After the success of Terrence Malick’s 1998 adaptation of the James Jones novel, the original adaptation of The Thin Red Line, directed by Andrew Marton in 1964, has been somewhat forgotten. The majority of movie fans seeking out the story of the Guadalcanal Campaign are drawn to the 1998 Hollywood giant, complete with its all-star ensemble cast and seven Academy Award nominations. Despite never being available on VHS, the 1964 film has now made its way to DVD. It is, however, fair to say that the 1964 film is most likely bought as an accompaniment to those who loved (or hated) the 1998 film.
With the backdrop of the allied forces (predominantly American)’s invasion of the South Pacific Island of Guadalcanal, Andrew Marton’s film focuses on the relationship between the emotional Private Doll (Keir Dullea) and his seemingly heartless Sergeant, Sergeant Welsh (Jack Warden). The movie begins with the meeting of the pair and ends with Sergeant Welsh taking a bullet (or several) for Private Doll. In between this are a host of over-the-top acting and pulsating orchestral arrangements – there is even a flashback as Doll battles with life in the army. Apart from such delights, the film offers little else.
Despite the low budget, Marton throws in a large number of action scenes. This, however, dilutes the theme of the title. The thin red line is said to be the metaphorical line between the average man and the killing soldier and how he transcends between the two. It can also mean the literal, of a thin line of soldiers defending or attacking. The film only brushes over the two. In one of the early sequences Doll has a breakdown after killing one of the ‘Japs’. He then has a flashback to his eight day marriage. We then have to assume he overcomes his personal battles with his own sanity as he is flung into a number of confused and confounded action sequences. The literal meaning of the thin red line is explored in the final action sequence as a small number of men go into battle against a large number of Japanese soldiers. It is here that the film comes to an abrupt end, seemingly achieving nothing. In terms of the Guadalacanal campaign it is most unclear as to where the Allied forces stand. Indeed the only real sense of conclusion is the relationship between Doll and Welsh and this is only because Welsh is killed.
For modern audiences this film is always going to struggle against its Hollywood blockbuster equivalent and this is not just down to the budget. The title of the film and indeed the novel sets up so much to be explored yet this film chooses to focus on drawn-out sequences of rifle combat. The movie can however, be enjoyed for its unintentional comical effects. Pay attention to the over-the-top theatrics of the dying men and the comical effect of the lead characters name, Doll. This works very much in the same way as Tim McInnerny’s ‘Captain Darling’ character in Blackadder Goes Forth. Overall, the film is a long way off the 1998 version yet is still worth a watch if only to compare.
Best performance: Jack Warden as Sergeant Welsh.
Best scene: The surprise Japanese attack while the American’s enjoy a makeshift drag act.
Best line: ‘Don’t worry Doll, I’d have stopped you’.
Watch this if you liked: The Thin Red Line (1998) OR, if you like watching serious black and white war pictures for their unintentional comedic value.