Rated R - Running time: 2:50 - Released 12/23/98

Six months ago, audiences reeled at Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a gripping account of World War II in the European theatre of action. Now, writer/director Terrence Malick conveys the story of the fighting in the Pacific theatre with his interpretation of James Jones's autobiographical novel The Thin Red Line. This is the second film adaptation of Jones's novel, but the 1964 version which starred Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) focused primarily on one aspect of the story and differed greatly in style and tone from this film.

Although it provides a nice complement to Spielberg's Ryan, The Thin Red Line cannot be classified as simply its Pacific equivalent. While Ryan was a gutsy narrative in which eight soldiers untertake a specific and deadly task, this film is more a philosophical treatise on the futility of war and the inexplicable nature of man that would take part in it. It does not have a single protagonist, or even a small group, but skips around among the various men of Charlie Company. First Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) is the regular who has seen plenty of action but never gets used to it. Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) is the commanding officer who pushes his men to the limit of endurance. Private Witt (James Caviezel), habitually AWOL, is unable to reconcile the beauty around him with the insanity of the situation. And Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) is the officer who endeavors to protect his men from needless carnage, even if it means defying orders. We glimpse the lives of these men and many others on varying levels of intimacy.

Mainly set on the tropical island of Guadalcanal (the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war), the film deals with the company's pursuit of the elusive Japanese through the palm trees and elephant grass. This starts with an amphibious landing like the one at the beginning of Ryan, but these soldiers find no rain of bullets on the beach. The fighting doesn't start until they make their way farther inland, toward the enemy's hidden bunkers. Director Malick's slow and steady pace gets us used to the physically and emotionally exhausting nature of war, where one can never expect what will happen in the next moment. There are long periods of quiet, many images of local wildlife and island natives, but the tension is always present (thanks in part to Hans Zimmer's masterful musical score), and one can feel the palpable sense of danger even while looking into the eyes of an island bird or a small mammal clinging to a tree.

Voiceovers of poetry and philosphical musings add to the unearthly atmosphere. The subjects of immortality and honor, the origins of evil, and the many battles of nature are eloquently contemplated by the voice of an anonymous soldier even as we see the imagery that might provoke such insights.

The absence of a central figure or definite plot line may be this film's only weakness. Though it is an intentional device designed to convey the tedium and random nature of the subject, it sometimes causes a sense of stalling or a lack of focus, especially since the film is nearly three hours in length. One can see some subtle borrowings from such war classics as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but nothing so blatant as to be construed as copying those films' styles. The acting is superb throughout, and the authenticity is certainly there. The late author Jones, who also wrote the novels that inspired From Here To Eternity and The Longest Day, would be proud to see this highly thoughtful version of his work. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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