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Film: The Thin Red Line

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.

It was made into a movie twice, in 1964 and 1998. The more famous of the two adaptations (the 1998 one) was created by legendary reclusive auteur filmmaker Terrence 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.

Please note that this article is first and foremost about the 1998 film; examples exclusive to the novel or the 1964 adaptation will be noted as such.

See also From Here to Eternity, also by James Jones.

DEFINITELY not to be confused with The Thin Blue Line.

This work contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: A truly crushing example with Bell and his wife.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Witt. The film elevates his altruism (already evident in the book) to near-messianic proportions, and does away with his eminent character flaws, such as his racism and his highly volatile temper. He also gets a Heroic Sacrifice at the end.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Capt. James "Bugger" Stein becomes Capt. James "Bugger" Staros (Elias Koteas). His ethnicity is also changed from Jewish American to Greek American, making this a case of Actor-Shared Background.
  • Adapted Out: several important characters do not make it into the cast of the movie.
  • Ambition Is Evil: in the 1998 film, the antagonistic LTC Tall is unconcerned with the losses in the battle because a successful attack is his last chance at a promotion. In the book, the nearly-amoral Dale is motivated by his desire to become a sergeant.
  • 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 Train 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?
  • A Father to His Men: Capt. Staros is specifically described as this.
    Staros: You're like my sons. (...) You are my sons.
  • The Alcoholic / Functional Addict: Welsh is an alcoholic even by the standards of C Company (e.g. he's the only person who opts to keep gin rather than water in his hip flasks), yet still makes a competent First Sergeant.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Author Avatar: Cpl. Fife.
  • 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.
    • Not only that, but for some reason John Travolta isn't listed on the poster or in the trailer. Now, this could be understandable, given how he only has roughly two scenes that come near the beginning-middle of the film, but the fact that they easily outmatch Clooney's one cameo in length leaves one confused as to why he would be substituted. Adding to the perplexity is that Travolta is practically the only A-List talent in the film's final cut whose name isn't on the poster.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The soldiers manage to take Guadalcanal, but many of the characters don't make it.
  • 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."
  • Blood Knight: the excessively savage Dale.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Queen, in the book.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough
    A unit is like a family. Every family has a father, that's me. Sergeant Welsh here is the mother.
  • Card Sharp: Nellie Coombs (in the novel).
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Witt.
  • Communications Officer: Cpl. Fife serves as the company's radioman in the first battle.
  • Composite Character: in the film Keck (Woody Harrelson) combines elements of Keck and Big Un Cash from the book.
  • Compressed Adaptation: 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.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Bell gets one, much to his grief. It's a literal example as well, since his name is John ("Jack" in the film).
  • Death by Adaptation: In the 1964 film, Welsh dies in a Heroic Sacrifice moment.
  • 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!
  • Defector from Decadence: Witt, with his pacifist worldview, repeatedly goes AWOL. The beginning of the film has him enjoying life in a Melanesian village.
  • Demoted to Extra: Adrien Brody was cast in the lead role. You'd be forgiven for not noticing he was even in the movie.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Half The entire movie, but especially the tracking shots through the tall-grass during the hill assault.
    • There is also a scene with the capture of the bunker, where one of the Japanese soldiers sits meditating in the middle of all the carnage surrounding him.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted in general. The film is pretty brutal, warfare is not depicted as something overly glamorous 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
  • During the War: War Was Beginning long beforehand.
  • Epic Movie: See All-Star Cast above.
  • 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.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Witt recalls his mother's quiet acceptance of her impending demise and hopes he will act the same way when the time comes. He does.
  • Field Promotion / Rank Up: happens everywhere in the book, the most notable examples being John Bell and "Skinny" Culn), two NCOs who get a commission.
  • The Film of the Book: Two of them. Both are pretty faithful to the source material.
  • Foil: Lt. Col. Tall to Capt. Staros (the former is career-oriented, the latter is genuinely sensitive to the needs of his men); Welsh (the materialist with an individualistic outlook on life) to Witt (the idealist who believes himself to be part of a bigger whole).
    • The 1964 movie pitts Welsh (a career military who plays by the rules of the war) and Doll (a survivalist opportunist) against each other.
  • Foreshadowing: Witt's mom's death.
  • Freak Out: McCron suffers a nervous breakdown after all of his men are killed in battle.
  • 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."
    • Brass Band in the book, called "Glory Hunter" behind his back.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Both the Japanese and American soldiers commit atrocities and suffer During the War.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Witt (in the book only), Lt. Col. Tall (in the film only).
  • 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.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: in the 1998 film Witt draws the attention of an approaching Japanese column to buy time for the rest of his unit to escape. He gets surrounded and allows himself to get gunned down.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Welsh's gruff, cynical exterior and pragmatic worldview effectively hide the compassion that he feels for his men.
    Witt: You care about me, don't you, sergeant? I always felt like you did. Why do you always make yourself out like a rock?
  • Holding Hands: the dying Bead asks Fife to hold his hand.
  • 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."
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Witt, in the 1998 film.
  • It Has Been an Honor: in an odd variation, Staros implies this to his men after being relieved of command.
  • It Never Gets Any Easier: "Have you ever had anyone die in your arms, sir?"
  • Jumping on a Grenade: Sgt. Keck, after he accidentally detonates his own.
  • 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)
  • Lack of Empathy: "combat numbness" (Emotion Suppression induced by the horrors of the war) leads everyone to temporarily lose the ability to feel. Discussed in the movie, when Storm remarks that he's no longer able to empathize with the suffering around him and Welsh wishes he could say the same about himself.
    • Emotions Versus Stoicism: characters in the book note that failing to feel anything does wonders for their performance in combat.
  • Like a Son to Me
    Tall: You feel like a son to me, John. [beat] You know what my son does? He's a bait salesman.
  • Literary Allusion Title: to a Rudyard Kipling poem, which also makes up half of the book's epigraph. (It's also an allusion to a Midwestern saying, which makes up the other half).
  • 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.
  • Mangst: all the characters, for various reasons.
  • 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.)
  • Meaningful Name: the book notes that, oddly enough, Welsh is actually of Welsh origins.
  • Mercy Kill: a variation occurs when Welsh delivers morphine to the mortally wounded Tella, who proceeds to shoot himself up with it.
  • Military Moonshiner: Nellie Coombs in the novel.
  • 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.
  • Narrator All Along: a variation. Significant portions of the voice-over (including the opening monologue) cannot be immediately attributed to any of the major characters; the ending shows them to be the thoughts of Pvt. Train.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Not So Stoic: the normally indifferent and composed Welsh sheds a few tears at Witt's grave.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: Witt's death.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting : At the beginning, the requiem "In Paradisum" from Gabriel Fauré. There are also Ominous Melanesian Chanting at some points.
  • The Philosopher: Witt, a fact which is especially evident in his inner monologues.
    • Train (the red-haired private) is responsible for the film's first and last monologues.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Capt. Staros, who prays for his men's safety before battle.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Capt. Stein/Staros, who (at the cost of his career) refuses a direct order for what he deems a suicidal frontal attack. His successor, Capt. Bosche, appears to be this, too, at least in the book.
  • The Resenter: Lt. Col. Tall was passed over for promotion (in the film only).
  • 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.
  • Situational Sexuality: occurs several times in the book, the earliest example being between Fife and Bead.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: the film is a rumination on war and nature; initially it shows the world in a pessimistic light, noting the conflict between the two powers of nature - however, the final scenes suggest that our universe is essentially harmonious.
    • The sliding scale also appears in arguments between Witt (idealism) and Welsh (cynicism).
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Dale, although he does have a Heel Realization in the film (in the book, not so much).
  • Southern-Fried Private: The highly-articulate variety.
  • Standard Snippet: Journey To The Line has become one.
  • Swing Low Sweet Harriet: Bell's wife.
  • Team Chef: Sgt. Storm is the company cook, which the book (unlike the movie) makes clear.
  • Team Mom: in the book, McCron has the reputation of a "mother hen". Additionally, in both the 1998 film and the book Captain Bosche refers to Welsh's role within the company as this.
  • Token Good Teammate: Witt.
  • War Is Hell:
  • 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.
    • While less prominent in the film, it is one the novel's major themes; the characters' inner workings often deal with them battling the realization that they could get away with immoral things during war.

The Thief of BagdadCreator/The Criterion CollectionThings To Come
StripesMilitary and Warfare FilmsThree Kings
Saving Private RyanAcademy AwardAmerican Beauty
The Ten CommandmentsEpic MovieThe Tree of Life
MidwayWorks Set in World War IIThe Human Condition
There's Something About MaryFilms of the 1990sThursday

alternative title(s): The Thin Red Line
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