Beyond the Frame: The Thin Red Line

In 2019, The Thin Red Line was selected as one of the ASC 100 Milestone Films in Cinematography of the 20th Century.

David E. Williams

Shouldering a Panaflex, John Toll, ASC operates handheld while filming one of the many harrowing battle sequences seen in the poetic and stylized World War II drama The Thin Red Line (1998), directed by Terrence Malick:. 

Of meeting the filmmaker for the first time, Toll told American Cinematographer, “I'd seen Badlands and Days of Heaven, of course, and they're both great pictures. Whenever you see films like those, you always think, ‘Well, it would be great to work with a director like that, because he's obviously interested in making films, as opposed to just commercial product.’

“Back when Terry made those pictures, there wasn’t such a clear line between commercial pictures and 'thinking' pictures; nowadays, there's a real distinction between those types of films. I understand that the film industry is a business, but we don't all want to go through our careers just making commercial projects. The idea of making the type of picture that Terry seemed to be going for with The Thin Red Line was obviously desirable. I'm sure that the other cinematographers he spoke to were just as enthusiastic about working with him as I was, but I just happened to get lucky.

“The idea of this particular project was really interesting to me, and not just because it was a war movie. I remembered reading the James Jones novel when it first came out, and finding it to be just fantastic. I wasn't in the film industry at the time, but I recall thinking that it would make a great motion picture. A film adaptation was actually made in 1964, but it was a pretty low-budget version, and I was a bit disappointed with it.

“The book is an incredibly realistic depiction of the experience of combat. Jones was a member of the Army's 25th Division; he was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he also participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal, so From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are both based on his firsthand experiences. The most interesting thing about The Thin Red Line is the way it gets into all of these soldiers' different personalities. While we were shooting the picture, Terry and I kept talking about how interior the narrative was; there's an enormous amount of material in the book about what the characters are experiencing internally — as opposed to what comes out in their conversations, which usually represents an entirely different aspect of their personalities. Terry wanted the viewers to know what was happening within the minds of the characters without necessarily presenting those thoughts through dialogue.

“The characters in this story are very well-drawn and diverse. Some are heroes, some aren't, and some are just there to do their job and get out as quickly as possible. It's really a story about the tragedy of war. I got very caught up in the book when I read it, particularly the realistic aspects of being involved in that kind of experience. It was a very truthful story that presented all of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff. You just knew that Jones had been there.”

Toll earned an Academy Award nomination and took home an ASC Award for his expert camerawork in the picture, and he was later honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

In 2019, The Thin Red Line was selected as one of the ASC 100 Milestone Films in Cinematography of the 20th Century.

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