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Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line transcends the action-oriented genre of the war film. Unlike the combat picture that dominated its year of release, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Malick's film is free of easy sentimentality and patriotic clichés; it's not "a gift to the veterans" dressed up in battlefield heroics. What separates The Thin Red Line from other war films and even from James Jones' source novel, is a spiritual quality fashioned from verbal poetry and visual lyricism.
James Jones' book is a close-in examination of the thoughts, fears, prejudices and vices of the soldiers of C Company on Guadalcanal. It was but one of many books written by WW2 veterans fresh from the fighting, several of which became big Hollywood movies in the 1950s. Awkward pictures like Battle Cry reduced battlefield issues to trite homilies about proper command. Flashbacks showed handsome stars like Aldo Ray wooing girls back home, as a sop to female ticket buyers.
Director Terrence Malick was a legend after making only two feature films. Even though twenty years had passed since Malick's celebrated Days of Heaven, every young male actor in Hollywood lined up to audition for his new film. Nobody knew what to expect, except that The Thin Red Line would be something entirely original.
The film is a fairly straightforward telling of Jones' book, keeping its many characters but dropping most of their complicated interrelationships. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) balks at throwing his troops into the slaughter, sending the ambitious Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) into screaming fits. Down at the foot soldier level, 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) has philosophical differences with the brig bird Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). Welsh believes in nothing beyond following orders and survival, while Witt claims that he's "seen another world" of moral and spiritual values. The lovesick Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) resigned his officer's commission in the engineer corps to be with his young wife, who he had to leave behind anyway. The back-stories of most of the other soldiers have been dropped but we quickly memorize their faces. Expecting close combat with the Japanese, hotshot redhead Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok) steals an officer's pistol. Pvt. Tills (Tim Blake Nelson) is convinced that his outfit is always given the worst assignments. Sgt. Storm (John C. Reilly) just bears down and does his job, while Pvt. Train (John Dee Smith) works through his fear with nervous chatter. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) has a sour disposition and Captain John Gaff (John Cusack) finds himself in the unenviable command of a crucial assault. The meek, trembling Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody) has but one expression on his gaunt face at all times, that says, "Get me out of here".
Malick apparently shot an enormous amount of footage illustrating James Jones' storyline, which he proceeded to whittle down to nothing in post production. Many of the film's dialogue scenes were dropped. In their place Malick substituted alternate scenes and shots of his characters going through the same actions, but without speaking. His three main editors then fashioned a new narrative interweaving visuals, Hans Zimmer's ethereal music and new voiceovers written by Malick in the cutting rooms. Some are direct stream-of-consciousness ramblings by the soldiers. But others are poetic ruminations that cumulatively become the voice of their collective soul. These voiceovers shape an underlying level of the film into a search for meaning behind the bloodshed and horror.
The movie begins with Pvt. Witt's AWOL idyll in a Melanesian village. Witt is inspired by this tropical paradise and its harmonious tribal society. The voiceovers inquire as to the nature of conflict, offering the proposition that war might be a part of nature itself, and that two opposed forces in nature may be at war with each other. Given confidence by this spiritual revelation, Witt serves in a disciplinary unit, earns the right to return to his beloved C Company, and eventually takes personal responsibility for his comrades. Witt indeed becomes Sgt. Welsh's equal.
The voiceovers are also used to introduce memories of the home front. Pvt. Witt is visited by thoughts of his joyful youth on a farm, and a vision of the death of his mother that's worthy of comparison with the spiritual films of Carl Dreyer. On her deathbed, a beatific woman reaches out to a young girl wearing what appears to be a wedding dress ... is she reaching out to her younger self? Without indulging in New Age banalities, Malick literalizes the vision of grace in Pvt. Witt's eyes. Pvt. Bell's separation from his wife (Miranda Otto) is presented as a series of stateside encounters and embraces, altered and idealized by memory. These ethereal flashbacks take on a disturbing quality, until we finally see an image of Bell's wife with another man.
The Thin Red Line's combat scenes may be the most realistic ever filmed. A forty-minute, highly subjective assault on a grassy hill builds to a feverish pitch, while at the same time marveling at the beauty of the terrain chosen as a battlefield. One startling visual lingers on the pathetic sight of a baby bird blown out of its nest. The equally vulnerable soldiers are cut down by the dozens as they charge dutifully up a long grassy slope. The only thing making them advance toward the unseen enemy machine guns is the certainty of death if they stay where they are. The culmination of the battle is a mad charge into an enemy camp, a melee followed by the spectacle of the defeated Japanese writhing in shame and humiliation. The manic Col. Tall drives his men on without water, while preparing to relieve Capt. Staros of his command. We already understand Col. Tall's actions, after seeing him forced to kowtow to a pompous, insulting Brigadier General (John Travolta).
The last third of the film loses some of its momentum, showing the men waiting in camp before going out on more dangerous patrols. Malick remains faithful to the experience of combat, where individual soldiers rarely have the opportunity to see their actions in terms of a "big picture". Pvt. Bell responds to traumatic news from home. Some of the green troops have gained experience and some have become emotionally numb, and Cpl. Fife is as tremulous as ever. The dead and the wounded are put out of mind, and the new Captain Bosche (George Clooney) exhorts the men to shape up and start performing like professional soldiers. The cynical Sgt. Welsh may never admit it, but his 'bad apple' Pvt. Witt is the only soldier who can place the horrible fighting in a psychologically acceptable context.
The Thin Red Line is a meditation on war, not an adventure story that merely contrasts the carnage of combat with feel-good excitement. Using James Jones' novel as a starting point, Malick's visuals are always dominated by a natural context, creating a strange sense of harmony. Conversations set against tropical dawns and sunsets often allow the actor's faces to fall into shadow or silhouette; light filters through the canopy of trees and colorful birds observe from the sidelines. Witt empties his canteen down the leaf of a giant fern, initiating a montage of water-related images that leads back to the Melanesian village. In the midst of battle young Bead (Nick Stahl) is distracted by a folding blade of grass. The setup is reminiscent of the butterfly scene in the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front, one of a few war movies in the same league as The Thin Red Line.
James Jones wrote (in an article included in Criterion's insert booklet) that "the true test of an anti-war film is whether or not it shows that modern war destroys human character". If that is the chosen yardstick, Terrence Malick's film is true to Jones' original intentions.
The rapturously beautiful The Thin Red Line begs for presentation in the higher resolution and increased contrast range of Blu-ray. Criterion's disc of the 20th-Fox film is stunningly sharp and colorful, with rich, dark images in the jungle foliage. The sweat and the dirt are as vibrant as the eye of a parrot or the clear waters of a lagoon, and the increase in detail encourages us to pick out the enemy positions high on the hill ahead. Director Malick and Cinematographer John Toll supervised the transfer, and the audio is in DTS-HD. Once again, the director includes a text card suggesting the film be played loud.
Criterion has produced a number of new extras to get a handle on this very complicated production. John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk and producer Grant Hill are heard on a full-length commentary. They explain how exterior scenes were shot without artificial lights or even reflectors, and how scenes were cut together from pieces of film shot in Australia, The Solomon Islands and the actual island of Guadalcanal. The smooth trucking shots in the hill assault sequence were accomplished with a gigantic crane resembling the mast of a sailing ship. New featurette docus contain interviews with many of the film's younger actors as well as veterans like Sean Penn. A separate piece with casting director Dianne Crittenden includes quite a bit of video audition footage, including tryouts with stars who weren't selected. Yet another interview gathers the film's three key editors to explain the exhausting creative process that turned a million-point-two feet of exposed dailies into a finished feature.
A separate menu choice gives us a number of the beautiful Melanesian chants heard in the movie. A selection of WW2 newsreels shows how the public saw the battle for Guadalcanal as it was being fought. One 'newsworthy' short subject explains how 'our boys' are served fresh fruit and vegetables on the front lines.
Fans will immediately want to look at a selection of eight deleted scenes. Rumors of multi-hour longer cuts of The Thin Red Line have persisted, although they were surely full-text versions with the dialogue scenes Malick eventually chose to drop. A number of special moments occur in these outtakes. Mickey Rourke appears briefly as a grimy, laid-back jungle fighter, a pal of Pvt. Witt's. Captain Bosche talks at length with Pvt. Bell about the letter from his wife. In the most amusing deleted scene, a doctor tells the incredulous Cpl. Fife that he has a torn leg tendon and will be "forced" to withdraw from the front lines for months. Adrien Brody's cautious hint of a smile is priceless.
A fat insert booklet contains an insightful essay by critic David Sterritt. In a 1963 Saturday Evening Post article James Jones decries the artifice of modern war movies, that continue to reinforce a false image of combat as an arena for character-building and honorable conduct.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Thin Red Line Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.