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Soundtrack review: The thin red line (Hans Zimmer – 1998)

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Soundtrack review: The thin red line (Hans Zimmer – 1998)


I don’t know how difficult it is to write a cue that induces a certain sensation to the listener. Someone who listens to film music is opened to being guided by the composer’s craft. He has an emotional attachment to either the movie or the music and he takes the notes he hears and associates them to a feeling. However, I imagine it’s almost impossible to put one certain sensation into notes and make it a cue. It isn’t up to the listener to choose what he will feel then. The music takes a life of its own.

There are some scores which act like time machines for me. I am able to travel through time when I listen to them to a favorite period in my life. This one is different. This is the score that takes me outside of time, this is the composition that stops time.

“The thin red line” is the most honest score Hans Zimmer has ever written. I think he simply poured his soul out on notes. No tricks…no embellishments…nothing artificial. This is it. This score is one man’s confession and this is why it works so well. Hans Zimmer gathered elements from the walls of his soul and showed them to us. He wrote the music before the movie was completed and director Terrence Mallick played it on set to get him and the actors in the right frame of mind. All Hans probably knew was that “The thin red line” was a story about the inner monologues of the characters. So he gave us his inner monologue. Are we smart or empathic enough to understand it?

Whenever I talk to a composer I want to know how much of him is in the music he writes. They all write such varied compositions in a lot of styles and it’s hard to find the common thread. I haven’t spoken to Hans Zimmer yet but I think that if I would ask him this he would tell me that he recognizes himself the most in “The thin red line”. This is how I see him. From the innocence of “The lagoon” through the more mature “Stone in my heart”, from the prayer and gratitude in “Light” passing through the perfect buildup and revolt of “Journey to the line” to the theme that enters the deepest, “The village”, it’s all there…His journey until that point.

For me personally there’s never been a more beautiful composition that this one. This is it. “The thin red line” is it. It’s the perfect musical journey and the notes that Hans Zimmer put together form a soul. Is this just music? Isn’t this a little more? Isn’t a score that gently strikes the chords inside me and makes me feel the most at peace I can ever feel and the happiest I can ever feel more than just music? Isn’t it simply a hand placed on your shoulder, a small gesture that lets you know everything is alright?

The way “The thin red line” makes me feel is all in the opening scene of the movie, where Witt and his friend evade their unit and simply live the life of the local tribes…on the beach…playing and bathing with the kids…swimming in perfect waters and feeling outside of time in a place that nothing external can touch. That’s the perfect hiding spot. Time just stops and there’s nothing but the blissful sensation of the sun and water on your body, the joy and innocence of the children around you and the simplicity of the island life. Those people are happy. I am happy when I listen to this score because it takes me to my imaginary safe heaven where nothing else exists except that bliss. I’m on an eternal beach, swimming in an eternally warm blue sea with my wife and nothing else matters.

“If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack”. This is the most intense quote of the movie. Sean Penn tells it close to the end of the movie. “There’s only one thing a man can do – find something that’s his, and make an island for himself“ he continues. This is my island. This score is like a glimpse not of the life you would have with it, but of the life you would have had without it. I always want to return to it and listen to it again I always make sure it’s still there and I haven’t lost it. “The thin red line” is love and innocence itself. Each cue is a different representation of the same emotion…the subtle differences between compositions are just faces of the same soul in different states…

I read a lot of literature about babies in the past few months to be ready for the birth of my little girl. One of the most important ideas I read was that the baby is crying so hard in the first few days after it is born because that experience is incredibly traumatic. After 9 months spent in the perfect environment, in the safest and most nurturing place possible, it is thrown out in the world where it has to depend on others, its parents, for nourishment, security and all the other needs. But nothing matches the safety and perfection of the womb. That’s where the baby feels and knows he cannot be hurt. Too bad after those first few weeks it cannot remember anything from that bliss. “The thin red line” brings to me the sensation of safety, purity and perfection I imagine a newborn feels about the womb he just left. Quite a lot to put on a war movie score, right…? Thank you Hans Zimmer, John Powell and everyone else involved…

I’d love to be able to talk to Hans Zimmer himself about my favorite score of all time, about how it felt to write it and how it affected him. I’d love to know how he sees it and how much he recognizes himself in this surreal musical mirror…and I’d love to listen to every single note recorded for this movie….”The thin red line” is my favorite film score of all time and I don’t see this ever changing.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 56 / 56

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights: all of it


Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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  1. Ian Smith 13th February 2019

    Lovely review, I agree completely this music is beyond film scroring, it has a life separate from the (beautiful) film it was written for.

    Have you had opportunity to listen to the expanded edition released by La La Land recently? I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts in a new review.


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