The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line (1998)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack
Extras: Melanesian Songs

Poetic war movie. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? A contradiction in terms. And yet, it is the designation I would use to describe "The Thin Red Line" from 20th Century Fox, an epic, 3-hour World War II drama. I had missed the film during its theatrical run, but the trailers, the awards and nominations and the overall response to the film from critics and audiences made me curious about this movie. Now, 20th Century Fox is bringing this epic film to DVD, giving us the chance to experience it at home.

"The Thin Red Line" is one of those films that literally scream "Oscars". It is one of those films that lends itself perfectly to be analyzed and interpreted in many ways, offering plenty of subtext and stylistic elements that will make every film critic salivate. Whether that is a good or bad thing is certainly not up to me to decide, but I will try to give you comments and my thoughts on this film as guidance.

"The Thin Red Line" is a great and very literate film. A film that you explore gradually, and begin to understand in stages. The effect is not immediately tangible or evident, but the more you think about it, the more impressive it actually becomes. I noticed that it took me some time to recognize and appreciate many of the subtle qualities the movie offers.

The biggest problem of the film is that it is maybe a bit too ambitious for its own good. From the opening moments the film has a dreamy and artsy feel to it that oftentimes reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now" in its stylistic methods. "The Thin Red Line" is much more poetic and intimately personal however. For the first 30 minutes nothing really happens and we are following the thoughts of a soldier who is preparing himself to get back to the front lines of war once again, just after finding his inner peace during a vacation from the battlefield.

The entire film’s purpose is to show off the senselessness of War, and how it changes people in many ways as they are thrown into absurd situations they were completely unprepared for. The fact that the film hardly establishes a true geographical location and leaves out most of the explanation as to what exact part of the Second World War it is we are witnessing, underscores the filmmakers’ intention to emphasize that it doesn’t matter where or how these things occur. In the end all wars look the same, feel the same and cause the same scarring psychological and physical damages. On the outskirts of the film’s story we find out that we are witnessing the taking of a remote island from Japanese forces in the Pacific, during the Guadalcanal conflict and all we get to see is an overly eager general trying to take it with brute force, blinded by his own frustrations, carelessly victimizing and sacrificing his own people.

The movie’s script seems to be the film’s weakest link at first, appearing tediously unfocussed. However, as I mentioned before the more you think about it after watching the film, the more it becomes clear what its intentions were, and why this somewhat experimental style was chosen to tell the story. Unfortunately it introduces a large number of irrelevant characters, making it hard for the viewer to follow the personalities or to get attached to them. At the same time what remains afterwards is a general sensation. You will think about and remember "The Thin Line" as a feeling, an almost poetic expression of the internal emotional battles these men have gone through, and the way their very own safe harbors ultimately helped them keep their sanity.

Being as artistically a movie that it is, "The Thin Red Line" uses some great images, visual metaphors and parables to make the viewer aware of the abstruseness and senselessness of war. It is contemptuous of human life and senseless to begin with. When the men we witness are about to enter their first conflict we get good look at their psyches. The film explores nicely how each one of them reacts to the situation. They are getting more tense as they approach the island and once in the trenches each one of the deals with the situation and the cruelty of war differently. While some people simply snap, others grow to an unknown strength and potential under the pressure. We see friendship, bonds, virtues and heroism on and off the battlefield as we follow the events. In the end we learn how repetitive and hopeless the whole scenario becomes, no matter whether you are on the winning side or not. As one group of men is blown to pieces, the next one is already ready to follow in their footsteps. No one ever wins in wars. Some people only believe they do in their sick addiction to make their mark.

"The Thin Red Line" is beautifully acted and combined with the eloquent visual language the filmmakers use, it creates a very artistic feel. Nothing seems to be real, yet everything is all too tangible. High caliber actors like Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and countless others throw in their weight to give the film importance. We can see their desperation and ambition on their faces all to clearly, yet at the same time they are overtaken by waves of fear, regret and despair. The film has been given a royal treatment on this release from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The disc presents us with a transfer form a pristine film print without any speckles, dust or signs of dirt. To further add to the quality of the presentation, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has decided to release this film in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> transfer on this DVD, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Perfectly defined edges, great shadow delineation, virtually no noise or grain and spectacularly rich colors are what you get with this release. No matter how much you scrutinize the image, you will be hard pressed to find any deficiencies or compression artifacts. The image is highly detailed without any signs of <$pixelation,pixelation>. The transfer’s black level is very good and highlights are well balanced to create a lush and naturally looking image throughout the presentation. This is a top-notch presentation that will glue your eyes to the screen.

The same is true for the audio presentation of the disc, although we have experienced a small number of audio dropouts in the <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix on our Toshiba reference player. They were erratic however and we were unable to recreate them, which leads me to believe that those were from the test disc we have been using for this review and will most likely not appear in the final product. The disc contains a <$DS,Dolby Surround> mix and the aforementioned <$5.1,5.1 channel> Dolby Digital audio track. Both of them are well transferred but the <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix has clearly more spatial information, resulting in a clearer sound field that allows you to better place audio sources in the field while listening. It is a very transparent sounding mix with a great but not over-emphasized bass extension. The sound effects and the music never drown out the dialogue, leaving them understandable at any time, even during the most heated battle scenes.

To simply dismiss "The Thin Red Line" as a bad movie does not do the work justice. It is a very ambitious and demanding film. As with many other such projects, the resulting entertainment value is not as high as it could be. In order to make its statements and to bring their points across, the filmmakers decided to create a very slowly developing film that allows viewers to think about what they are seeing, giving it a strong melodramatic feel. The presentation on this DVD is flawless, and it makes you wish Fox would release more <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> titles, as they obviously know how to make them great. If you expect a bombastic show-off action spectacle, "The Thin Red Line" is clearly not for you. If you are looking for a well-crafted film that takes itself very seriously and goes very deep into the artistic aspects of filmmaking, "The Thin Red Line" will blow you away.