Film synopsis from IMDb:
When the film opens, U.S. Army Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), is AWOL from his unit and living with the easy-going and seemingly carefree Melanesian natives in the South Pacific. He is found and imprisoned on a troop carrier by his company First Sergeant, Welsh (Sean Penn). In Welsh’s conversation with Witt, it is clear that the private is unenthusiastic about serving in the army. The men of C Company, 25th Infantry Division have been brought to Guadalcanal as reinforcements in the campaign to secure Henderson Field and seize the island from the Japanese. As they wait in the holds of a Navy transport, they contemplate their lives and the impending invasion. On deck, battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) talks with his commanding officer, Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), about the invasion and its importance. Tall’s voice-over reveals that he has been passed over for promotion and this battle may be his last chance to command a victorious operation. C Company lands on Guadalcanal unopposed and marches to the interior of the island, encountering natives and evidence of the Japanese presence and tactics: the mutilated corpses of intercepted Marines and Rangers scouts. They arrive near Hill 210, a key Japanese position. The Japanese have placed a bunker housing several machine guns at the top of the hill, giving them full view of the valley below. Any force attempting to climb the hill can be easily cut down by machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. A brief shelling of the hill begins the next day at dawn. Shortly after, C Company attempts to take the hill and is repelled by gunfire from the bunker. Among the first killed in the battle is the leader of the attacking platoon, Second Lieutenant Whyte (Jared Leto). During the battle, Lieutenant Colonel Tall orders the company commander, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), to take the bunker by frontal assault, at whatever cost. Staros refuses, unwilling to treat his men as cannon fodder. When the two reach a stalemate, Tall decides to join Staros on the front line to see the situation for himself. By the time he arrives, the Japanese resistance seems to have lessened, and Tall’s opinion of Staros seems to have been sealed. Meanwhile, during the battle, Private Witt, having been assigned punitively as a stretcher bearer, asks to rejoin the company, and is permitted to do so. A small detachment of men perform a reconnaissance mission on Tall’s orders to determine the strength of the Japanese bunker. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) reports back that there are five machine guns in the bunker. He joins another small detachment of men, led by Captain Gaff (John Cusack), on a flanking mission to take the bunker. The operation is a success and C Company stands poised to overrun one of the last Japanese strongholds on the island. They are successful in this regard; the Japanese they find are largely malnourished and dying, and put up little resistance. For their efforts the men are given a week’s leave, although not all of them are able to enjoy it fully. The airfield where they are based comes under Japanese artillery bombardment; Bell, who longs to return to his wife, receives a letter from her, informing him that she has fallen in love with someone else and wishes to divorce; much to his surprise, Captain Staros is relieved of his command by Lieutenant Colonel Tall, who deems him too soft for the pressures of combat and suggests that he apply for reassignment and become a lawyer in the JAG in Washington; Witt comes across the Melanesians and notices that they have suddenly grown more distrustful of him and quarrel regularly with one another. The company is sent on patrol up a river but with the indecisive and inexperienced 1st Lieutenant George Band (Paul Gleeson) at its head. As Japanese artillery falls close to their positions, Band orders several men to scout upriver, with Witt volunteering to go along. They encounter an advancing Japanese column and are attacked. To buy time for Private Fife (Adrien Brody) to go back and inform the rest of the unit, Witt draws away the Japanese but is then encircled by one of their squads, who demand that he surrender. In a moment of bliss and internal calm, he raises his rifle and is gunned down. The company is able to retreat safely. In the final scene, C Company receives a new commander, Captain Bosche (George Clooney), and boards a waiting LCT, departing from the island.