Thin Red Line [1998]

Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin
Genre: Drama, War
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 170 minutes

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

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