Only the dead, reckoned Plato, have seen the end of war. Tell that to Terrence Malick.
In The Thin Red Line, the enigmatic director’s cine-poem about the American assault on Guadacanal in 1942, the dead remain as tormented as the living.
No ordinary war movie, Malick’s film constitutes its very own genre: a trippy, metaphysical meditation on life, the universe and everything, that just happens to be set against the backdrop of WW2’s Pacific Theatre.
For cineastes in 1998 The Thin Red Line was a red letter day, bringing the reclusive, publicity-shy Malick – director of Badlands and Days Of Heaven – back to cinema screens after 20 years of silence.
For Twentieth Century Fox, it seemed like a coup: a visionary director tackling an action-packed epic, with stars like Nick Nolte and George Clooney. With Spielberg working on Saving Private Ryan, Fox were thrilled: they thought they had their own war movie contender.
How wrong they were. Saving Private Ryan is a first-class blockbuster, all thundering action, patriotic fervour and Tom Hanks doing his best All-American Everyman impression (it ultimately won five Oscars where Malick’s movie went home emptyhanded). The Thin Red Line is an arthouse war movie, arguably more whacked out than Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
The talking dead
It’s ravishing yet idiosyncratic, a stoned reverie on interconnectedness that follows a regiment of US soldiers – including Pvt Witt (Jim Caviezel), Sgt Welsh (Sean Penn) and Capt Staros (Elias Koteas) – as they take the fight to the Japanese. Meaning slides and voiceovers blur – even a half-buried corpse gets to muse – as Malick builds an impressionistic collage of the thoughts of men under fire.
He isn’t interested in the war, the weapons or even the individual soldiers themselves. “Having to direct this huge army running up this hill with all these cameras – he just felt that wasn’t directing,” explains editor Saar Klein on the extras. “At one point he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get someone like Renny Harlin to direct those parts?’”
Instead, Malick focuses on the existential poetry. It’s a war movie where characters speak in free-associative internal monologues with one, catch-all voice: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces the same man,” muses a battle-worn soldier.
After three hours of this beardstroking, stoner rambling you may wonder if Malick has made the Dude, Where’s My Tank? of war cinema. “You got the feeling you were invited into the inner world of a poet,” says actor Thomas Jane of working with the director in a grab-bag of actor interviews.
Spending months in Northern Australia while Malick shot more than a million feet of film, the actors were mere privates in Terry’s Army. The production sometimes seemed like a chaotic ’60s happening, led by an enigmatic Wizard of Oz. “After a certain point there was nothing on the schedule that said you were going to do this today; you just would do stuff,” remembers Caviezel.
Meanwhile, the camera flows in constant motion, flitting from one character to another. Cinematographer John Toll glides with his Steadicam, mounts crane shots across waving hillsides of grass and captures a malevolent sense of dark forces collecting around the battlefield as Hans Zimmer’s use of the Blaster Beam synth batters the Dolby on the soundtrack. “What is this great evil?” continues the voiceover. “How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring?”
Taking the Mickey
The sense of cosmic randomness spilled into the editing suite, too. After putting together a five-hour first cut Malick chopped it to three, hacking through the narrative like a soldier taking a machete to jungle undergrowth.
It was ruthless: scenes featuring stars like Martin Sheen and Viggo Mortensen were completely removed, as was Mickey Rourke’s much-whispered about role as a traumatised sniper (it’s the only star turn to be restored in the 15 minutes of deleted scenes included here).
Mercurial filmmakers don’t do extras, which explains why Malick is absent from what’s otherwise a great disc. The HD image – restored under the director’s supervision – is quite simply breathtaking.
Check out the colours of the Pacific sea or the depth of field in the bamboo forests. It’s an incredible example of why Blu-ray matters and deserves to be the standard movie played in high-end AV shops to show off their kit.
Rather than illuminate, though, the extras simply deepen the mystery of the director. There’s surely scope for a proper Making Of, but it’s not here. A workmanlike commentary – by producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk and DoP John Toll – doesn’t add much.
Although one anecdote told by Toll, whose wife Lois Burwell worked as key make-up artist on Saving Private Ryan, is telling about what makes The Thin Red Line unique.
During production, Malick sent Spielberg, who was shooting Ryan, a Japanese battle flag packaged up like a soldier’s trophy from the front line. It was a symbolic act layered with contested meaning: was it a gift, or a competitive shove?
Spielberg’s response was tellingly prosaic: he sent Malick a crew jacket from Saving Private Ryan. Apparently, not every Hollywood director has the soul of a poet…
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