The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line Information

The Thin Red Line is a 1998 American war film written and directed by Terrence Malick. Based on the novel by James Jones, it tells a fictionalized version of the Battle of Mount Austen in the Pacific Theater of World War II. It portrays soldiers of C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, played by Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas and Ben Chaplin. The title echoes a line from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy", from Barrack-Room Ballads, in which he calls foot soldiers "the thin red line of heroes", itself a reference to the stand of the 93rd Regiment in the Crimean War.

The film marked Malick's return to filmmaking after a 20-year absence. It features a large ensemble cast, including performances and cameos by notable actors, including Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and John Travolta. Reportedly, the first assembled cut took seven months to edit and ran five hours. By the final cut, all footage of the performances by Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke had been removed. The film was scored by Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Klaus Badelt, and shot by John Toll. Principal photography took place in Australia in the state of Queensland.

The film grossed $98 million against 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 Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing. It won the Golden Bear at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival. Martin Scorsese ranked it as his second favorite film of the 1990s on At the Movies. Gene Siskel called it "the greatest contemporary war film I've seen".


When the film opens, U.S. Army Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), is AWOL from his unit and living with the easy-going and seemingly carefree Melanesian natives in the South Pacific. He is found and imprisoned on a troop carrier by his company First Sergeant, Welsh (Sean Penn). In Welsh's conversation with Witt, it is clear that the private is unenthusiastic about serving in the army. The men of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division have been brought to Guadalcanal as reinforcements in the campaign to secure Henderson Field and 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, battalion commander 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 marches to the interior of the island, encountering natives and evidence of the Japanese presence and tactics: the mutilated corpses of intercepted Marines and Rangers scouts. 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 is repelled 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, Lieutenant Colonel Tall orders the company commander, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), to take the bunker by frontal assault, at whatever cost. Staros refuses, unwilling to treat his men as cannon fodder. When the two reach a stalemate, 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. Meanwhile, during the battle, Private 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 flanking mission to take the bunker. The operation is a success and C Company stands poised to overrun one of the last Japanese strongholds on the island. They are successful in this regard; the Japanese they find are largely malnourished and dying, and put up little resistance.

For their efforts the men are given a week's leave, although not all of them are able to enjoy it fully. The airfield where they are based comes under Japanese artillery bombardment; Bell, who longs to return to his wife, receives a letter from her, informing him that she has fallen in love with someone else and wishes to divorce; much to his surprise, Captain Staros is relieved of his command by Lieutenant Colonel Tall, who deems him too soft for the pressures of combat and suggests that he apply for reassignment and become a lawyer in the JAG in Washington; Witt comes across the Melanesians and notices that they have suddenly grown more distrustful of him and quarrel regularly with one another.

The company is sent on patrol up a river but with the indecisive and inexperienced 1st Lieutenant George Band (Paul Gleeson) at its head. As Japanese artillery falls close to their positions, Band orders several men to scout upriver, with Witt volunteering to go along. They encounter an advancing Japanese column and are attacked. To buy time for Private Fife (Adrien Brody) to go back and inform the rest of the unit, Witt draws away the Japanese but is then encircled by one of their squads, who demand that he surrender. In a moment of bliss and internal calm, he raises his rifle and is gunned down. The company is able to retreat safely. In the final scene, C Company receives a new commander, Captain Bosche (George Clooney), and boards a waiting LCT, departing from the island.




New York-based producer Bobby Geisler first approached Malick in 1978 and asked him to direct a film adaptation of David Rabe's play In the Boom Boom Room. Malick declined the offer, but instead discussed the idea of a film about the life of Joseph Merrick, but once word got out about David Lynch's The Elephant Man, he shelved the idea. In 1988, Geisler and John Roberdeau met with Malick in Paris about writing and directing a movie based on D. M. Thomas' 1981 novel The White Hotel. Malick declined, but told them that he would instead be willing to write either an adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe, or of James Jones' The Thin Red Line. The producers chose the latter and paid Malick $250,000 to write a screenplay.

Malick began adapting The Thin Red Line on January 1, 1989. Five months later, the producers received his first draft that was 300 pages long. According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, 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 United States Marine Corps 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, he 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 rain forests 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. Malick 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 10 who were interested. Pioneer Films, a Japanese company, contributed $8 million to the budget, and Phoenix added a further $3 million.


Casting for the film became a hot topic. When Sean Penn met Malick, he told him, "Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up". Scripts were also sent to Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise. In 1995, once word went out that Malick was making another movie after many years, numerous actors approached him. At Medavoy's home in 1995, he staged a reading with Martin Sheen delivering the screen directions, and Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Peter Berg, Lukas Haas and Dermot Mulroney playing the main roles. In June of that year, a five-day workshop was scheduled at Medavoy's with Brad Pitt dropping by and culminating with Malick putting on the soundtrack of Where Eagles Dare and playing Japanese taiko drums. Malick even met with an interested Johnny Depp at the Book Soup Bistro on the Sunset Strip.

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, Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Dorff and Leonardo DiCaprio; the latter flew up from the Mexico set of [[William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet|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. Malick went off to scout locations and tried calling Cage 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. Actors Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Lukas Haas and Viggo Mortensen filmed scenes for the movie, but were cut from the final film.

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, 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.

Principal photography

Pre-production went slowly, as Malick had a hard time making decisions. Weeks before filming began, Malick told Geisler and Roberdeau not to show up in Australia where the film was being made because George Stevens Jr. would be the on-location producer supporting line producer Grant Hill. Malick told them that they had upset the studio for refusing to give up above-the-title production credit to Stevens. He did not tell them, however, that in 1996 he had a clause inserted in his contract barring the producers from the set. Geisler and Roberdeau were mystified about this behavior; Geisler told Entertainment Weekly, "I didn't think he was capable of betrayal of this magnitude".

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 and on Bramston Beach, both 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. Filming even took place in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California near Santa Catalina Island. 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 made 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 him at work. He shot for 100 days in Australia using Panavision cameras and lenses, 24 days in the Solomon Islands and three days 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. On April 15, 2001, an interview with Brody revealed that he was still upset over the removal of his work. He expressed his opinions in an interview with the London newspaper The Independent:

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.


See The Thin Red Line (soundtrack) for more information The film score was composed by Hans Zimmer, with additional music from John Powell. The album was nominated for Best Dramatic Score at the 71st Academy Awards. It was Hans Zimmer's fifth and third consecutive Oscar nomination as a composer, but he lost out to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (music by Nicola Piovani). The album was released by RCA Victor and conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Among the music not written by Zimmer which appears in the film is In Paradisum from Requiem by Gabriel Fauré and the opening minutes of The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives.

Zimmer wrote several hours of music, and an abundance of different themes, even before Malick started to shoot the film. The director then played the music on the set, while filming, to get himself, and the rest of the crew and actors in the right frame of mind. The official soundtrack features tracks that were not used on the film and some tracks from the film are not found on the CD. The film features several pieces of Melanesian choral music sung by the Choir of All Saints in Honiara, only one of which is featured on the soundtrack. However, another soundtrack was released containing several tracks from the Choir, which has since gone out of circulation.

Release and reception

Box office

The Thin Red Line was given a limited release on December 25, 1998, in five theaters where it grossed $282,534 on its opening weekend. The film was given a wide release on January 15, 1999, in 1,528 theaters where it grossed $9.7 million during its opening weekend. The film earned $98,126,565 at the worldwide box office.

Critical reception

The film has a rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and 78 metascore on Metacritic, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".

Gene Siskel described it as the "finest contemporary war film I've seen, supplanting Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan from earlier this year, or even Oliver Stone's Platoon from 1986." Roger Ebert was more subdued in his praise, giving it three stars, saying that it felt confused and unfinished. He wrote, "The movie's schizophrenia keeps it from greatness (this film has no firm idea of what it is about), but doesn't make it bad. It is, in fact, sort of 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".

In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, "Some films deal in plot truth; this one expresses emotional truth, the heart's search for saving wisdom, in some of the most luscious imagery since Malick's last film, the 1978 Days of Heaven". Mike Clark of USA Today gave the film four out of four stars. Writing in 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".

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". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The heart-piercing moments that punctuate its rambling are glimpses of what a tighter film might have been".


The Thin Red Line was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. It failed to win any of these awards. However, the film was awarded the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival in 1999. The Thin Red Line was named Best Cinematography for 1998 by the National Society of Film Critics in 1998. Time magazine ranked Malick's film #6 on their Best of 1998 Cinema list. Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic for the Chicago Reader, ranked Malick's film as his second favorite film of 1999. Martin Scorsese ranked it as his second favorite film of the 1990s on Roger Ebert's television show.

Award Category Recipient(s) Result
ALMA Award Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role in a Feature Film Kirk Acevedo
Academy Awards Best Picture Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill
Best Director Terrence Malick
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published Terrence Malick
Best Cinematography John Toll
Best Film Editing Billy Weber, Leslie Jones and Saar Klein
Best Music, Original Dramatic Score Hans Zimmer
Best Sound Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Paul Brincat
American Cinema Editors Best Edited Feature Film Billy Weber, Leslie Jones and Saar Klein
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases John Toll
Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Award Terrence Malick, Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill
Australian Screen Sound Guild Best Foreign Funded Film Soundtrack Paul Brincat, Rod Conder, Gary Dixon, Steven King and Greg Burgmann
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Berlin Bear Terrence Malick
Honorable Mention John Toll
Reader Jury of the "Berliner Morgenpost" Terrence Malick
Bodil Awards Best American Film Terrence Malick
British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography Award John Toll
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards Critics Choice Award for Best Picture "?
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Cinematography John Toll
Best Director Terrence Malick
Best Picture "?
Best Supporting Actor Nick Nolte
Most Promising Actor James Caviezel
Chlotrudis Awards Best Cinematography John Toll
César Awards Best Foreign Film Terrence Malick
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Terrence Malick
Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards Best Foreign Film "?
Harry Awards Harry Award "?
Kinema Junpo Awards Best Foreign Language Film Director Terrence Malick
Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award- Best Sound Editing "?
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Cinematography John Toll
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Cinematographer John Toll
Best Director Terrence Malick
Online Film Critics Society Awards Best Cinematography John Toll
Best Director Terrence Malick
Political Film Society Peace Award "?
Satellite Awards Best Director of a Motion Picture Terrence Malick
Best Motion Picture " Drama Robert Michael Geisler, Grant Hill and John Roberdeau
Best Motion Picture Cinematography John Toll
Best Motion Picture Score Hans Zimmer
Special Achievement Award: Outstanding Motion Picture Ensemble "?
Best Motion Picture Film Editing Billy Weber
Best Motion Picture Screenplay " Adaption Terrence Malick
USC Scripter Award USC Scripter Award James Jones, Terrence Malick

Home video

On September 28, 2010, The Criterion Collection released a special edition of The Thin Red Line on DVD and Blu-ray with a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised and approved by Terrence Malick and cinematographer John Toll. The release was met with positive reviews.

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