There’s something to be said about be prolific. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s work for example – there are runs of three-four films over a two- to three-year span that are so brilliant that you are willing to forgive the clunkers like Torn Curtain. But there’s also something rare and amazing about the director that picks his pieces carefully.
Terrence Malick hit the ground running in 1973 with Badlands. The well received film set in South Dakota and middle America in the 1950s starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek has gained in respect since its release. His second film came five years later in 1978, Days Of Heaven – it was another period piece (set in 1916) in the Texas panhandle starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. In those five years, Malick found it easier to tell the story he imagined with less dialog and let the cinematography tell a rich story – pulling inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper. Malick took a mere 20-year break before releasing his next film, The Thin Red Line in 1998 – a World War Two film based on a book by James Jones.
Twenty years is a long time between films. There was plenty of time for Malick to think about life and death and moviemaking. The war film of this period in cinema was approaching the end of a arc started by Apocalypse Now to start the 1980s, peaking with Platoon in the mid-’80s and seemingly ending with the triumph of Saving Private Ryan earlier in 1998. These movies increasingly were getting away from telling the stories of the soldiers and were leaning more towards letting the war itself be the story. Malick would use the techniques he had in his previous two films to tell a story that was much more about human beings and life than about soldiers and war.
In a literal sense, the movie tells the story of Company C during the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific during World War II. Like other movies of the genre, war films require a rather large ensemble cast and this film is no different. There are so many actors that lined up to work with Malick that he couldn’t even fit all of them into the final cut. Ones that made the cut include Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody and John Travolta. Those left on the cutting room floor include Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen and Billy Bob Thornton. But this film isn’t about military tactics or finding lost soldiers – this movie is set to shed light on higher philosophical ideals of nature and humanity.
The film starts with a shot of an alligator slipping into a swamp – blending into its surroundings like a perfect predator. It’s the same way that the jungle and later the long grass of the mountains will swallow the soldiers. Nature will be a main focus of the film. This film looks wonderful on Blu-ray – the idyllic shots of long green grass against improbably blue skies jump off the screen. Nature is dangerous – there are snakes and bats and predators throughout the film, but they don’t interact with the soldiers. This illustrates Malick’s philosophical style. He raises questions without really delivering any answers. For some it’s frustrating – for others this makes perfect sense. Is Nature evil? Is Man more evil? Or are we powerless against the force of Nature? These are all valid questions to Malick.
The other important element of The Thin Red Line is in its unique use of narration. The film is more narration than actual dialog, I believe. The narration isn’t a plot device to summarize the battle, fill in story details or even to explain what we are seeing onscreen. The narration is more a combination of internal monologue as if we are watching a Shakespeare play. Or it’s akin to journal entries being read while we see scenes that inspired the words.
“What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of light and life? Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known?”
Almost all of the actors have narration. And there are many points where the voices blur together and it’s almost impossible to keep track of who’s words we are hearing. That creates the feeling of an “everyman” narrating the film – that what is being observed is more of a Universal experience. As the Company overwhelms a Japanese encampment, the narration raises questions. But allows the viewer to ponder the answer. “What is this great evil?” That’s not directed specifically at the enemy. As soldiers shoot each other, the lines are blurred. Have we become evil? And how did it happen? Most other war films have not found a way to ask these questions.
The sound design is amazing. In the essay that accompanies the disc, it is mentioned that Malick suggests you watch the film at a loud volume (it also appears in subtitles at the beginning of the disc!). I wholeheartedly agree. There is way too much going on that you would miss at normal volume levels. The island is alive with sound – natural and man made. Malick manipulates sound to establish themes and tones. Unlike a movie like Saving Private Ryan, the battles aren’t a cacophony of sound. While there are some traditionally filmed battle scenes – they aren’t presented in ways that you have seen them. Malick uses isolated sounds and Hans Zimmer’s soaring score to emphasize emotions over action. The battles to take a machine gun nest on the hill don’t become about taking the hill – they are about loss and futility – underscored by the swelling music and the sporadic narration.
The movie is summed up for me in a pivotal scene about half way through the almost three hour runtime between Lt. Tall as played by Nick Nolte and Captain Staros as played by Elias Koteas. Lt. Tall has been passed over for many promotions and he’s looking to make a name for himself in this battle. Lt. Tall is not “tall” in any way – he is the shallowest man on the island – oblivious to anything but his own needs. At one point, Tall orders Staros to take the hill with a frontal assault. The orders are being relayed to him over a battlefield phone. Staros and his men are pinned down by enemy fire. Staros refuses to obey the order. The argument between the two that ensues is brilliant. As we cut back and forth – Nolte is a raging volcano – shaking with anger as he orders Staros to attack. Staros responds in a calm, reasoning manner. There are tense moments of silence as the viewer takes in the scene waiting for the next response. Lt. Tall allows Staros a reprieve as he comes up to the frontline. By the time he arrives – the situation has calmed down and there appears to be no reason that Staros couldn’t have attacked. Ultimately, I see the futility of the war in this argument. Neither man wins – Tall doesn’t get his shining moment and Staros eventually gets relieved of his command. Emotion and reason both lose.
In the years since the movie’s release, there seems to be a renewed interest in the War in the Pacific. Ken Burn’s The War focused equally on the war in both theaters – including extended attention to Guadalcanal. And the HBO series The Pacific did a great job of capturing a bit of the thematic threads of the Malick film. It was certainly informed by some of the filming decisions he made here. But this movie could easily be about any war – it aims much deeper.
While Malick is influenced by many sources – in the twenty years between films, you get the feeling he was absorbing all kinds of art that would add depth to his cinematic voice – there is a big nod to The Heart Of Darkness. It’s not the Apocalypse Now take on the piece though. The title itself refers to the thin line between sanity and madness. It is truly an ensemble cast but our journey begins and ends with Private Witt played by Jim Caviezal (oddly as a very Christ-like character). We start the film in the bright idyllic Eden-like world with him among the natives. He travels through the film into the jungle and darkness. We end the film with Pvt. Witt peacefully learning to accept death as he sacrifices himself for his men. Sean Penn’s character, Sgt. Welsh wonders what difference one man can make. That question lingers as the troops pull away from the island.
“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
The Blu-ray is loaded with extras including commentary from cinematographer John Toll and others from the crew. There’s some great audition footage included. Plus, I’m a big fan of the newsreels of the battle of Guadalcanal. It puts the film in perspective that Malick probably didn’t think would be important. An impressive movie that will prompt you on a philosophical level.