The Thin Red Line may be the most ambitious war movie of all time, a modern-day Iliad recited as if it were a funeral ode to the fall of mankind. Based on James Jones' 1962 novel about a World War II rifle company's attempt to secure a single hill on the strategic island of Guadalcanal, the movie is often powerful, sometimes harrowing and finally boring, wandering so far up its own navel that we lose hope of its ever returning. For two hours and forty-five minutes, writer-director Terrence Malick tries to get at the roots of war, only to draw a complete and utter blank. He might have had better luck if he'd looked on the ground instead of up in the clouds. Jones' novel offered a grunt's-eye view of the conflict, the members of C Company watching as their humanity was ground up into inhumanity by the war-making machine. Malick has preserved this perspective, especially in the battle scenes, where we can barely tell one soldier from another. But he's added a layer of highfalutin philosophizing, interior monologues that seem closer to James Joyce than to James Jones. "Maybe all men got one soul that everybody's a part of," a soldier muses. Maybe he's right, but such insights, offered at a time when most of us would be wondering whether we were about to get our asses blown off, seem beside the point. It's not that a movie like the one Malick thinks he's made--a movie that captures both the physical and the metaphysical horror of war--can't be made. (See Apocalypse Now.) But Malick, who's regarded as one of the premier directors of the '70s, doesn't know how to blend the two, only alternate them. The battle scenes deliver on the blood and guts, and the taking of Hill 209 is a riveting set piece that's practically a movie--a damn good movie--unto itself. But whenever the soldiers have a free moment (and sometimes when they don't), they're composing epigrams in their heads, and the effect is to both estheticize the awfulness of war and anesthetize our reactions to it.
Also anesthetizing us is the gorgeous photography of cinematographer John Toll, Guadalcanal turned into an Edenic paradise where every blade of grass whispers the meaning of life. Even Homer spoke of "the rosy-fingered dawn," but Toll and Malick seem much more interested in nature than in human nature, a strange attitude to bring to a war movie. From a star-laden cast that includes blink-and-you-miss-it cameos by John Travolta and George Clooney, newcomer Jim Caviezel was given the job of carrying the movie. Caviezel's Pvt. Witt is a flower child trying to apply both Zen detachment and Christian charity to the carnage around him. Malick tries to do the same with considerably less success.