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  Thin Red Line, The Guadalcanal Diary
Year: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, Miranda Otto, John C. Reilly, John Savage, Nick Stahl, John Travolta
Genre: WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: 1942, Guadalcanal, and the war in the Pacific is just getting going, with the Americans and Japanese bitterly fighting over every island they encounter as a matter of gaining tactical advantages and simple territory alike. But for one American private, Witt (Jim Caviezel), the intensity of the conflict has been too much and he has decided to go absent without leave on the island, spending his time relaxing among the locals whose simple way of life in what seems to him a Paradise is perfect for his state of mind. However, the US Army know where he is, and track him down easily: Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) is not impressed...

Yes, those azure seas and Eden-like jungles really need to be coloured with blood and punctuated with explosions according to the men orchestrating the fighting, and so Witt is plunged back into battle soon enough in a much-anticipated war movie that was to the cineastes what Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was to the filmgoing masses in 1998. There was much buzz around it from the buffs, as this was the first film from writer and director Terrence Malick for two decades, after he had released Days of Heaven; apparently (though it is difficult to tell since he doesn't give interviews) he had not intended to stay away quite so long.

The stories of Malick's eccentricity were there for those who wanted to uncover them, and indeed were there in the end result here, as he had hired an all-star cast to tell his adaptation of James Jones' celebrated novel (previously filmed in the nineteen-sixties), but not necessarily placed them all in the picture, despite spending months out in Australia filming them. Then there were the stars who were in it, but only for one scene: George Clooney, about as famous a celebrity it was possible to be in American movies in 1998, appeared for a minute and a half, half of that of the back of his head, and with co-star Sean Penn delivering a voiceover over his dialogue.

Pity, too, Adrien Brody, playing the book's protagonist and therefore expecting to be a pretty big part of the project: he showed up at the premiere to discover he was in two sequences, one near the end which made his character look like a total loser, and had about three lines. Perhaps the trouble was that as a production, The Thin Red Line was just too big, and at some stage had become unwieldy, a war epic with something to say about humanity's way of carrying on its conflicts as the natural world continues obliviously until there are serious implications, such as manmade destruction on a huge scale. But while you would easily pick up on Malick's focus on nature, the reasons for the battles were unimportant here, diminishing the sacrifices made by the soldiers on both sides.

Was that the point? One of Malick's next would be The Tree of Life where he contrasted an intimate tale of domesticity with the cosmic quality of the universe going on around it, and you could assuredly discern the same kind of themes here. We were privy to the thoughts of many of the characters, again through voiceover, though they spoke in cod-poetry that you may well wonder whether was an accurate depiction of the concepts racing through the minds of the average American solder of the Second World War. It was all about elevating what was a terrifying, alien experience for these men into a quasi-religious experience, without actually mentioning God that much: the Almighty was to be witnessed in the flora and fauna the soldiers move through, and the Melanesians who live there are supposed to be more in touch with the spiritual than any of them. You can understand why this became so divisive so quickly, as Spielberg delivered easily understandable action and tragedy, yet Malick was reaching for the profound with mood and striking imagery. That was not going to be for everyone, but if it chimed with your soul, you would be satisfied. Music by Hans Zimmer.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these features:

New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer John Toll, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
New audio commentary by Toll, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill
Interviews with several of the film's actors, including Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn; composer Hans Zimmer; editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein; and writer James Jones's daughter Kaylie Jones
New interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, featuring archival audition footage
Fourteen minutes of outtakes from the film
World War II newsreels from Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands
Melanesian chants
Original theatrical trailer
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic David Sterritt and a 1963 reprint by James Jones.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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