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THE WAR WITHIN; For director Terrence Malick, 'The Thin Red Line' is an opportunity to explore the meaning -- and meaninglessness -- of life, death and war, as reflected in the minds of soldiers.


A South Pacific tribesman passes a troop of soldiers invading his island, never acknowledging their presence. A battalion of men emerges from a jungle like a swarm of ants. A soldier's half-buried face materializes from wisps of fog. A baby bird breaks out of its shell amid a bloody battle.

These are the vivid, portentous images that accumulate in the course of "The Thin Red Line," making this an altogether different kind of war movie. In fact, it's a war movie that could only have been made by Terrence Malick, the legendary director who hasn't made a film since the release of 1978's equally poetic "Days of Heaven."

True to form, Malick has made a dreamy epic that will prove maddening to filmgoers who become impatient with endless shots of tall grass and monologues that ponder man's inhumanity to man. Malick challenges filmgoers, with a 2 1/2-hour length and long runs of ethereal doodling, but for audiences willing to follow him on this somber, often deeply affecting journey, the rewards will prove rich beyond measure.

Based on James Jones' novel of the same name, "The Thin Red Line" is an esoteric bookend to Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," the other World War II picture to which it has been inevitably compared. But whereas Spielberg set his drama in the European theater and drew on a recognizable repertoire of cinematic images, Malick has gone in a directly opposite direction.

"The Thin Red Line" is set in the war's Pacific theater, and chronicles the crucial battle for Guadalcanal, a battle that lends itself to the heady issues that Malick explores here: life, death and the inscrutable Other.

The vector for most of these questions is Witt (Jim Caviezel), an infantry private who has gone AWOL on an Edenic South Pacific island when "The Thin Red Line" begins -- he's a Gauguin with dogtags. Eventually Witt is discovered and returned to his company, led by First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), a cynic-in-training who has grown impatient with the private's blissfulness. "A man himself is nothing in this world," says Welsh, who seems well on his way to becoming a film noir anti-hero as played by Robert Mitchum.

As Witt and Welsh debate the meaning of life, their boat is making its way toward Guadalcanal, and a turning point in the war. The ensuing battle for a small but important hill will knit together the destinies of the men in C-for-Charlie company: the bombastic but self-doubting Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte); the paternal but passive Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas); and Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who prays not to God but to the wife he left behind.

As he did in "Days of Heaven" and "Badlands" (1974), Malick relies heavily on narration, here in the form of each man's interior monologue. While Witt engages in Dostoyevskian contemplation of God ("Who are you, to live in all these many forms?"), Tall ruminates on a career spent brown-nosing and sucking up "and for what?"

One of the movie's best scenes has the colonel and a younger superior, played in a cameo by John Travolta, locked in a terrifically eloquent alpha-male dance. It's vintage Malick: expressive, observant and almost entirely silent.

Also vintage Malick is the director's attention to nature, which he and cinematographer John Toll capture on film with maximum translucence. The grass that Tall and his men swim through is almost a character in itself, as it undulates like a roiling ocean toward their distant hill.

Malick is just as conscious of beauty when it comes to his men, whom he films with loving gentleness. Whether by accident or design, most of these gifted young actors happen to have deep blue eyes, which pop out against the green grass with glittering intensity. And Toll makes sure to photograph the backs of their necks, where the down is flecked with dust and blood.

"The Thin Red Line" dwells on nature -- the film opens with a haunting image of a crocodile (the brain-stem self) crawling into a primal ooze -- and as the men dodge bullets and bombs they must also contend with snakes, bats and lizards. But as powerful as these moments are in communicating Malick's larger point -- that the world continues its indifferent churn despite our puny efforts to control it -- the movie's human drama is just as compelling.

Nolte has met the role of a lifetime in Tall, whom he portrays as a wonderfully craggy blowhard. Equally fine are John Cusack as Tall's favorite, Penn and newcomer Caviezel, who makes some of the movie's most pretentious dialogue palatable with a soft Kentucky drawl.

It is possible to admire "The Thin Red Line" and still have reservations. Malick dwells too much on Bell's awkwardly staged flashbacks, and the presence of Travolta and George Clooney -- who has a brief scene toward the movie's end -- is gratuitous and distracting.

What may be even more troubling for audiences is how Malick strips World War II of its obvious meaning, as a war against fascism. Instead he has captured a group of soldiers on the brink of an existential void, where the rightness of what they are fighting for has eluded them. The war has come down to one more hill, one more dead friend.

Facing their own mortality, they push against the membrane that separates this world from the next, and in "The Thin Red Line," their tentative proddings are almost palpable.

In creating a languid tone poem about terror and beauty, Malick hasn't made a movie as much as a meditation.

'Thin Red Line'

Starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel Directed by Terrence Malick

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (realistic war violence and language)

Running time: 152 minutes

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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