After Terrence Malick made Days of Heaven in the late 1970s, he didn’t make another film for two decades. Because he shunned the press like the cinematic equivalent of Thomas Pynchon, speculation was rampant as to the reasons why. It was rumored that the ordeal of making Days and its subsequent commercial failure soured him on filmmaking but as it turned out he was working on various screenplays over the years. And then, in 1998, he resurfaced with an adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel The Thin Red Line about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal. The end result was an unconventional epic that eschewed traditional storytelling for a philosophical meditation on war, nature and death. It also featured a star-studded cast with most of the marquee names (John Travolta and George Clooney) relegated to cameos while relative unknowns (Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin) were given significant screen time. Not surprisingly, critics gave it rave reviews while mainstream audiences were put off by its artsy approach, preferring instead Steven Spielberg’s much more visceral and convention WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). The folks at the Criterion Collection have rewarded fans of Malick’s film by giving it the deluxe treatment.
The first shot of the film is of a crocodile sinking rather ominously into the water, followed by a stunning shot of sunlight streaming through the leaves of a tree as a voiceover narration says, “what’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” These ruminations about the nature of war and the environment play over a montage of absolutely beautiful scenery and we meet Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) living among the natives in an Eden-esque paradise but this is soon shattered when he spots a Navy patrol boat nearby. The AWOL soldier is brought back and made a stretcher bearer in C Company by First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) who sees the war in a very different way than Witt. He is more of a realist to Witt’s philosopher. They’re all shipped off to Guadalcanal where they’re ordered to invade and take the island from the Japanese forces because of its strategic importance.
Malick spends the rest of the film dwelling on the aspirations and fears of a handful of soldiers. There’s Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a career officer desperate to take the island so that he can be promoted to general. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) is dealing with the news that his wife is leaving him and tries to find a reason to still care about this war. However, it is the relationship between Witt and Welsh that lies at the heart of The Thin Red Line as their two opposing ideologies clash – Welsh is the jaded cynic and Witt the idealistic dreamer. The scenes they share are some of the strongest in the film. That being said, the combat scenes are well-choreographed kinetic set pieces where men are arbitrarily killed. We see the fear and confusion on their faces and how some of them mask it with bravado or grim determination. These sequences are noisy and jarring and contrast nicely with the calmer, more contemplative moments.
The Thin Red Line is filled with all kinds of breathtaking imagery that stays with you long after it ends, like a line of soldiers that walk through tall grass and casually pass by a short, old aboriginal man who doesn’t even acknowledge their presence as if he’s out for an afternoon stroll. There’s the numerous shots of the lush rainforest and the animals that inhabit it as if Malick seems to be saying war means nothing to them or to nature – they will be here long after we’re gone. Another sublime moment occurs when C Company is climbing a grassy hill and the light changes before our eyes and the sun goes in behind a cloud and out again.
The film is anchored by strong performances from the likes of Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas with others like Woody Harrelson and John Cusack in minor but notable roles, and then there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bit parts by then up-and-comers like Adrien Brody, Nick Stahl and Thomas Jane. One gets the feeling that they are all in the service of one man’s vision and that would be Malick.
He immerses us in this world so that at times it seems like we are right there with these soldiers and at other times he pulls back and reflects on the nature of war and its effect on man and the environment. The Thin Red Line is one of the most beautifully shot, poetic war films ever made. It wrestles with some pretty weighty themes and is unafraid to take the time and ponder them. Malick assumes that his audience is intelligent and not just interested in the visceral kicks of soldiers shooting each other and getting blown up. He is aiming for something more profound and using James Jones’ book as a jumping off point. Whether Malick is successful or not is up to the viewer to decide but it is readily apparent that he has created something special with this film.
The Thin Red Line was previously released twice by 20th Century Fox in fairly bare bones versions that included several of the Melanesian songs featured in the film and an impressive DTS soundtrack. The Criterion Collection has worked with Malick to give his film a very impressive facelift both visually and aurally while also including an impressive collection of supplemental material.
The first disc features an audio commentary with long-time Malick collaborator, production designer Jack Fisk, producer Grant Hill and cinematographer John Toll. They talk about how the opening scenes with the natives were shot very documentary-like with a small crew at the end of principal photography. They also point out the various locations they shot in and how it affected them and the film. Hill touches upon the casting process and how they got some of the marquee names to appear in the film. Naturally, they talk about working with Malick but not as much as I’d like. With these crew members, this is a more technically-oriented track short on anecdotal material.
Also included is the theatrical trailer.
The second disc starts off with a more than 30-minute featurette that showcases cast members Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn talking about how they were cast and their experiences making the film. They all give fascinating impressions of what Malick is like and what it was like to work with him. The actors did a lot of research and preparation, living and training like soldiers and, as a result, they really bonded with one another. Penn describes how a typical day of shooting might involve Malick shooting a scene with dialogue for a half day and then spending the second doing it again but without any dialogue. This is fantastic extra loaded with tons of anecdotes.
Dianne Crittenden is interviewed about the casting process and she explains what Malick was looking for in the actors that ultimately appeared in the film. We see audition footage of actors that were cast (Nick Stahl’s is quite impressive) and, more interestingly, glimpses of the ones who didn’t – Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Crispin Glover. Malick wanted actors that did not look contemporary and Crittenden saw people from theatrical acting groups all over the United States.
The film’s three editors, Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber are interviewed. Weber says that his favorite part of the film is a section that Jones worked on because it was so representative of Malick and his worldview. Klein says that Malick wasn’t too crazy about directing the battle sequences and just wanted to work with the actors. Weber and Jones talk about the initial five hour cut of the film and how they cut it down and how it changed with the addition of music and narration.
There is an interview with the film’s composer Hans Zimmer. He talks about meeting Malick and how they simply hung out together for a year before filming started. They never talked about the script but instead had more philosophical discussions. The director encouraged Zimmer to experiment and compose music that enhanced John Toll’s cinematography.
For fans of the film that know about all the footage that was shot and the actors that were cut completely out of the film, the addition of outtakes is particularly exciting. Included are eight scenes that run a total of 13 minutes. It’s nice to see more footage of actors like John C. Reilly and Adrien Brody who were marginalized in the final cut. Reilly gets to go off on a rant in a scene with Jim Caviezel. Brody, who just looks scared throughout the film, actually gets to speak here. Best of all, we see footage of Mickey Rourke, an actor cut out of the final version, in a stirring scene as a sniper who shares a scene with Caviezel.
Also included is an interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones. She talks about the novel and her father’s intentions in writing it. Most interestingly, Jones talks about her father’s upbringing and his experiences in World War II and how it fostered his anti-war sentiments as well as informing the novel.
There are five vintage theatrical newsreels that reported the status of the Pacific conflict in Guadalcanal to those at home. These are fascinating examples of war-time propaganda and feature valuable historical footage.
Finally, there are samples of Melanesian chants and music recorded for the film that play over behind-the-scenes stills.
Here is a link to a review of the Blu-ray edition complete with screengrabs.