll
Lieutenant Colonel Billig
Mark Boone Jr
Norman Patrick Brown
First Lieutenant George Band
Robert Roy Hofmo
2nd Lieutenant Whyte
Private First Class Earl
Tim Blake Nelson
John Dee Smith
Private First Class Bead
Brigadier General Quintard
2nd Lieutenant Gore