When word got out in the mid-90s that Terrence Malick was making another film, having effectively disappeared from the industry for 20 years, there followed an extraordinary phenomenon of every actor around rushing to get involved in it. Sean Penn agreed to work for a single dollar. The script was sent out to Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise. A rehearsed reading was staged with Kevin Costner, and Martin Sheen reading the stage directions. Brad Pitt took part in a workshop to develop the material. Malick himself met for lunch with Johnny Depp, Edward Norton, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage. Tom Sizemore was offered a part but eventually turned it down to do Saving Private Ryan. It was an unprecedented rush of interest, and right here we have one of the root problems with The Thin Red Line.

An ensemble cast is fine, but movie stars are still recognisable movie stars, and when one of them turns up for two lines (as John Travolta does here) and is never seen again it’s really quite distracting. When your long, indulgent film is winding down to an close, and George Clooney pops up out of nowhere to give one speech right at the end, you’re not thinking about the concept of war as an aberration to nature, you’re thinking “ooh, there’s George Clooney, I didn’t know he was in this”. It could have been worse – Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke all filmed scenes as well, but they ended up being cut out of the film. Adrien Brody was supposed to be the main character, but his role was edited down to five minutes. It could have been a simple game of spot-the-cameo.

There are other problems, too – early glimpses of the pretentiousness and self-indulgence that would blight Malick’s career since and make his more recent work almost unwatchable. Yet somehow all these issues don’t spoil anything, they merely make the film one of the most obvious flawed masterpieces in recent memory. It’s a beautiful, lyrical film, an art-piece somehow transplanted into a 50 million dollar war epic. There’s a completely brilliant movie in here somewhere, which a more balanced approach to casting and a decent edit could have produced. It has arguably one of the greatest scores ever composed, some of the finest cinematography ever committed to film, and some of the most baffling, infuriating decisions that stop it from being one of the best films ever made.

Bizarre, totally distracting casting choices5
Endless wanky shots of sunlight glancing through trees6
Stunning, unforgettable cinematography by John Toll10
Hans Zimmer's use of Melanesian choirs in the score10
The dictionary definition of a flawed masterpiece7
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
8Overall Score

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