[Screen It]


(1998) (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte) (R)

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Drama: A disparate group of American soldiers tries to wrest control of Guadalcanal from Japanese forces during WWII.
It's 1942 in the Pacific realm of WWII and American soldiers have landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal. Meeting no initial resistance, the American forces, including gruff Lt. Colonel Gordon Tall (NICK NOLTE) and cynical Charlie company commander First Sgt. Edward Welsh (SEAN PENN), make their way through the coastal jungles hoping to capture a coveted airstrip.

As they and the other soldiers, including privates Witt (JIM CAVIEZEL) and Bell (BEN CHAPLIN), corporal Fife (ADRIEN BRODY), sergeant Keck (WOODY HARRELSON), and their captain, James Staros (ELIAS KOTEAS), soon learn, however, the Japanese occupy several hilltop bunkers from which they can defend the advances of the Allied forces.

Faced with heavy casualties, Staros disobeys a direct order from Tall to rush the bunkers, a move he sees as unnecessarily suicidal. With Tall sending in one of his own men, Captain John Gaff (JOHN CUSACK) to lead the charge, the infantry men try to take the bunker while also dealing with their own reactions regarding the horrors of war that surround them.

Those thinking this is another "Saving Private Ryan" may want to, as might any who are fans of someone in the cast, but it's highly unlikely this symbolism laden, highly philosophical film will catch on with teenage audiences.
For realistic war violence and language.
  • Few of the characters are well-defined, but here's a quick look at their surface characteristics.
  • NICK NOLTE plays a hard-nosed colonel who sees this battle as his army career "birth right" and doesn't care if many men lose their lives in his quest for glory.
  • SEAN PENN plays a cynical platoon leader.
  • JIM CAVIEZEL plays a soldier who returns to the unit after being AWOL.
  • BEN CHAPLIN plays the soldier fixated on his wife back home.
  • WOODY HARRELSON plays a gung-ho soldier.
  • ELIAS KOTEAS plays the unit's captain who won't allow his men to be unnecessarily put into harm's way.
  • JOHN CUSACK plays a resourceful captain who leads the charge against the enemy stronghold.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    In this era of political correctness, it has become exceedingly difficult to find movie plots or villains that don't offend someone or some specific group of people. Having run the course with deranged, middle-aged white men as the "bad guys" and with audiences long having since grown tired of Vietnam era stories, Hollywood has reached into its past to dredge up the old cinematic favorite -- WWII.

    Featuring a time of heroes and heroism and clearly defined villains (who are now, for the most part, conveniently gone), the genre was seriously reinvigorated by the commercial and artistic success of last summer's hit, "Saving Private Ryan." As such, there's little doubt that the film will inevitably pave the way for a succession of similar pictures, and it's obvious that moviegoers will see this release as the first of many more to come.

    That said, those looking for such clear-cut heroes and villains may be disappointed in the release of "The Thin Red Line." Based on the 60's era novel by James Jones, the film decidedly doesn't fall into the "rah-rah" cheerleader ranks of American war efforts. About as blatantly antiwar as they come, this film has much more in common with the disillusionment-filled "Platoon" (Oliver Stone) and "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola) than Steven Spielberg's equally disturbing, but strongly patriotic "Saving Private Ryan."

    Beyond the inevitable comparisons to Spielberg's film, this picture will also be highly scrutinized over the return of director Terrence Malick. Resurfacing after a self-imposed, two decade long exile from filmmaking, Malick, who helmed the critically lauded but little seen films "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" during the 70's, barely seems to have missed a beat during the intervening years.

    Based on the historical account of the bloody skirmish in Guadalcanal during the early 1940's, the film features some incredibly taut and suspenseful battle scenes. Much like "Ryan," the film features stunning visuals and camera work (courtesy of cinematographer John Toll) and focuses on assaulting and overtaking an enemy stronghold. While such sequences last much longer in this film, they're often staged and executed in such a brilliant way that they're simultaneously nerve- wracking and exhilarating.

    Unfortunately, they only account for about half of this nearly three-hour long film. For the rest of that time, Malick relentlessly uses the sledgehammer approach in proving the point that war is hell, utter madness, and genuinely idiotic. While few will argue those points, it's too bad that Malick, who also adapted the screenplay from Jones' novel, seems to think he's the first to point out such matters.

    As such, he fills the picture with stereotypically angry, confused and frightened young men who react to the horrors of what they're experiencing, while also overusing multiple voice-overs to drive home his philosophical and symbolic points.

    While Spielberg more effectively and efficiently managed to do the same in "Ryan" without "preaching to the choir" -- he accomplished it through sheer visceral impact (along with overall brilliant filmmaking and sympathetic characters) -- and other films such as "Apocalypse Now" clearly show the horrific effects of war, the attempt here is much too obvious and inevitably hurts the film.

    After hammering home that symbolism and other bits about nature being both beautiful and ruthless in its own way and right, Malick pushes such matters too far when he finally shows a helpless chick flailing about on the ground. Beyond wanting to scream "Enough already!" at that moment, I kept waiting for the careless military boot to unknowingly stomp down on the little birdy to further emphasize his point.

    At least Malick shows that much restraint, but after too many scenes of American and Japanese soldiers crying and otherwise adversely reacting to the atrocities surrounding them we simply become numb to the overall effect.

    To make matters worse, the film's at least an hour too long -- during which its momentum and story structure all but dry up as the picture meanders toward its anti-climatic conclusion -- and the characters -- who repeatedly appear and then disappear without much explanation -- aren't much more than "nature's pawns" for Malick to manipulate around his symbolic war chessboard.

    That's not to say that the performances are weak. On the contrary, they're quite uniformly strong. It's just that the characters appear to be nothing more than advanced elements of nature to Malick. Just as the bats, a twice-seen crocodile and the other critters that seem to watch the horrors in befuddled fascination (or complete disinterest -- it's hard to tell), the human characters are present simply to do the same.

    As such, Malick prevents us from ever identifying with any of them or truly feeling the deep sympathy for them that we should (as occurs with Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" and Charlie Sheen in "Platoon"). Whether that's the director's intended goal or not is unclear, but it certainly keeps the audience emotionally detached from the characters -- a big "no-no" for a picture like this. Although you'll probably remember the intense battle scenes, most of the characters -- save a few -- will probably be a blur once you leave the theater.

    That said, the clear standout is Nick Nolte ("U Turn") as the gruff colonel who doesn't want anyone to ruin his lifelong dream of war glory. Although much of his dimensionality is supplied through his character's voice-over narration (which does nothing but remind one of Martin Sheen's in "Apocalypse Now"), Nolte does a fine and believable job in the role. Equally as good is Elias Koteas ("Fallen") as his subordinate who refuses to follow his commander's suicidal orders. The film's closest effort to matching the brilliant performance that Tom Hanks delivered in "Ryan" (as the decent man caught up in indecent circumstances), Koteas delivers a fine performance.

    The rest of the performances are fine -- especially John Cusack ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Sean Penn ("Hurlyburly") and Woody Harrelson ("The Hi-Lo Country") as soldiers with distinctive battle philosophies -- but others suffer from inadequately developed characters. Brief cameos by the likes of George Clooney ("The Peacemaker") and John Travolta ("A Civil Action") do nothing for the film except derail its momentum as it -- and the audience -- pause to wonder why Malick cast them in such small roles, presumably aware of their distraction factor.

    Of course many ordinary moviegoers -- not the lofty film critics -- will leave the film with many such questions. Among them is why isn't there more historical or tactical information about the actual battle of Guadalcanal? Why isn't the rest of the movie -- especially the goofy new age and philosophical jabbering -- as good as the brilliantly staged battle scenes? And finally, didn't Malick watch any of the previously mentioned war movies or TV shows (especially "M*A*S*H*") during his career hiatus that would have prevented him from overusing the now tired "war is hell on everybody and everything" motif?

    Although half the film is terrifically engrossing and presents wonderful visuals throughout, the story completely falls apart whenever the hilltop bunker siege isn't featured, and the often shallowly developed, one-note characters never fully allow the audience to connect with them.

    While the film will undoubtedly please Malick's followers, it could have been much shorter, more engaging, and definitely much better. Nowhere near as brilliant or disturbing as Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" -- despite the overly obvious philosophical and symbolic efforts, and mainly due to its own storytelling deficiencies -- "The Thin Red Line" still manages to receive a decent rating simply due to its moments of greatness. Although it's wildly uneven, overly preachy and too ostentatiously highbrow for its own good, we give the film a 7 out of 10.

    Here's a quick summary of the content found in this R-rated film. War-related violence is extreme, with many people being killed via various means (explosions, gunshots, being stabbed with bayonets, etc...) and the results are often gruesome and bloody (although not even in the same visceral ballpark as "Saving Private Ryan") and quite suspenseful.

    Profanity is also extreme with more than 10 "f" words and an assortment of other profanities and religious phrases used as exclamations. Some slightly sensuous moments occur between a husband and wife, and we see nonsexual nudity in the form of naked villagers and the bare butts of some skinny dipping soldiers.

    Beyond some drinking and smoking and the obvious bad attitudes associated with war, the rest of the film's categories are mostly free of any major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness, we suggest that you take a closer look at what's been listed.

  • During some "R and R" we see soldiers with bottles of booze.
  • Welsh drinks liquor from the bottle.
  • We see some bottles of liquor near soldiers during a brief poker game.
  • The men come across two dead soldiers, one with bloody stumps where his legs used to be, and another whose severed arm is lying next to him.
  • We see more bloody and wounded soldiers (none that are too graphic) and also see some blood wafting away in a stream as a soldier washes off a stretcher.
  • More soldiers are wounded during a battle scene and are bloody (including blood squirting onto a plant and what looked like a possible severed finger).
  • More wounded soldiers are bloody in varying degrees.
  • We see more dead bodies and the mostly covered face of a dead soldier.
  • We see that an American soldier has pulled out the teeth of several dead (or wounded) enemy soldiers (we see the bloody teeth).
  • Several dogs feed on what appear to be human remains.
  • It's always hard to judge war-based movies in this category since the opposing forces obviously try to kill each other (which in itself would rate as an extreme, but just like the Church forgives killing during wars, we cut the characters a little slack in these matters).
  • We learn that Witt has been AWOL again.
  • Some may see Tall's insistence to send the troops to their likely deaths as having both, while others may see Capt. Staros as having both for disobeying direct orders.
  • We learn that a soldier's wife wants a divorce after she's been cheating on him.
  • Much of the movie -- especially regarding the soldiers landing on the island and then slowly making their way toward a hilltop bunker (including many battle scenes) are quite intense and suspenseful.
  • We also see many instances of wounded soldiers screaming and writhing in agony in scenes that may be unsettling or upsetting to viewers (as might the sight of dead bodies).
  • A small reconnaissance team finds a platoon of enemy soldiers and must try to avoid them.
  • Artillery/Handguns/Rifles/Machine Guns/Grenades/Bayonets: Used to threaten, wound or kill many people during battle scenes.
  • Phrases: "Screwed" (nonsexual) and "Hauled ass."
  • None.
  • A mild amount of suspenseful and otherwise ominous sounding music occurs during the film.
  • None.
  • At least 11 "f" words (1 used sexually), 5 "s" words, 10 hells, 3 S.O.B.'s, 3 damns, 2 asses, and 23 uses of "G-damn" and 1 use of "Jesus Christ" as exclamations.
  • We see several nude villagers on an island (bare breasts, some bare butts) in nonsexual, "National Geographic"-like circumstances.
  • We see several flashback images of Bell and his wife (or occasionally perhaps her and another man since we don't always see the man's face) caressing and/or being intimate in some briefly sensuous scenes. In one, Bell caresses his wife's clothed breasts, and we then see them moving down onto a bed with some heavy breathing (but don't see any nudity or more graphic activity). We do, however, see her lying nude and face down in a bathtub (but only see her bare back).
  • After being wounded by his own exploding grenade, a soldier laments that "I can't f*ck no more."
  • We see a few of the soldiers' bare butts as they go skinny dipping during "R and R."
  • Many soldiers and some officers smoke during the film, including Welsh and Tall (and John Travolta in a small role), but it's never excessive.
  • A character comments (through voice-over narration) about his mother's death.
  • A soldier learns that his wife wants a divorce.
  • Whether the film is historically accurate or not (and the real life events upon which it's based).
  • That war is filled with unspeakable atrocities and truly is hell.
  • We see two dead soldiers who have missing or severed body parts.
  • Some artillery lands near the soldiers and we then see two of them get shot. Moments later, many more are shot or hit with artillery and are wounded or killed.
  • More people are shot and killed during a later skirmish.
  • A soldier is partially blown up by his own grenade.
  • Many more soldiers on both sides are shot and killed (or blown up or impaled with bayonets) in several subsequent and prolonged battle scenes.
  • A soldier shoots a prisoner and repeatedly punches another.
  • We briefly see a fistfight.
  • Several more soldiers are shot and killed.

  • Reviewed January 4, 1999 / Posted on January 8, 1999

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