There's an easy way to distinguish Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," the year's other ambitious World War II drama, coincidentally released last summer.
Spielberg's film, equal parts spilled guts, glory and implied equivocations about the costs of combat, was carefully focused and marked by narrative continuity and characterizations that grew throughout the course of the film. Malick, turning in only his third feature since 1974's "Badlands," has transformed James Jones' 1962 novel into a big, rambling movie that's a structural weakling. Superstar actors -- rather disconcertingly -- and newcomers alike fade in and out. Often brilliant performances are nearly wasted on a meandering plot that all but disappears without the kind of editing necessary to connect the dots of the multiple potent story lines.
What a beautiful, stunningly photographed mess this is, though, as Malick and cinematographer John Toll follow a helmeted horde across the shore, grasslands, swamps and rugged foothills of the Daintree rain forest in Australia. It's a stand-in for the island of Guadalcanal, where United States forces defeated the Japanese during the second of two turning points in the war in the South Pacific.
"The Thin Red Line," filled with passages as lyrical and evocative as the filmmaker delivered in 1978's "Days of Heaven," like "Ryan" offers a beach landing and a subsequent battle of impossible odds against an unseen enemy blasting away from a bunker on higher ground. The similarities end there.
Malick pointedly opens with a prologue -- mirrored by the epilogue -- that sets up his epic theme, about the apparent conflict between the beauty of nature and the devastation wreaked by mankind. A crocodile slithers into the muck. Sunlight beams through bamboo stands. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), temporarily AWOL, chats with the Melanesian adults and playfully swims underwater with their children. It's a vision of a peaceful paradise on earth.
Back with Company C in the belly of a battleship, Witt is dressed down by the cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) before disappearing into a swarm of soldiers. Above deck, Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), in voiceover, ponders the failures of his career and bitterly takes orders from his superior, a brigadier general played by John Travolta. "You crush them without mercy," the latter barks.
The first half of "The Thin Red Line" generally concerns the soldiers' desperate, bloody and eventually successful effort to take the hill where their enemies are hiding. Nolte, simply magnificent as a career-driven officer tortured by his own demons, spars with the sad-eyed Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who's unwilling to lead his men on a veritable suicide mission. "I will not order them all to their deaths," Staros pleads.
Woody Harrelson hints at the acting god within as Staff Sergeant Keck, who dies bravely, begging that someone write to his "old lady" after his foot is blown off by a grenade. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) sustains his sagging spirit with vivid memories of his wife, recalled in flashback via hazy shots of lovemaking and of a woman on a swing, a vision of innocence and elegance in a summer dress. Dash Mihok, as Private First Class Doll, aptly conveys the bewilderment and fear of a fighter with a seemingly tough exterior.
Later, soldiers charge into a blinding sea of smoke for brutal hand-to-hand combat, followed by empty shouts of victory, as Japanese fighters tremble before their captors. Tall sits alone, whittling, and surveys the rows of toe tags as he begins to appreciate the full gravity of the carnage. Welsh, practically spitting on the grave of a young soldier who had gained his trust, demands an answer from the grave: "Where's your spark now?" Penn, as usual, is riveting.
The spark of "The Thin Red Line" is lit by bright, if truncated performances and a series of images that are as memorable as the characters -- also played by John Cusack and George Clooney, both barely there -- are forgettable. Imagine if Malick had the time and motivation to fashion these well-conceived individual elements into a more coherent whole. It's the masterpiece that nearly was.