Focus on Terrence Malick: The Thin Red Line

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A full 20 years after Days of Heaven made its way into theaters, Terrence Malick’s follow-up The Thin Red Line became the worst-regarded of his pictures, a dubious honor that it retains to this day. Film critic Charles Taylor wrote an infamous screed against the film at its release, and its subhead pretty much says it all: “What was supposed to be Terrence Malick’s long-awaited comeback is instead a cliched, self-indulgent throwback to the ’70s,” and while his opinion wasn’t quite mainstream, it certainly had its fair number of supporters (despite the odd swipes it takes at such indelible classics as Blade Runner and The Shining along the way). Conversely, it nearly won the National Society of Film Critics award for best picture and Martin Scorsese named it his second favorite film of the ‘90s. So what caused this wildly bifurcated response to the picture?

First, let’s flashback to right after the release of Days of Heaven. Despite the film’s strangeness and lack of real box office success, it became a critical darling and Malick had pretty much whatever project he wanted to work on next open to him. That looked for some time to be a film based on the life of Joseph Merrick—the “Elephant Man.” For some unknown reason Malick left that project, and soon afterwards his friend David Lynch announced his own version of The Elephant Man, killing off Malick’s version for good. Malick traveled to Paris where his wife at the time, Michie Gleason, directed Broken English (1981). Meanwhile, he spent his time working on the first version of what would eventually become The Tree of Life, at the time titled Q. Much of this meant simply traveling around the world and photographing various phenomena that might make it into the eventual film.

During this period, Malick was a favorite of Paramount’s CEO Barry Diller, who’d effectively put Days of Heaven into production. Diller paid for Malick to continue working on Q until either Malick quit or his deal with the studio ended following Charles Bluhdorn’s death, which is still unclear. He continued freelance screenwriting from his home in Austin, but none of his screenplays were produced. Finally, by the end of the decade, he was convinced to start working seriously on a screenplay for his own movies again and turned in a first draft of The Thin Red Line in 1989.

The film’s shooting script, which went through many revisions during the decade before its release, ran to 198 pages. During that time, Malick had only one other project come to fruition, an adaptation of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Shansho the Bailiff for the theater. It found a high-profile director in the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, but fighting between the two turned the production into both a critical and commercial disaster, such that the play closed after only six weeks.

Finally in 1995 the producers of The Thin Red Line staged a preliminary reading of its script at Mike Medavoy’s house, with Martin Sheen, Kevin Costner, Lukas Haas and others. It was a success and other actors such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn signed on to work at Actor’s Guild minimums on the movie, pushing the film into motion. The script went through more rewrites, and various forms of pre-production continued throughout the next two years, but after nearly a decade since its first draft, The Thin Red Line began shooting in May of 1997.

Days of Heaven famously diverged from its shooting script through compression, removing extraneous words in order to create a more archetypal story. The Thin Red Line, in fact, made that divergence look paltry and in place of any sort of traditional story, it simply has three acts: before the first major battle on Guadalcanal, during the battle, and after the battle. Its literate, character-driven script barely fits into what appears on-screen aside from following the same basic three-part structure. Everything else came after shooting was completed.

Almost all criticism, both at the time of its release and since then, has compared The Thin Red Line with 1998’s other WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan, and in this comparison quite a few find Malick’s picture severely lacking. Steven Spielberg in every way delivered a polished, traditional war story of heroics and perseverance in adverse conditions. The Thin Red Line, on the other hand, has nothing approximating a traditional war story, and even its simple structure thwarts the audience’s expectations, its lingering third act mocking the desire for closure. In a sense, if it was just the first two parts and then a short denouement, The Thin Red Line would simply be a war story told elliptically. But its odd format signals that its project is radically different from a movie like Saving Private Ryan.

The movie has two main thrusts, one human and one spiritual. Its human half attempts to encapsulate the experience of being in war—not just the experience for one individual, but for everyone, from an officer faking his way through commands to a private fully aware that his life is considered expendable. Malick simultaneously thwarts expectations for heroics and emphasizes the universal experience by giving the picture no real protagonist. Although its lead is in some sense Jim Caviezel, there’s a 30-minute period in which he doesn’t appear at all.

Thin Red Line’s many voice-overs are frequently impossible to attribute to any particular soldier, such that they soon function in a manner opposite to traditional voice-overs. Even in Badlands and Days of Heaven they offer a privileged look at characters’ interior thoughts, but here they function much closer to a Greek chorus. It’s a commentary on events from a sort of universal soldier’s point of view, and the voice-over is frequently more philosophical than personal. The narration that begins the movie is “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” which has nothing to do with a particular character. It’s a commentary on the plight of the world and soldiers in general.

This leads to the film’s other concerns, which are far more philosophical and quasi-religious. Caviezel’s character goes AWOL to meet with Guadalcanal’s native population, and Malick treats these sections as if he’s entered into a pre-lapsarian world. Religious overtones are impossible to separate from the picture because that’s what Malick’s interested in looking at in war. Particular tactics or heroism aren’t important, but soldiers figuring out where they stand with respect to the universe and their God, those are far more interesting to him. How do you shoot a person and still consider yourself a good person? How do you see the carnage and not lose faith in humanity?

Scorsese says of the movie, “As you watch it you wonder: What is narrative in movies? Is it everything, and if so, is there only one way to handle it? … If Malick had just done a straightforward narrative, could he ever have achieved the kind of poetry he does here, or made a film where you really come to see the world as a primeval place? I don’t think so.”

More than most movies, critics seemed to respond to The Thin Red Line based upon their particular expectations of what a war movie should be. If the basic assumption is that it should exalt heroics and condemn the bad guy, that it should be a rollercoaster ride that gets your adrenaline going, then The Thin Red Line markedly disappoints. Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor offer that kind of movie, and while one may be more intelligent than the other, they’re still the same genre of war movies; it’s the type of picture that will have sequences copied in Call of Duty games.

The Thin Red Line works completely outside that boundary, and it’s even strange by the standards of less-traditional war films like those of Stanley Kubrick and Sam Fuller. Within their films you still have traditional storytelling, it’s simply undercut by their directors’ cynicism and distaste for war. For all of its insanity, Apocalypse Now fulfills the basic agreement with the audience about what a war picture should be.

The Thin Red Line, on the other hand, is one of a kind. No other war movie I’ve seen has cared so little for the audience’s expectations and gone against the traditional war picture in both form and narrative. Whether it’s character, narrative, editing or even cinematography (watch closely and notice the way sequences are cut together with a complete disregard for changes in lighting), it refutes the notion of what a war movie has to be and instead gives something more unique.

Of course, not all critics who panned the movie were looking for mere explosions, but here too Malick thwarted their expectations. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven keep spectators at an arms’ distance with a sense of irony, particular from their narration. It’s easy to sneer at what’s happening and judge characters, and this distancing effect means that while they’re arty films, they’re also easily digestible. One of the major differences between The Thin Red Line, along with later Malick movies, and his two ‘70s pictures is the level of earnestness. There’s no irony in the film; the philosophical questions being asked are real and serious. This earnestness was frequently mistaken for pretentiousness, but there’s no pretension here, and in my opinion labeling these ideas pretentious is a way of coping with how uncomfortable this level of openness can be.

The Thin Red Line is my least favorite of Malick’s movies. It’s by far the most difficult to re-watch and aside from its beauty, offers none of the conventional pleasures of a film. That being said, up until Tree of Life, it was his boldest, most experimental picture. It not only breaks away from war movies, it finds Malick changing his own style and becoming even more radically improvisational (at one point, Billy Bob Thornton was such a major character he recorded an entire narration for the movie—his character doesn’t even exist in the movie’s final cut).

It turns out that the critical divide over the film makes perfect sense. Those looking for a Hollywood movie worthy of a $53 million budget were disappointed. Those interested in an almost non-narrative art movie were excited about the return of a major artist. Neither side was wrong, it’s simply that they were watching The Thin Red Line for completely different purposes, and audiences expecting a second Spielberg film rather than a cross between Antonioni and Welles were unsurprisingly disappointed. It flopped hard at the box office, but as critics have adjusted more to later Malick, it’s now being reappraised more for what it is than what it isn’t and judged more fairly, not as a war movie but as the weird, religious and deeply personal movie it is.

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