The Thin Red Line is a 1998 war film which tells a fictional story of United States forces during the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II with the focus on the men in C Company, most notably Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and his conflicted feelings about fighting in the war, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and his desire to win the battle at any cost in order to get a promotion, and Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) and the dissolution of his marriage back home while he fights in the war.
The film marked director Terrence Malick's return to filmmaking after a twenty year absence. Malick adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by James Jones, which had previously been adapted in a 1964 film. The film features a large ensemble cast. The project took 20 years to make as Malick spent years researching and deciding whether or not to do it. Once it was announced that he would be returning to filmmaking, many big name movie stars expressed interest in appearing in the film, including Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Jason Patric, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke acted in the movie, but their scenes were eventually removed. Reportedly, the first assembled cut took seven months to edit and ran three and a half hours, with Thornton contributing three hours of narrative voice-over material, none of which was ultimately used.
Thin Red Line was not successful at the North American box office where it only grossed $36 million, well below its $52 million budget. Critical response was generally strong and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best in Cinematography, Best in Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best in Sound Mixing. It won the top prize at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival. Martin Scorsese ranked it as his second favorite film of the 1990s on Roger Ebert's television show.
The men of C Company have been brought to Guadalcanal as reinforcements in the campaign to seize the island from the Japanese. As they wait in the holds of a Navy transport, they contemplate their lives and the impending invasion. On deck, Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) talks with his commanding officer, Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), about the invasion and its importance. Tall's voice over reveals that he has been passed over for promotion and this battle may be his last chance to command a victorious operation.
C Company lands on Guadalcanal unopposed and hikes to the interior of the island, encountering little evidence of a Japanese presence at all. At one point they find the mutilated bodies of two G.I.s. They arrive near Hill 210, a key Japanese position. The Japanese have placed a bunker housing several machine guns at the top of the hill, giving them full view of the valley below. Any force attempting to climb the hill can be easily cut down by machine-gun fire and mortar rounds.
A brief shelling of the hill begins the next day at dawn. Shortly after, C Company attempts to take the hill and are repulsed by gunfire from the bunker. Among the first killed in the battle is the leader of the attacking platoon, Second Lieutenant Whyte (Jared Leto). During the battle, Colonel Tall fiercely orders his field officer, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to take the bunker by frontal assault, whatever the cost. Staros refuses, not wanting his men to be cannon fodder. The two reach a stalemate, so Tall decides to join Staros on the front line to see the situation for himself. By the time he arrives, the Japanese resistance seems to have lessened, and Tall's opinion of Staros seems to have been sealed. Also, during the battle, Pvt. Witt, having been assigned punitively as a stretcher bearer, asks to rejoin the company, and is permitted to do so.
A small detachment of men perform a reconnaissance mission on Tall's orders to determine the strength of the Japanese bunker. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) reports back that there are five machine guns in the bunker. He joins another small detachment of men, led by Captain Gaff (John Cusack), on a mission to take the bunker. The operation is a success and the rest of C Company are then able to overun one of the last Japanese strongholds on the island. They are successful in this regard; the Japanese they find are largely malnourished, dying and put up little resistance.
A long stretch of the story then centers on the personal lives and moral views of the men. Staros is relieved of his command for disobeying Tall's orders. Tall nevertheless promises to recommend Staros for several decorations and JAG duty in Washington, D.C. – he does not want the unit's name to be stained by the fact of having an officer removed from command. Elsewhere, Private Bell receives a letter from his wife asking him for a divorce. Witt leaves the company to find another native village, only to find that his sense of peace in such places has been shaken, as he sees that even here there is horror and evil. He returns to the company before his departure has been noted. A conversation involving Sgt. Welsh and Witt follows, revealing that Welsh is unhappy around other people. The scene highlights Witt's devotion to the spark of light and glory he sees in people, even in death.
The unit is sent out on another mission further into the interior of the island. Witt and two other men (One of whom is played by Adrian Brody) are sent out but find that their unit is heavily outnumbered and must retreat, however, getting word back to Lieutenant Band (Paul Gleeson), who has replaced Staros as the Company Commander, will be difficult since they are surrounded. Witt decides to act as a decoy and lure the Japanese away from his two companions and the rest of their unit. He succeeds in drawing the Japanese away, but in the course of retreating, is surrounded when he runs into a small clearing. Prohibited from taking prisoners but unwilling to kill without honor, a Japanese soldier asks Witt to lower his gun because he does not wish to kill him unlike Witt who has killed many of the Japanese soldier's friends. He raises his rifle and is instantly shot. The unit later finds his body and buries it on the island. The film ends with another new commanding officer (George Clooney) taking over C Company, and the campaign coming to a close with the unit boarding transport ships to leave the island.
Malick began adapting The Thin Red Line on January 1, 1989. Five months later, the producers received his first draft that was 300 pages in length. According to an article in Entertainment Weekly magazine, they 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 enlisted by the U.S. Army to communicate in their native Navajo language in case Japanese troops intercepted radio transmissions, making his travel plans and helping the director and his wife Michele get a mortgage for their Paris apartment.
The producers spent a lot of time talking with Malick about his vision of the film. Geisler 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." Malick spent years working on other projects, including a stage production of Sansho the Bailiff and a script known as The English-Speaker, spending $2 million of the producers' money, half of which for writing. In 1990, the director met with James Jones' daughter Kaylie and his widow Gloria about adapting The Thin Red Line into a film. By January 1995, Geisler and Roberdeau were broke and pressured Malick to decide which one he would complete. They approached Malick's former agent, Mike Medavoy who was setting up his own production company, Phoenix Pictures, and he agreed to give them $100,000 to start work on The Thin Red Line. Medavoy had a deal with Sony Pictures and Malick began scouting locations in Panama and Costa Rica before settling on the jungles of Northern Australia. In April 1997, three months before filming, Sony pulled the plug while crews were building the sets in Queensland because new studio chairman John Calley did not think Malick could make his movie with the proposed $52 million budget. The director traveled to Los Angeles with Medavoy to pitch the project to various studios. 20th Century Fox agreed to put up $39 million of the budget with the stipulation that Malick cast five movie stars from a list of ten who were interested. Pioneer Films, a Japanese company, contributed $8 million to the budget, and Phoenix added a further $3 million.
Edward Norton flew out to Austin and met Malick, who had been impressed by the actor's screen test for Primal Fear. Matthew McConaughey reportedly took a day off filming A Time to Kill to see Malick. Others followed, including William Baldwin, Edward Burns and Leonardo DiCaprio who flew up from the Mexico set of Romeo + Juliet to meet Malick at the American Airlines lounge in the Austin airport. Before the casting was finalized, Nicolas Cage had lunch with Malick in Hollywood in February 1996. The director went off to scout locations and tried calling the actor that summer only to find out that his phone number had been disconnected. Malick felt insulted and refused to even consider Cage for a part. Malick told Tom Sizemore that he wanted him for a role in his film and the actor agreed. Sizemore, however, was offered a more substantial role in Saving Private Ryan and when he could not contact Malick for several days, decided to do Steven Spielberg's film instead.
To appease the studio, Malick cast George Clooney in a small role. Geisler remembers, "Terry was worried that having a big star like Clooney play a character who enters the film near the end would be distracting." James Caviezel, who was cast as Private Witt and later went on to fame after portraying Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ, credits Malick's casting of him as the turning point in his career. Cinematographer John Toll began talking to Malick in August 1996 several times over the phone about the film. Toll met Malick in September of the same year and was asked to do the film in the beginning of 1997. Malick and Toll began location scouting in February 1997 and started principal photography in June of that year.
Malick and Toll scouted the actual battlefields on Guadalcanal and shot footage but the logistics were too difficult to shoot the entire film there. The Thin Red Line was filmed predominantly in the Daintree Rainforest in north Queensland, Australia. Filming also took place on Dancer mountain which had such rough terrain that trailers and production trucks could not make it up the hill. A base camp was set up at its base and roads carved out of the mountain. Transporting 250 actors and 200 crew members up the hill took two hours. Malick's unconventional filming techniques included shooting part of a scene during a bright, sunny morning only to finish it weeks later at sunset. He would make a habit of pointing the camera away during an action sequence and focus on a parrot, a tree branch or other fauna. Malick's reputation and working methods commanded great respect among the actors with both Woody Harrelson and John Savage staying on for an extra month after they finished all of their scenes just to watch the director at work. He shot for 100 days in Australia, 24 in the Solomon Islands and three in the United States. The decision not to shoot on the island of Guadalcanal was a practical one. It has a 50% rate of malaria and it lacked logistical feasibility. As director of photography John Toll said, "It's still a bit difficult to get on and off the island, and we had some scenes that involved 200 or 300 extras. We would have had to bring everybody to Guadalcanal, and financially it just didn't make sense.
In addition to the cast seen in the final cut of the film, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke also performed, but their scenes were eventually cut. Editor Leslie Jones was on location for five months and rarely saw Malick, who left her to her own devices. After principal photography wrapped, she came back with a five-hour first cut and spent seven months editing, with Thornton contributing three hours of narrative voice-over material. It was at this point that editor Billy Weber came on board and they spent 13 months in post-production and the last four months mixing the film, using four Avid machines with a fifth added at one point. There were no preview screenings but several in-house ones, the largest of which was attended by 15 people for marketing executives. The editors faced the challenge of blending footage of veteran actors with less-experienced ones, integrating the many cameos, and the voice-overs. According to Jones, "Malick removed scenes with dialogue whenever possible, with the final film varying greatly from the original concept." Four months after principal photography, Malick invited Toll to a rough cut screening of the film. In December 1998, Toll did the first color correction at the lab prior to the film's release in North America.
The editing also resulted in many of the well-known cast members being on screen for only a brief period: for example, John Travolta and George Clooney's appearances are little more than cameos, yet Clooney's name appears prominently in the marketing of the movie. The unfinished film was screened for the New York press on December 1998 and Adrien Brody attended a screening to find that his originally significant role, "to carry the movie, as he put it, had been reduced to two lines and approximately five minutes of screen time. Malick was upset that the studio screened his unfinished version for critics and Penn ended up helping him in the editing room, shaping the final version. Malick spent three more months and cut 45 additional minutes from the film. The director refused to subject his film to test screenings before delivering his final cut. After Geisler and Roberdeau told their story to Vanity Fair magazine, Medavoy's attorneys declared them in breach of contract and threatened to remove their names from the film unless they agreed to do no future interviews until after the Academy Awards.
Critical responses were generally strong. Currently, the film has a rating of 79% on Rotten Tomatoes (95% for their "Cream of the Crop" designation) and 78 metascore on Metacritic. Roger Ebert gave it three stars, saying that it felt confused and unfinished, but was "fascinating... The battle scenes themselves are masterful, in creating a sense of the geography of a particular hill, the way it is defended by Japanese bunkers, the ways in which the American soldiers attempt to take it . . . Actors like Sean Penn, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin find the perfect tone for scenes of a few seconds or a minute, and then are dropped before a rhythm can be established. Mike Clark of USA Today gave the film four out of four stars. In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O'Sullivan wrote, "The Thin Red Line is a movie about creation growing out of destruction, about love where you'd least expect to find it and about angels – especially the fallen kind – who just happen to be men. In her review for the New York Times, however, Janet Maslin wrote, "The heart-piercing moments that punctuate its rambling are glimpses of what a tighter film might have been. Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "B-" in his review for Entertainment Weekly and wrote, "The Thin Red Line could, I think, turn out to be this season's Beloved, a movie too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences. Martin Scorsese ranked it as his second favorite film of the 1990s on Roger Ebert's television show. Jonathan Rosenbaum, a film critic for the Chicago Reader, ranked Malick's film as his second favorite film of 1999.
The Thin Red Line was named Best Cinematography for 1998 by the National Society of Film Critics in 1998.