Original release: May 2nd, 1964
Running time: 99 minutes
Director: Andrew Marton
Writers: Bernard Gordon, James Jones (novel)
Cast: Keir Dullea, Jack Warden
Sometimes it takes a good war movie to make us realise the horror and madness of it all. As a small boy I remember watching films like The Young Lions (1958), The Colditz Story (1955) and The Longest Day (1962) together with my parents and always asking, “But why are they fighting?” Eventually my mother would say something like “because they’ve all gone mad over there”.
Years later as I watched The Thin Red Line (1964), I realised she might’ve been right.
Based on James Jones’ novel of the same name, it’s the story of Private Doll (Keir Dullea) during the time of the Allied invasion of Guadalcanal, a tropical island in the South-Western Pacific. Doll is determined to stay alive at any cost, but battle-scarred veteran, Sergeant Welsh (Jack Warden), despises him and thinks he’s a coward, especially when he feels remorse for killing a Japanese soldier.
In his attempt to stand up against the bullying Sergeant, Doll becomes more and more like him as he wipes out an entire enemy post, but the worst is yet to come when their platoon is surprised by a Japanese raid.
There’s something about The Thin Red Line which makes it stand out from many other war films I watched over the years. It packs a lot more of a mental punch with its depiction of a soldier’s descent into madness. In one scene, Captain Stone (Ray Daley) says,
If war is insane, then it should only follow that soldiers need to be as well and Sergeant Welsh’s treatment of the men is a step in that direction as he tries to get them to stop thinking and start obeying orders.
Or perhaps its Dullea’s screen presence and performance. Dullea was an up and comer at the time and hadn’t yet starred in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but we can already see something wild and beautiful in his eyes with this early role. His portrayal of the stubborn soldier reminds me of Montgomery Clift’s Private Prewitt in From Here To Eternity (1953).
The Thin Red Line doesn’t come without criticism though. Despite being able to spawn a discussion about the ethics of war, the movie falters when it comes to battle scenes. Unable to carry the weight of the source material, it decides to fill up precious time with these scenes rather than to keep the mind-work going.
Nevertheless, Dullea and the idea of insanity and war going hand in hand makes it a powerful and thought provoking look at World War II.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .