The Thin Red Line Review

The Thin Red Line is set during the Allied invasion of the Pacific island of Guadalcanal during World War II, a vital campaign on which the outcome of the War against Japan depended. Private Doll (Keir Dullea) is a member of C Company. He clashes with the veteran Sergeant Welsh (Jack Warden), who thinks the idealistic Doll is a coward. This takes a turn for the worse when Doll suffers remorse for the killing of a Japanese soldier. But eventually the two men, sworn antagonists that they are, have to work together to survive.

I'll leave it to others to discuss the place that James Jones (1921-1977) has in American literature, but in the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote several lengthy novels which often drew on his experience in service in World War II. Despite concerns about censorship in an era still governed by the Production Code, Hollywood beckoned, and three of his first four novels became films. Fred Zinnemann directed the then somewhat scandalous From Here to Eternity in 1953, and it went on to win eight Oscars. Vincente Minnelli tackled Some Came Running in 1958, and From Here to Eternity was adapted again as a TV miniseries in 1979. (As an aside, Jones's daughter Kaylie Jones wrote A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, filmed by Merchant Ivory in 1998.)

Which brings us to Jones's fourth novel, The Thin Red Line, based on Jones's experiences at Guadalcanal, where he was wounded in action. This novel has been adapted twice. In 1998 it became Terrence Malick's third feature, and his return to feature filmmaking after a hiatus of twenty years. The release of Malick's film prompted people to remember that there was an earlier version from 1964, directed by Andrew Marton. This had been largely forgotten, at least in the UK, where I cannot find a record of a TV screening. You suspect that the director's name might have something to do with that. Zinnemann and Minnelli have solid reputations, while Marton, while being prolific as a director on both the big screen and on television, remains best known for co-directing The Longest Day and for the chariot race in Ben Hur. But when Malick's film was released, Fox, the studio who had made both versions, reissued the 1964 version on VHS in a version which was, I believe, panned-and-scanned. So, with the film available again, we could assess the merits of Marton's version, and that's even more the case with this DVD release, which is in the correct aspect ratio. (I hadn't seen the 1964 version before this DVD review copy arrived, and in preparation for it I rewatched the Malick version for the first time since I saw it on its UK cinema release in 1999.)

The basic plot and many of the character names are the same, and both films have lines of dialogue in common (presumably derived from Jones, though I haven't read the novel), the two films are considerably different in intention, style, tone – and indeed length, with the Malick being over an hour and a quarter longer. Although both films are in Scope, Marton's is in black and white (the DP being Manuel Berenguer), which was still a commercially viable option in 1964, and often preferred by filmmakers then as being more “realistic” than colour. Malick's film has Oscar-nominated colour camerawork from John Toll. Malick used the storyline to convey a pantheistic vision of nature. As with his other work the characters are figures in a landscape, and that landscape is as much a “character” as the humans on the screen.

Marton's background in second-unit pays off in some tightly directed – and often surprisingly brutal action sequences, which explains the 12 certificate (an X originally, in a version shortened to 87 minutes). He also manages some striking sequences in between the battles, such as a soldiers' celebration party, with one of them performing a drag act.

And the centre of the film is the conflict between Doll and Welsh. Keir Dullea is now best known for his top-billed role in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but at the time he specialised in sensitive leading men, such as the first title role in David and Lisa (which is the role the trailer – see below – expects the audience to recognise him from), and he also turns up in the 1966 remake of Madame X, Bunny Lake is Missing and The Fox. He's well matched by Jack Warden, who had been a professional boxer in his time and brings a pugilistic intensity to the role of the hard-bitten sergeant. Another big name, offscreen this time, is that of Malcolm Arnold, who provides an appropriately martial score.

Ultimately, while Malick's film aspires to the poetic – and often achieves it, though your mileage may certainly vary on that – Marton's film is prose. But it's good prose.


The Thin Red Line is released by Optimum on a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. This would appear to be the first commecial availability of this film in the UK at its full length and in its original aspect ratio.

The DVD transfer is in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Contrast, so vital in black and white, seems right, and blacks are solid.

The soundtrack is the original mono, well balanced with the gunfire and explosions having the desired impact. The track is mixed a little low, so you may want to up the volume a little. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing available, which is to be expected – and regretted – on an English-language Optimum catalogue DVD.

The only extra is a quite short (0:58) and brisk trailer, which points up the action scenes. This is in 2.40:1 anamorphic and exhibits some minor damage.

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