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Thin Red Line, The (1998)

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 – 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.

Nolte, in top form as Lieutenant Colonel Tall, bluntly orders his men to take Hill 210, 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.

Walsh seeks to kill the “spark” in Witt – a spark he secretly admires – in order to save him. “Property,” Walsh says bitterly, “It’s all about property”.

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.

First Sergeant Edward Welsh
Sean Penn
Corporal Fife
Adrien Brody
Private Witt
James Caviezel
Private Bell
Ben Chaplin
Captain Charles Bosche
George Clooney
Captain John Gaff
John Cusack
Sergeant Keck
Woody Harrelson
Captain James ‘Bugger’ Staros
Elias Koteas
Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall
Nick Nolte
Sergeant Storm
John C. Reilly
Private First Class Dale
Arie Verveen
Private First Class Doll
Dash Mihok
Sergeant McCron
John Savage
Private Tella
Kirk Acevedo
Lieutenant Colonel Billig
Simon Billig
Private Peale
Mark Boone Jr
Private Henry
Norman Patrick Brown
Corporal Thorne
Jarrod Dean
Private Coombs
Matt Doran
Private Weld
Travis Fine
First Lieutenant Band
Paul Gleeson
Corporal Queen
David Harrod
Sergeant Becker
Don Harvey
Private Carni
Danny Hoch
Private Sico
Robert Roy Hofmo
Private Ash
Thomas Jane
2nd Lieutenant Whyte
Jared Leto
Private First Class Earl
Gordon Macdonald
Marina
Marina Malota
Private Floyd
Michael Mcgrady
Private Tills
Tim Blake Nelson
Marty Bell
Miranda Otto
Private Mazzi
Larry Romano
Private Train
John Dee Smith
Corporal Jenks
Stephen Spacek
Private First Class Bead
Nick Stahl
Brigadier General Quintard
John Travolta
2nd Lieutenant Gore
Steven Vidler
Private Hoke
William Wallace

Director
Terrence Malick