There are moments when greatness is immediately apparent. When I first watched Terrence Malick’s 1998 film, The Thin Red Line, over a decade ago, it was clear that the film was great, and so was its director. Perhaps it was the opening shot of the film, wherein a crocodile slithers into muck as a rising fugue intones, that invoked a poetic realism that the rest of the nearly three hour film sustains. Or, perhaps, it was within the first 5 or 10 minutes, when the voiceover narration and watery images mixed into something rarely seen onscreen. Nonetheless, I immediately felt that sort of pleasure seep into one, knowing that this artist knows exactly what he is doing, and it will be something very good, or even better. And every time I’ve watched it since it reveals nuances not noticed before. That’s a surefire marker of greatness. Oddly, the people I saw the film with disagreed, yet they had no real definitive reasons save the usual emotional response, or its lack. Upon rewatching the film, nothing has changed from my initial opinion. And given that this film was often spoken of in the same breath as Steven Spielberg’s schlocksterpiece, Saving Private Ryan, shows how utterly clueless most critics, much less layfolk, are, for while both films were released in the same year, and cover the same war, the qualitative difference is immense.
Saving Private Ryan wallows in stereotypes and clichéd characters, while The Thin Red Line cores into even its most marginal characters- sometimes with merely a shot of the actor looking at another actor. When the film first came out many of the actors cast in grunt roles were unknown, and this anonymity was refreshing. Rewatching the film now, the faces are all distinct, even as the voiceovers meld into one. And the situations it reveals touch at what makes human beings different from mere ‘animals,’ in the best sense of the comparison, whereas Spielberg’s film almost glories in the pornography of violence for violence’s sake. Malick’s film deplores violence, but does so not by fetishizing pain, but by digging into those that bring it to fruition. The best example of this is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Colonel Tall. He is a man whom we hear (in voiceover) has bootlicked his way into his position, and now glories in his ‘moment’ to show his military mind, at the battle of Guadalcanal (watch Nolte’s gritted teeth restraint in his scenes with John Travolta’s general). As in the disgusting French colonels portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, who care less of their men than of ‘glory,’ Tall is willing to sacrifice men, by needlessly tossing them into harm’s way. When he runs into an obstacle, such as the principled Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), Tall is willing to send the man stateside, and boost his resume, too. Yet, Staros’s ethos and Tall’s cravenness are but two of the numerous juxtapositions of human nature presented. But the good thing about the film and its screenplay, written by Malick, and adapted from James Jones’ novel, is that none are perfect stereotypes. Tall is not the World War One Generals of Kubrick’s film. One senses he knows he is selling his soul. We see the inner workings of this calculus, and Malick then does something devastating. He sets up the scene wherein Tall and Staros clash about whether or not to send their men into a meat grinder to capture the hill, only to have Staros make his stand, Tall’s face do a classic drop of disbelief, and then have Tall’s call turn out to be the correct one. And Staros is not wholly selfless. He accepts the ‘payoff’ of a desk job in Washington, D.C., as well as a Silver Star and Purple Heart, so that he can return to his family. He realizes that if one is going to get screwed by something in the war, his is about the best possible screwjob going.
The film’s best dichotomous pair, though, is portrayed by Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt and Sean Penn’s Sergeant Welsh. Witt is the main narrator of the film, although several voices chime in, and a consummate dreamer and optimist, whereas Welsh is the realist. Welsh, of course, survives, whereas Witt ends up sacrificing his life to decoy Japanese troops away from his squad, which would have been sitting ducks. Although often cast as a bleeding heart liberal film, with Sean Penn as one of Hollywood’s leading bleeding hearts, Penn’s Welsh delivers two of the film’s (and one of war films’) most devastating lines, when, after valorously bringing morphine to a dying soldier, he declares war being about nothing but ‘property,’ and after having spent the film listening to Witt prattle on, it is Welsh standing over Witt’s improvised grave, and stating, ‘Where’s your spark now?’ Of course, being a fiction, we do get to hear Witt’s voiceover take the film to its conclusion, as, from the great beyond, he declares he sees, ‘all things, shining.’ We then see the regrowth of a plant in a pool in a swamp. Interestingly, while Malick has made use of voiceovers in all of his films, he does so for different reasons in each film. In this film, the voiceover comments are not recapitulatory, but revelatory, as they are used often contrapuntally to the action, and even more so epigraphically. The words spoken are often philosophic tangents that take off where the visuals end, and emphasize the commonality of human ignorance, as well as decency. Because Malick has all the characters who ruminate speak in the same detached and wistful tone, this effectively makes it near impossible to tell when some characters’ ideas and ideals end and where others’ begin. What this also does is make the voiceovers not ‘extras’ in the film, as so often happens, but it expands the film from its visual base and into the minds of the viewer as a multidimensional medium. The images and ruminations, alone, may not be so important, but together they are essential to what The Thin Red Line is, as well as to what it captures about the human condition in extremis.
Another interesting thing that Malick does is humanize the portrayal of the Japanese enemies in the film. Instead of the stoic kamikaze/samurai we get manic and schizoid shellshock victims, as well as a poetic scene where the almost buried face of a dead Japanese soldier seems to be asking queries of his American conquerors. We also get poetic asides that scan into the jungle and sees its animal inhabitants, and a scene wherein the ‘good guys’ are shown to be as fallible as the enemy, when Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) accidentally kills himself when he pulls out his grenade, but only gets the pin, which makes the grenade blow off his leg. Many critics have used clichés like tone poem or essay when describing the film, but most of them do not even know what such terms mean, much less when to apply them. But, The Thin Red Line does have a film it shares a clear affinity with, and that is not Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, but his 2001: A Space Odyssey, because like that film which posits mankind’s future in the face of the unknown of what awaits in outer space, The Thin Red Line asks what have we dealt with in our collective past that stems from within us?
But, all of this is about and stems from Malick’s talents and his excellent screenplay, which takes the best moments from Jones’ novel and integrates them into the film with a purpose. A good example of this comes when Private Doll (Dash Mihok) steals another infantryman’s pistol, and says it will protect him on the island. In fact, the stolen gun not only does that, but is pivotal in the assault upon the Japanese bunker, providing Doll with a chance at the glory and manhood he seeks, even if from an act of theft. Yet virtually every aspect of this film (from minor to major contributors) is flawless, from a great and judiciously applied score, by Hans Zimmer, to John Toll’s canted imagery and stunning depth of field cinematography that just does not show physical beauty, but brings beauty to the physical images, even a beauty to death- see the shots of the dying altrice, to acting that is never hammy nor scenery chewing. Even Nolte’s Colonel Tall, while an impotent pill, is given a background that justifies his idiocy (to himself if not to a reasonable character). And, as a further word to the great cinematography; just compare it to that in Spielberg’s film. While technically well done, Spielberg’s camera never gets one inside its characters. Partly this is the screenplay, but also this is because the main point of Spielberg’s ‘eye’ is to show war’s violence. But violence is not the ‘horror’ of war. The horror of war produces callous bastards like Colonel Tall. Spielberg’s film and war is violent pornography, a fetishizing of pain, whereas Malick’s is a revelation of the horror underneath and controlling the violence, as well as its aftermath. This is because Malick, ala many of the films of Werner Herzog, uses ‘eye level realism.’ We are next to Malick’s characters, as well as in them, such as Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who muses throughout the film over his left behind wife, only to, late in the film, receive a Dear John letter from her. We can almost hear their hearts beat, smell their sweaty stench, and anticipate a response. With Spielberg’s characters we are just left with trite war film clichés. Many dull critics lamented the film’s philosophy- either its stance about war, or the very fact that mere GIs would even be able to opine on topics other than beer, football, and girls. But, when in the face of mortality, even the stolid can get to wondering why this and that. And, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the light texturing of characters into situations works well because we see exactly the right moments needed to push the drama along. There is no waste. We know instantly why certain characters react to each other as they do, because we intuit it via our own internal memories of people who look, sound, and act just as many of the characters do. And, even more so, Malick makes a great choice not to subtitle the voicings of the Japanese soldiers that are shown in battle and as prisoners (save for one English language query asked by the Japanese soldier with the half-buried face; whose voice, we learn in the audio commentary, is that of Koteas). This does not distance the viewer from them, however. In fact, it draws the viewer in closer to the faces, which is exactly what Malick wants, for in the faces of the Japanese soldiers we see the real humanity they have- the fear, rage, anger, hatred, and helplessness they bear, which is the same as the American soldiers the film presents. Malick’s film is not about good and evil, but about good, evil, and their connection via thin strands of human ethos and situations. Also, whereas Spielberg’s film, and its mentality, could only be set in a Hollywoodized version of World War Two, Malick’s film is only incidentally set in the same war. It could have been a film set during any war, past, present, or future. And this is made plain by the film’s end narration, about ‘all things, shining,’ and a visual coda on the indifference of life to mankind’s violence.
The two disk DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is a vast improvement over the bare bones single disk put out by 20th Century Fox. The only real ‘extra’ on the earlier version was a track of Melanesian songs, and a thin insert booklet. Criterion goes all out on this DVD, a nice change from the last few years where the company has skimped mercilessly on many classic releases. Disk One has the film, the original theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary track on the film by production designer Jack Fisk, producer Grant Hill, and cinematographer John Toll. It’s a solid commentary, but nothing spectacular. A second commentary with a film historian/expert, or an expert on World War Two or James Jones could have helped immensely. While the trio are sometimes scene specific, their commentary is often generic in content, as well as vocally, as one can barely tell each man apart. The background information is interesting, but since it’s covered elsewhere in the extras, it’s a bit redundant, and points out what a film or war expert could have added.
Disk Two has several featurettes, including one on the cast’s experiences during the making of the film, and features comments from Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn. Penn’s comments, while not deep, are notable in how he delineates how he, as a big star, received different treatment from the rest of the then-relative unknowns, and how he never went to Guadalcanal to shoot. Another featurette has Dianne Crittenden, who was in charge of casting, talk about the process of finding actors via video submissions and recommendations from theater pals, hiring more than needed, and then letting Malick whittle down the best of the bunch in the course of shooting. Among actors who did not make the cut were Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Neil Patrick Harris, and Crispin Glover. The third featurette features the film’s three editors- Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber- reminiscing about their experiences on the film; most notably forcing Malick to sit for an initial five hour ‘rough cut’ to help guide them along the way to making the final 170 minute final version. There is also an interview with the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer. It’s solid, but unless you are a musician, much of what is learnt will not appeal to laymen. There are also deleted scenes, the best of which feature Mickey Rourke as a ragman. A very interesting feature has James Jones’ daughter Kaylie talking about her father’s life, wartime experiences, and the writing of the book the film is based on. There are also some vintage newsreels of the battles on Guadalcanal and nearby islands, and a sampler of Melanesian chants and music. The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the quality is very good.
While Malick has, to this date, released only four films, all of them are excellent, and this one one is the best- both epic and intensely personal. His first film, Badlands, was a unique spin on the Bonnie And Clyde themed mythos. His Days Of Heaven, in 1978, is a majestic film that could almost have been a silent film masterpiece. His latest screen release, The New World, is another great film- possibly the best American film of the last decade. But The Thin Red Line is better than all of them, and ranks with Paths Of Glory and Apocalypse Now as amongst the greatest American war films ever made. It is a masterpiece that really has no flaws. And like Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, released a year after this film, I was amongst the very few critics to immediately recognize its greatness, despite massive critical scorn (although the critical tide has belatedly turned in the correct favor). Sometimes prescience has its benefits. After all, as the film recognizes, sometimes it’s all about the little moments, or just the little thoughts of bigger ones, that matter.