The Thin Red Line was released theatrically six months after Saving Private Ryan and while the latter helped transform the war movie genre's look with handheld shooting in the trenches with the soldiers, the former can (and should) be largely credited with helping to transform the identity of the cinematic soldier. Earlier films like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home helped show the world the already familiar face of the neglected soldier and as Ryan showed us what the troops fighting in Europe had to endure, those fighting in the Pacific theater in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima went through their own kind of personal hell. And Line shows us this, years before Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks did.
Terrence Malick adapted James Jones' novel into a screenplay which he also directed, his first film since 1978's hailed Days of Heaven. Needless to say, there was a buzz around the film that seeped into its preproduction and casting, with many recognizable names lining up to be part of the film, no matter how minor the role might be. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) is a soldier who abandoned his duty but is brought back to his company, where First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn, Milk) wants to make sure that his flightiness is properly accounted for. Witt however is certain that Welsh can't break him no matter what he tries to do. Witt has seen a gentler, more beautiful life and seems at peace with it. This minor war of wills occurs shortly before the battle at Guadalcanal, where an ambitious Colonel (Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder), pushes a company of men into battle despite their dearth of supplies and their wealth of casualties. This doesn't even count his Captain's (Elias Koteas, Shutter Island) protestations.
It's difficult to provide a real summation for The Thin Red Line, but that's in part because it's less about the story and more about the conflict these men go through within themselves when dealing with the demons of war and how they invade any given soldier's belief structure. One of the understated but effective character subplots within the film surrounds PFC Doll (Dash Mihok, The Perfect Storm). He kills a Japanese soldier with what can be described as a damn good head shot, and his voiceover is the catalyst of him trying to reconcile that in his being. While he has more fighting to do in the conflict, of the people who get back on the personnel barges back to the Naval ships, the look on his face is the most personally affecting.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Jones' work in this novel, but more so in his first work From Here to Eternity. As a soldier who was stationed in Hawaii like Jones was a half-century prior, what's striking to me about both works is just how well Jones captures the innocence of a soldier coming into the new surroundings and just how easily corrupted (morally) he can get. In Eternity, you have an existing group of soldiers who frequent brothels, sleep with other soldiers' wives, and get in fights with noncommissioned officers. Call it acting out, call it part of the evolution process of them as soldiers or men, but much of what occurred then occurred when I was in the Army, and I'd bet good money still happens today. A separate work, The Thin Red Line doesn't have the same type of "garrison mischief" but yet feels linear. The kids are preparing for battle, some are trying to come to grips with possibly dying in a foreign land. Others are putting the brave gung-ho look on things, perhaps in a way so as to not think about it. Some are wondering whether it's the last time they'll see their wife, like Private Bell (Ben Chaplin, The New World) is.
Jones' unique view into the fragile psyche of a soldier, whether it be at a duty station just as wartime begins or as a battle is going on, still remains effective, and Malick helps convey this rather well. The Thin Red Line might still not get the credit it deserves next to its cinematic partner of the year, but in my mind it laps Saving Private Ryan both in legacy and in quality.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Malick and John Toll (the film's Cinematographer) oversaw a new transfer for the film, and the result looks amazing in high-definition. Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen with the AVC codec, The Thin Red Line was already a beautifully shot and great looking film, but you see much more detail in the foreground and background within the Guadalcanal jungles that wasn't visible before. Skin tones are reproduced accurately and the lens fare shots in the beginning simply are breathtaking. Blacks are consistent and are very deep for a movie of this age, and shadow delineation is strong when called upon. An outstanding presentation and a keeper on Blu-ray.
I'm conflicted. On one hand, Malick suggests the film be played loud (it says so before you play the movie), but the DTS-HD Master Audio is so good that you're liable to piss the neighbors off in the process. The quieter voiceover scenes sound balanced and consistent, and to that end, the scenes where there's no battle, the environmental noise of wind sweeping through the tall grass or the boats cutting through the water sound clear and pan channels effective.
Where the movie earns its keep is in the battle scenes. Gunfire strafes all around you from front to rear and left to right, and when the howitzers unload on the hilltops the Japanese occupy, the subwoofer packs them with a controlled but powerful punch. It was so realistic that for this former artilleryman, I flashed back to my time on the line. Criterion provides a top-notch soundtrack for this disc.
Malick's reclusiveness aside, Criterion still manages to pack a fair amount of extras onto this edition, starting with a commentary from Toll, Production Designer Jack Fisk and Producer Grant Hill. The trio recalls some tidbits here and there from the production, such as the benefit of finding such an untouched location that they were able to unearth ammunition and weaponry from the Guadalcanal battles. They talk about a particular scene or sequence from a production design or shooting aspect, and how the second unit crew worked before and after the first. Working around the visual effects and explosions are also touched upon too. It's a worthwhile commentary to learn more about the production.
Next is "Actors" (33:35), which includes interview footage with Penn, Koteas, Caviezel and other cast members as they recall the casting and rehearsal process, and how they managed to land their roles, or read for other ones that they would eventually inhabit. They talk about their individual relationships with Malick and how he worked as a director, and the preparations they undertook for their roles. The locations are recalled along with the challenges of working in them, and the piece wraps with each performer's final thoughts. It's a solid extra, along with the "Casting" segment (17:58), which interviews Dianne Crittenden as she recounts how she approached casting the film. Easily the jewel within the segment is the audition footage not only of those who appear in the film, but those who didn't. Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Crispin Glover are among those whose audition tapes that are included here, along with the veritable Luke Perry. She even talks about what she looks for in casting to boot. Altogether, both pieces are valuable.
The "Editors" portion features Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber as they share their individual thoughts on crafting the film, and how hard Malick was to nail down in watching a cut, with the only occasion being for the five-hour first cut. They talk about how Malick worked with them and how they executed his intent, and it's a valuable piece. The "Music" segment (16:29) features Hans Zimmer and how he approached scoring the film. There are eight deleted scenes (13:23) that are decent, but notable here is the inclusion of one scene that Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) appears in. Jones' daughter appears in the next piece (19:05) where she talks about her father and provides a wealth of biographical information and accompanying stills to the effort. Newsreel footage of the Guadalcanal conflicts follows (15:18), along with some chants from the Melanesian locals set to production stills (6:47). The trailer (2:51) almost rounds things out, but not before a 36-page booklet that includes critical examinations and a fascinating piece by Jones from a 1963 "Saturday Evening Post" magazine bemoaning the lack of realism in war films at the time.
The Thin Red Line is a powerful testament to the emotional costs of war, and remains largely ignored for the story it tells, yet oddly enough other films seem to be telling it in different variations now. Criterion has given us a jaw-dropping Blu-ray disc to admire and for the technical qualities alone it's a strong buy, but worthy of a rental at the very least before making that decision if you're still on the fence about it.