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Days of Terrence Malick (Part 1): The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick directed two highly acclaimed films in the 1970’s (Badlands and Days of Heaven, neither of which I’ve seen, but I plan to remedy that soon — more on this later), and then he dropped out of sight for twenty years.  Mr. Malick finally returned to the world of filmmaking in 1998 with the release of The Thin Red Line, his lengthy adaptation of James Jones’ novel, set during the battles of Guadalcanal during World War II.

I had previously seen The Thin Red Line once, in theatres back in 1998.  It had nowhere near the effect on me that Steven Spielberg’s WWII film, Saving Private Ryan (which had been released earlier that year) did.  (I still remember my shell-shocked, emotionally drained reaction after seeing Saving Private Ryan in the theatre.  My friends and I sat silently in our seats for a good while after the film ended, and it took a while into the car-ride home before we began to unwind a bit and find ourselves able to discuss the film we’d seen.  These days I am well aware of the film’s narrative weaknesses and tendencies towards over-emotionalities, but I still bow before Mr. Spielberg’s skill in crafting a film that, upon my initial viewing, on the big-screen, left me so emotionally devastated.  The only other film that’s affected me quite that way, when seeing it for the first time on the big screen, was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.)

But even though I didn’t have anything like that reaction upon seeing The Thin Red Line for the first time back in 1998, I remember thoroughly enjoying the film.  I was entranced by the gorgeous imagery and beguiled by the dense, inter-weaving inner monologues of countless characters, each sharing some of their own insight and reflections on the conflict and on larger issues of human nature and mankind.

When the Criterion Collection released a new blu-ray edition of The Thin Red Line, I was eager to see the film again.  The blu-ray, no surprise, looks and sounds absolutely immaculate.  The barrage of imagery in what I once read described as Mr. Malick’s “tone-poem” remains as sumptuously gorgeous as I remembered.  The juxtaposition of the jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes and imagery of animals and nature with the unspeakably brutal realities of human conflict during war gives the film a potent and heart-rending thematic punch.

I do find myself wishing, though, that the film’s dense ideas and philosophical musings — not to mention the sheer amount of filmmaking mastery on display as one watches the film’s gorgeous imagery unfold — could have been melded with a narrative that was more effectively coherent.  Because we’re constantly jumping around from character to character, because many characters (many of which are played by very famous, talented actors) only appear in the film for a moment or two before dropping into the background or disappearing entirely, and because it’s often impossible to tell which character the voice we hear in the narration belongs to, I felt the film always kept me, as a viewer, at arm’s length.  One never really gets to know any of the characters in the film, so it’s difficult to really engage with them or their stories.

A great example is the confrontation that occurs, towards the middle of the film, between Elias Koteas as Captain Staros and Nick Nolte as Corporal Tall.  (By the way, I had to look up those names on-line, as the film makes it very difficult for one to learn any of the characters’ names.)  In the tense scene, Corporal Tall has ordered Captain Staros’ men to attack a Japanese bunker.  Captain Staros refuses, saying that the attack is impossible and would result in the needless massacre of all of his men.  Corporal Tall calls him a coward who is overstating the difficulties of the mission.  It’s a great scene, well-played by two terrific actors.  But because, to that point, the film hasn’t allowed us to get to know either character at all, there’s no context to the scene.  We have no idea which character’s point of view is the correct one (or even, acknowledging that in war there are times when it’s impossible to say which view is correct, we don’t as an audience even have any ability to judge with which character we sympathize the most, and therefore whose side we take).  I feel that this keeps the scene, as great as it is, from being nearly as potent as it could have been.  This could have been a dramatic pivot-point in the film’s story.  Instead, it’s an interesting sequence that is forgotten by the film’s narrative within thirty minutes.

Does it mark me as a man of limited imagination that I found myself constantly wishing, when watching the film, that we could have gotten to know so many of the characters better?  In the film, the character with whom we spend the most time, Jim Caviezel as Pvt. Witt, nonetheless remains a total enigma to me.  I don’t understand the character’s point of view, and the beatific look on his face that he constantly sports, at all.  And the film keeps introducing other interesting-seeming characters with whom I would have loved to have gotten to spend more time, characters like John C. Reilly’s Sgt. Storm, Tim Blake Nelson as Pvt. Tills, John Savage as Sgt. McCron, Adrien Brody as Cpl. Fife, Kirk Acevedo as Pvt. Tella, Thomas Jane as Pvt. Ash, and so many more.  (Once again, by the way, I had to look up all of those names.  I recognized our glimpses of the actors in the film, but had no idea any of their characters’ names.)  It feels like something of a missed opportunity to me.  I imagine that there are so much more interesting stories to be told about all of those characters, sitting on the cutting room floor.  (Although the blu-ray includes about 15 minutes worth of deleted scenes, from everything I’ve read there is extensive additional excised footage, some of which features performances from actors including Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Martin Sheen.  I’m bummed that none of that footage was included on the disc!)

But while I might wonder about the film that The Thin Red Line could have been, in the hands of a more conventional director, I respect and enjoy the surreal, philosophical, totally unique meditation on war that the film became in the hands of Terrence Malick.  I continue to find the film to be dazzling and compelling.

Re-watching The Thin Red Line last month, I decided that the time had come for me to finally watch Mr. Malick’s two films from the ’70s, which are so highly thought of: Badlands and Days of Heaven.  They are already in my home, thanks to Netflix.  I will be back here soon with my thoughts on those two films!  Will I think they live up to all of the hype…?  We’ll find out together!

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