"That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth."
The Thin Red Line was Terrence Malick’s third film. He had made one very good film (Badlands) and one masterpiece (Days of Heaven). Then he went away.
For twenty years.
So when The Thin Red Line was announced, fans were excited. Famous actors far and wide salivated over working with him.
But a Malick film will never earn Cameron type money. Or in this case, Spielberg.
The film was often looked at as “that other World War II movie” that came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan. Both strong films, Ryan has the much more conventional script and style. The Thin Red Line seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Somewhat appropriately, it was nominated for 7 Oscars, but took home none.
But as seems to happen with Malick, the reputation of the film gets better and better as time passes.
Martin Scorsese dubbed it the greatest film made in the 90s.
"The greatest contemporary war film I've seen." Gene Siskel (1)
Critic Dan Schneider even mentions Ryan in his review, as they seem for better or worse linked.
“While both films were released in the same year, and cover the same war, the qualitative difference is immense. Saving Private Ryan wallows in stereotypes and clichéd characters, while The Thin Red Line cores into even its most marginal characters- sometimes with merely a shot of the actor looking at another actor.” (2)
I won’t go that far, because I liked Saving Private Ryan. But upon leaving the theater after watching The Thin Red Line, I immediately looked for the next showing, to see if I had enough time to watch it again. For a paced, over two and a half hour war film, some probably find that crazy. But it was a war film done unlike any other I had seen.
I have watched it 7 or 8 times since, and always find things in it I did not notice previously.
The opening sets the tone of man struggling with nature. The soldiers seem to fight against nature as much as the Japanese.
Nature struggles with itself.
We see a crocodile slither into the water. Then these lines:
“What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”
Not your typical “war film” opening. And so the film paces itself along. With extensive voice-overs that often sound like poetry from the minds of the soldiers.
“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?”
“I'm dying. Slow as a tree.”
Martin Scorsese: “The Thin Red Line works very differently from most films; 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?"
"Its almost like an endless picture. There’s no beginning and no end.” (3)
Malick is not your typical director; if there is such a thing. He attended both Harvard and Oxford, and taught Philosophy at MIT. (4) He has shown interest in multiple religions. He is said to know the Bible extensively.
The plot for Days of Heaven, is very similar to the Book of Ruth.
He is reclusive to the point that JD Salinger would have been impressed. He does not want his own signature on almost anything, which can make contracts a bit difficult. The contracts he does agree to, prevent his likeness from being used to promote his films. A big magazine article on the film could only find one current picture of him to put in their piece. As it turned out, the picture they found was not him at all but actually of a producer. (5)
Imagine a major magazine unsure what Spielberg looked like.
But for his quirks, Malick is a true original.
No Director seems more in love with God's creation.
With, The Thin Red Line, there is not one gun shot fired until well over 40 minutes in.
And when the boats hit the beach and the soldiers storm it, it is the complete opposite of that famous scene at D-Day.
There is nobody there. No enemy is fighting back. The place looks beautiful. Why would we fight a war here? Maybe the enemy had the same idea.
Of course the enemy is waiting. The officers were wrong about when to expect them. Things are upside down. Pointed out by a soldier who says, “they got fish that live in trees here.”
Nick Nolte represents those officers that stay away from the real combat, while ordering others to be brave and tough and keep going.
In a brilliantly acted scene, Nolte (Lt. Col Tall) orders Elias Koteas (Capt Staros) to attack the enemy. Staros refuses, believing it is a no win suicide mission. Nolte’s performance is nearly all rage and bravado. But here you see him trying desperately to contain his anger at what he has just heard.
When Tall finds Staros later on that day, the situation has changed. According to Staros, “just in the last 5 minutes.”
So who was correct? Tall relieves Staros of his command, and with a wicked use of psychology, tells Staros he will make sure he receives the Silver Star.
“Might as well have the purple heart too.”
“Because of that scratch on your face. And because of those cuts on your hands.”
The voice-overs often blend to a point where you are unsure who is speaking. This was purposeful. Sometimes the person speaking is not even the person shown on screen.
I believe the reasoning is mentioned in a voice-over by Witt: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces are the same man.”
This is a paraphrase of a passage in Steinbeck’s, The Grapes Of Wrath. (5)
It’s an idea mentioned again at the end of the film.
To that end, Malick does something I had rarely seen in war film to that point, much less a World War II film.
He makes us sympathetic to the enemy. And yet not in an Anti-American way.
When our guys win an important skirmish, we see a Japanese soldier weeping and embracing his fallen friend, just as we had seen earlier from our main characters.
An American soldier speaks cruelly to a dying Japanese soldier. The soldier is responding, but unless you speak Japanese, you have no idea what he is saying. Translated, he states, “You will die too someday.” (6)
And we get one very powerful voice-over from a dead Japanese face.
“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.”
There are strong performances throughout the film. But the conscience of the film is Private Witt, played by Jim Caviezel (The Passion of The Christ).
Witt seems to enjoy life too much to have a career military. When the film opens, he is AWOL, on an island playing with the native children and flirting with one of the native women. He swims in the ocean and soaks in all of his surrounding world.
There are moments when Caviezel is just looking around at people. But it is precisely how he is looking that embodies Witt.
It is a great performance that is almost like one from a silent film actor at times.
You know what he is thinking or feeling without the need for him saying anything.
Jim Caviezel: “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, “Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.” I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.” (7)
A fellow soldier accidentally kills himself by pulling his grenade incorrectly. As he lays screaming and dying, it is only Witt that calms him down at all.
"You're gonna be all right. Even if you die. You didn't let your brother down."
Witt's biggest relationship is with Penn's, Welsh. The counterpoints of personality in these characters was also being shown by the two men off camera. Malick saw this and used it.
Penn recalls of his scenes with Caviezel: “I think some of it was just there, you know, between Jim and I. We were very different people, and I think that he could speak to this in some ways better than I could, because he’s got a… he’s a person of a particular faith. I think that we were not wildly far off of who each character was anyways. A lot of it was just there.”
Jim Caviezel: “Terry said to me, “What do you think of Sean Penn?” I said, “He’s like a rock. One day you can go up and talk to him, and there’s some days he doesn’t know who you are. That’s Sean Penn.” When we were shooting that scene, Terry says, “Tell him that, tell him what you told me.”
"On many days Sean and I would go out and run and work out together, and I kind of talked to him a lot about where I came from, my faith, and so on. Once Penn asked me, ‘What makes you tick?’”
“Do you really want to know?”
“When I came on the set, Penn [as Welsh] said “You still seeing the big ole’ light?” I think I said, “I still see a spark in you. I know he’s in you, I know there’s something going on.” (8)
This dialogue from actual conversations plays out in the last scene Witt and Welsh have together in the film.
The relationship between Welsh and Witt worked so well, that other ones had to be shelved. They just weren't as important.
One of these was between Welsh and Fife, played by Adrien Brody (The Pianist). Brody would see his once leading role relegated to almost nothing.
While this could have been devastating to his career, Malick would suggest using him to future directors. A work reference from Terrence Malick goes a long way.
One point of contention for Malick and the studio was that they required him to cast big name stars. They knew every star in Hollywood would work on the project for nothing. On this point they would not budge.
So Malick cast stars as higher ranking officers; to give them a sense of importance. But his stars were the unknown actors playing the low ranked soldiers. While you see George Clooney's name on the poster, he only shows up at the end, and for about 1 minute.
Other actors who shot scenes never to even make the final cut included Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman, Viggo Mortenson and Mickey Rourke.
But one actor that did make the cut was John Dee Smith. Smith only has two credits according to IMBD. As Private Train in The Thin Red Line and an episode of E.R. a year later.
Smith was only supposed to be on set for a brief time. And in that brief time, he kept missing his mark and had to apologize to Malick.
But Malick liked him. He invited him to dinner that night.
John Dee Smith: "There we talked about life, about how I came out of poverty and my parents were killed and onward until I went to college before being cast in The Thin Red Line. Terry told me of his own faith and of his life in Texas. I ended up staying on the set and he used me for scenes where he could draw from my personal experiences and use it as dialogue."
It is Smith's voice (often wrongly credited) we hear in the final voice-over.
"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.”
Train has a tattoo on his arm that reads 1 John 4:4. It is the most subtle of details. But something Malick chose to be in the film.
1 John 4:4: "You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world."
If Malick chooses big themes for his films, he probably comes by that way of thinking honestly.
He experienced his share of tragedy early on in life. Maybe it is why he was drawn to John Dee Smith.
Malick was the oldest of three boys. The middle son was in a bad automobile accident, in which his young wife was killed and he was severely burned.
His youngest brother, Larry, loved the guitar. So much so that he went to Spain to study with his hero, guitar virtuoso Segovia. In 1968 Larry was so upset for his lack of progress at the art form he loved, that he broke both of his hands.
Their father went to Spain out of concern. When he arrived, Larry had already killed himself.
Malick's ex wife believes he always had a strong sense of guilt for his brother's death. (10)
Interestingly, the Witt character feels responsible for the death of his father. But this is never really mentioned in the movie.
Malick's intensity for art seems like something he shared with his brother.
The Tree of Life, Malick's 5th film, will be released later this year. It is a film he has been working on for some time. Long before The Thin Red Line. Sean Penn is again in the cynics role, and the film might be looked at as a bit of a companion piece.
As it was written in a version long ago, Malick dramatizes the origins of life. And he wanted to do it in a way nobody had seen it done before.
"In one version, the story began with a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again." (11)
Love him or hate him, Malick is an original voice who does his best to make his films.
And if this time his reach finally exceeds his grasp, well that reach will no doubt be pretty commendable.