Monday, April 20, 2015

Top 97 Things I Love About The Thin Red Line (that no one talks about) Part 1

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is the best war film I’ve ever seen. I’ve always considered it one of my favorite films of all time, and in watching it for this post, I couldn’t contain my praise. So, for the first time, I’m splitting one of my “That No One Talks About” lists into two parts. Part 1 today, Part 2 later this week. I hope you enjoy my thoughts on this film. And fair warning: I’m discussing The Thin Red Line in full here. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest doing so immediately, then, if you want, coming back and checking out these posts. Enjoy!

Could be my favorite opening shot of all time. And with Hans Zimmer’s organs blaring on the soundtrack… my God, the power. From frame one, we know we’re in for something we’ve never seen before.

That kid in the front, looking right into the camera. Is he looking at us, or does the camera represent the POV of one of the American soldiers on the island?

The melody of this rotating rock game.

That slight whip pan that reveals Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). He looks so effortlessly at peace.

The five second dissolve of the mothers with the children, to Witt remembering his dying mother.

The dreamy shot of Witt’s mother being taken back to God.

The very slight sound of this girl’s heartbeat. Is she an angel?

The mother’s house doesn’t have a roof, as if she has a clear path to Heaven.

This shot always brings tears to my eyes (even though it only lasts for four seconds). We should all be lucky enough to love life that much.

The fact that this massive, industrial, American thing looks so terrifying among the harmony of the village.

The way the boy playfully kicks the dog as everyone is running. You can’t write that stuff.

All of Witt’s love is stripped away the moment he sees the ship. Now it’s just fear.

You can always count on Sean Penn to have really, really great hair.

The horror that comes over Witt’s face when he learns he now has to remove wounded soldiers from battle.

“I can take anything you dish out. I’m twice the man you are.”

The soft, perfect lighting of these two sequential shots.

I love the editing of the John Travolta sequence. Starts with Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) deep in thought, then goes back 10 minutes to see why he’s so deep in thought. Then ends back where it began. It’s a perfect little short film in its own right.

Also, it’s pretty amusing that John Travolta’s character is the highest ranking military officer we meet in the film.

This long, silent stare.

“Do you feel it?”
“Yes sir.”

The way Travolta offers Nolte a cigarette, but Nolte insists on lighting Travolta’s cigarette for him.

First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) growing increasingly annoyed by Pvt. Train (John Dee Smith) loudly expressing his fear.

Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody) looking very nervous because of Train’s verbal paranoia.

This brief scene so poignantly observes how people handle the moment before certain death. Train is obviously very anxious, Welsh is relaxed, Fife is terrified, and these guys are fucking screaming at the door, daring the battle to begin.

These two guys having a very insubordinate conversation about how their captain, Cpt. Staros (Elias Koteas), is always “screwing” them.

And then the telling shot of Staros as he listens to this conversation, but does nothing to stop it.

The gentle moment of Staros quietly telling Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) to put his helmet on.

Tall yelling “Gangway! Comin’ through!” at the top of his lungs as he walks away from Staros.

If you saw The Thin Red Line in the theater, then you likely saw it a few months after first seeing Saving Private Ryan. Seeing these small boats in The Thin Red Line, we’re almost certain that once the soldiers hit the beach, they will be slaughtered like the men who stormed Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. That fear is what ultimately makes this scene in The Thin Red Line that much more memorable. Nothing is waiting for them. They’re forced to sustain their dread.

If you watch The Thin Red Line with the subtitles on, it actually tells you which character is saying which lines of voiceover, which seems counterintuitive to what Malick was going for. Still, it’s very interesting that Pvt. Train accounts for about 80 percent of all the voiceover in the film. Interesting because, aside from his anxious flip-out to Sean Penn’s Welsh on the ship, the Train character isn’t really in the film that much.

The way the soldiers keep flinching out of fear as they walk on the island. They aren’t jumping at the sight of the enemy. They’re jumping because they’re so fucking terrified. This is one of the reasons The Thin Red Line is superior to Saving Private Ryan. There’s a sense of constant dread over Malick’s film. Of eternal hell and fear of the unknown. Saving Private Ryan uses this walking-through-the-field scene as a source of humor. Malick prefers not to see the humor in war, and I think it is far more effective.

The sound mixing of this film is so rarely discussed. I love the way Malick brings the auditory levels of pain and anguish down, just barely keeping them in the mix. Instead, he often favors Zimmer’s score and the narration. It’s such a useful way to keep the emotional violence in the forefront of the audience’s mind.

Witt consoling an injured soldier by pouring clean water on his head and neck. It’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.

“Only time you worry about a soldier is when he stops bitchin’.”
Tells us everything we need to know about Lt. Col. Tall.

Again with the sound. The wind is so loud and prominent as the Americans discuss their plan of attack. Which makes the jump cut to the near-silent Japanese bunker so goddamn staggering.

Staros praying to his God (and receiving validation from said God via a flickering candle), may be my favorite scene in the entire film. You can’t help but be moved by this man’s compassion.

The fact that this shot is so flawless that it actually looks fake.

The horror on Jared Leto’s face after he sends two of his men to death.

Mere seconds into the battle, there’s a man blown halfway to hell, sitting upright with his hand in the air. From this point on, all hope is lost.

“Calm down calm down calm down calm down.”

On top of everything else, these poor guys have to deal with giant snakes in the grass.

Staros being so battle struck that he can’t form a coherent word when reporting to Tall.

This shot is agony. Kill me.

The Japanese soldiers teasing the Americans from afar.

The life being taken from this tiny leaf.

Dash Mihok. A far better actor than he’s given credit for. Just watch the way his pride is replaced with confusion after he kills a Japanese stretcher bearer.

I always wonder about these things. The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece, one of my very favorite films of all time. But how could those involved in post-production not see this second unit camera crew to the left of this shot? And if they did notice them, why include this shot in the final film?

The POV shot of Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) as he clings on to his last few moments of life. The way the camera whips around in the grass. Then we cut back to Harrelson, and he blankly delivers, “Wha--Where am I?” Such a haunting death scene.

This is rough. Can’t watch this without getting choked up. Sgt. McCron (John Savage) desperately checking his own dog tags, as if he’s forgotten who he is. Savage, you may recall, played Steven in The Deer Hunter, the wheelchair-bound soldier who gets married in the beginning of that film. Still, this scene in The Thin Red Line may be the best acting he’s ever done.

Then, in the next scene, we watch as McCron breaks down in front of the other men.
“I lost all 12. I lost all 12. I’m movin’! I’m movin’! Don’t touch, don’t touch.”
A brief but immensely powerful performance.

More No One Talks About Posts


  1. Shit, there's so many things about that film that I love. That shot of Nick Nolte reciting a poem against that backdrop. Beautiful. I also agree with you on that sequence with Travolta, editing at its finest. It's a film that in my view, gets better every time I watch it. That shot of Dash Mihok killing a Japanese soldier is amazing as it also showed exactly what he is saying in his mind. It is cinema at its purest. Can't wait for Part 2.

    1. Love this comment. So happy you like my picks. This really is cinema at its purest, and I agree, its effect is strengthened every time I watch it. Excited to get Part 2 out there!

  2. #98 The fact that there are 97 Things You Love About The Thin Red Line that NO ONE talks about.

    1. Well, I obviously take liberties with the "no one" part, but yeah, generally speaking, I never hear people talk about the editing of the Travolta sequence, or the fact that Pvt. Train dominates the narration. Among other things.

  3. UGH, the wind! Yes!!! I still remember the way I felt when I heard it take over the scene. Spot on! Love this movie.

    1. Thanks man! Sometimes the most startling thing you can do with sound is take it away. Love that.

  4. The fact that you can never have enough Elias Koteas in your movie.

  5. This was one of the first films I watched where I realised how important sound was to a film, from the action sequences to the deafening silence. I haven't seen this in a while, but I really should watch it again soon. Great work once again, can't wait for Part 2!

    1. Malick really knows how to implore silence in such an effective way. And that jump cut from the harsh wind to the deafening (great work) silence is so startling. I've seen this movie so many times and it never, ever gets old. Thanks for the comment!

  6. One of my personal favorites, a fantastic fusion of music and motion for sheer visual poetry. Agree with your sentiments entirely. Surely the best war film ever made, and on that note- any progress on Come & See? :)

    1. So happy you like the post, and thrilled that you like TTRL so much.

      Damnit! Come & See, I vow to watch it this weekend and report back here. Promise!

  7. This is definitely one of my all time favorite movies as well. It's one of those that just get's better and better every time i watch it. I just recently got the Criterion Collection blu-ray of it as well and it looks absolutely stunning. It's one of the movie beautiful looking movies i have ever seen. And the acting is just fantastic all around as well. Especially from Elias Koteas. Him not getting nominated that year has to be one of the biggest Oscar snubs ever. All the emotions he manages to go through so effortlessly during his time in this movie is absolutely amazing. I can't wait for part 2 of this list.

    1. Love this. It's a serious bummer that Koteas didn't get any awards recognition for this. I suppose he was too unknown at that point, and, for awards voters, was lost among the ensemble. Nolte seems more likely to be nominated, and the fact that he received no recognition is astonishing.

      Any who, really glad you like this movie so much. It's always been one of my absolute favorites. This Criterion is one of my prized films that I own. So happy they gave it the Criterion treatment. Very excited to share part 2... there is PLENTY of Koteas in it :)

    2. Yeah, Nick Nolte was also great here. The scene with those two together has to be some of my favorite movie scenes ever.

    3. Absolutely. I can watch them again and again.

  8. Damn man. This is impressive, comprehensive work. As always with these posts you leave me flailing for words because there are so many I want to use about everything. That opening passage of Witt at peace in his own paradise is something that has always stayed with me and you do a fantastic job isolating even the tiniest moments that make it so moving.

    And this... "Saving Private Ryan uses this walking-through-the-field scene as a source of humor. Malick prefers not to see the humor in war, and I think it is far more effective." It's so true. That opening D Day sequence aside there was so much conventional WWII movie in that one, for better or worse, and "The Thin Red Line" was really going for something different, more complex and spiritual and far-reaching.

    1. I'm so happy you appreciate these posts, and your comments really mean a lot to me. Yeah, nothing against SPR, but save that opening, it is rather conventional. Good conventional, but still stuff we've seen before. I haven't seen anything like TTRL before or since (except maybe other Malick films), and that, to me, is certainly saying something.

  9. Fabulous post! I only saw this movie once, years ago and I agree this is the best war movie ever made. I usually don't like those films filled with combat but this one is different because there are emotions everywhere, as you so well pointed out also present in the sound and cinematography. I really need to rewatch it soon

    1. Thanks so much! I'm really happy to hear that you like this movie so much. It gets better every time you watch it, so I hope you're able to check it out again soon!

  10. Awesome work! It's my favorite war film as well, and on some days it'd crack my top 10 of all time. It's so good that I'm surprised it actually got 7 Oscar nods, especially given Saving Private Ryan's dominance. I should watch it again.

    1. Thanks man! It's definitely in my Top 20 of all time, no question. I love everything about it.

  11. I sometimes think the movie would have been better off had it not had so many stars in it. Adrian Brody, for example, because it's obvious when you watch it that he had a more substantial part. There are moments when you see him acting in the background, but the fact he has no lines just makes it unintentionally funny. It must have been quite the kick in the pants when he found he was no longer the star of the movie.

    1. Well, Adrien Brody was a relative unknown when it was released, and I do wonder that had his removal from most of the film not been so public, would we all have noticed how he's always in the background? But still, the most baffling thing about that whole ordeal is that no one told Brody he was cut before the premiere. I mean, no editor's assistant, no colorist... no one?! That's so messed up.

  12. There is also a lot of symbolism in this whci I forget most of but one is the Open Bird cage at the hut and in case you miss it the first time like a background prop which is specifically focused on the character Witt brings you back to it. Ankther which you m8ght have missed is when they are raiding the camp there is one Japanese guy sitting calmly in meditation in all of the chaos and gun fire that everyone ignores and fights around.

    1. Both great catches there. The Japanese man sitting calmly and meditation is what makes Malick's films so haunting. This movie really helps you empathize with the Japanese soldiers, if ever so fleetingly.