Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998)

This article is excerpted from “Paradise Conquered”, Part 2 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Notable Festivals:  Berlin (Golden Bear)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2010

It seems that no discussion of director Terrence Malick’s life and career can be made without reference to “the absence”— a prolonged period of seeming inactivity that has taken on the same air of mythic folklore that marks his own films.  Every successful filmmaker inevitably experiences a fallow period, whether its due to his or her artistic tastes falling out of fashion, running into difficulty with financing, or even simply just wanting to take a break. These periods don’t usually define their respective creators, but Malick’s twenty-year absence from filmmaking is analyzed and dissected almost as much as the man’s work.  Indeed, this period of Malick’s life could constitute a full book in and of itself. A curious press— a body already prone to exaggeration— played its role by breathlessly inflating the mystery of Malick’s whereabouts, elevating his stature from mere mortal to that of myth. Stories of his activities varied wildly throughout the years: he was maybe teaching in Texas, or maybe wandering the Middle East to discover his Assyrian roots.  There were even rumors he was dead.

The reality, of course, was not nearly as dramatic… but it was no less fascinating.  After “Q,” his ambitious, enigmatic follow-up to 1978’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, fell apart at Paramount, Malick retreated to Paris and later remarried to a French woman named Michele Marie Morette (who would later serve as the key inspiration for Olga Kurylenko’s character in TO THE WONDER (2012)).  His “absence” was less of an exile or long-term sabbatical than it was an interminably frustrating period of development hell, splitting time between Paris and Los Angeles over the ensuing twenty years.  Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of aborted projects that financially sustained Malick through this time, with many being shelved because of his producers’ impatience with his slow, deliberating pace as well as his tendency to sidetrack himself with impulsive creative fascinations.  Such projects included a script about comedian Jerry Lee Lewis, or one about 1800’s psychoanalysis called THE ENGLISH SPEAKER, and even a dueling Elephant Man project that was canceled when he learned fellow AFI alum David Lynch was about to make a film on the same subject. There was also an adaptation of Walker Percy’s novel, “The Moviegoer”, which got as far as attaching Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins in 1994 before falling apart— Malick wouldn’t bury the project for good until the mid-2000’s, when he reportedly felt that Hurricane Katrina had all but obliterated the New Orleans depicted in Percy’s book (2).  Indeed, it seems the only complete work that Malick brought to fruition during this time was a stage adaptation of SANSHO THE BAILIFF, which debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993 to disappointing box office.

While the film world wondered what had happened to the so-called visionary filmmaker behind DAYS OF HEAVEN, the seeds of what would become Malick’s long-awaited follow up were, funnily enough, planted right at the beginning of his absence.  In 1978, producer Robert Michael Geisler approached Malick about making a film adaptation of the David Rabe play, IN THE BOOM BOOM ROOM (3).  Nothing came of it, of course, but the two remained in contact over the ensuing years.  Ten years later, Geisler brought fellow producer John Roberdeau along with him to a meeting with Malick in Paris, where they pitched the idea of adapting the DM Thomas novel, “The White Hotel” (3).  Malick declined, but he was equipped with a pitch of his own— an adaptation of James Jones’ psychologically-sprawling war novel, “The Thin Red Line”. Geisler and Roberdeau liked the idea enough to pay him $250,000 to start work on a screenplay.  Malick’s first stab at the project is dated 1989, but it would ultimately take another decade to finally reach the screen. In this time, Geisler and Roberdeau paid the mortgage on Malick’s Parisian apartment while supplying him with an abundance of research material— some of which concerned subjects that must have seemed entirely inconsequential to the task at hand, like Australian reptiles, Navajo code talkers, and Japanese heartbeat drummers (6).  Indeed, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see how these seemingly-disparate research materials integrated themselves into the finished product. Nevertheless, Malick’s pace dragged on for several years, his attention split between this project and the continued work on his other script, THE ENGLISH SPEAKER.  By 1995, Malick had burned through two million dollars of his producers’ money, so they pushed him to choose between one project or the other.  In the end, THE THIN RED LINE would win out over THE ENGLISH SPEAKER, spurred to completion by a $100,000 offer made by Mike Medavoy, Malick’s former agent and now CEO of the upstart production company, Phoenix Pictures (3).  

Medavoy’s cash infusion gave Malick the necessary momentum to bring THE THIN RED LINE to cinema screens, but this was by no means the end of the film’s many production woes.  The project was initially set up at Sony Pictures, until they pulled the plug after new studio head John Carley lost his confidence in Malick’s ability to deliver the picture for a budget of $52 million (4).  Malick and company subsequently found a new home at Fox 2000, when they agreed to put up a majority of the financing if Malick could secure five stars from a list of ten interested actors (4). This caveat was, of course, no problem— upon hearing the whispers of Malick’s long-awaited return to filmmaking, nearly every male actor in the industry was banging down the doors.  With the project financed and cast, Malick was all set to commence production on only his third feature film in over two decades, except for one last burst of admittedly-avoidable drama before cameras started rolling. After developing THE THIN RED LINE with producers Geisler and Roberdeau for nearly ten years, Malick abruptly engineered a falling-out; when informing them that they would be banned from the set entirely, he used the reasoning that George Stevens Jr would be serving as the film’s producer on location, and Fox was allegedly allowing the ban in retribution for Geisler and Roberdeau denying Stevens an above-the-line credit (5).  Malick failed to mention, however, that he also had a clause secretly added to his contract in 1996 barring the two men from participating during the shoot (5). It’s difficult to excuse Malick’s actions here, even if the producer/director relationship is often fraught with perilous differences in opinion. Especially within the realm of studio filmmaking, a fragile harmony must be struck between the voices of art and commerce.  If anything, Malick’s unexpected power grab speaks to the shamelessly-indulgent artistic sensibilities he’d cultivated during his long hiatus, as well as his blossoming disregard for the conventions of contemporary filmmaking. As a result, THE THIN RED LINE becomes a decidedly singular expression from a man intent on blowing up the conventions of the war genre entirely.  Indeed, the finished product asserts Malick’s long-awaited return as one man’s all-consuming crusade to redefine the visual language of cinema itself, subjecting himself to a high-stakes gambit to reach a deeper emotional truth about our shared human experience.  

THE THIN RED LINE details the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, a key event in World War II that gave American forces their first toehold in the Pacific as they advanced against the Japanese.  Malick’s approach, like the source novel, adopts the multiple perspectives of the soldiers of C Company— a conceit that weaves a rich, sprawling tapestry about the emotional cost of warfare while making full use of the director’s philosophical fascinations.  The story follows C Company’s initial beach landing and their bitter fight to take Mount Austen, following through to their hollow victory over the Japanese as they venture deeper into the island’s lush jungles. The cast is a literal Who’s Who of major Hollywood stars and character actors during the late 90’s— Thomas Jane, Nick Stahl, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and John Cusack, amongst many others.  In an inspired move, Malick limits the presence of high-profile talent like John Travolta and George Clooney to mere cameos, evoking the prestigious celebrity status that officers frequently enjoy amongst the rank and file. Even with a three hour runtime, Malick doesn’t have enough space on his canvas to lavish attention on all of the members of his sprawling cast, so certain players receive the lion’s share of screentime— in the process, becoming our emotional anchors for the narrative at hand.  If THE THIN RED LINE possesses anything in the way of a central character, it’s Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt, a soulfully observant man who is introduced to us as a man who deserted his company to go live with the island’s indigenous population.  The experience gives him an appreciation for mankind’s inherent purity; a state of being seemingly lost to the modern industrial world. This enlightened perspective stays with Witt throughout the film, even as he’s discovered and pulled back into battle.  He becomes almost omniscient in his interior musings, rendered in the hushed, regionally-inflected voiceover that has become Malick’s signature. In a way, Malick paints Witt not as a mortal man, but as a Creator walking with amazement amongst his creations; a figure of mercy who despairs over his children’s inclinations towards self-destruction.  

Sean Penn, in the first of two collaborations with Malick to date, serves a similar purpose as First Sergeant Welsh: a stern disciplinarian who nonetheless shows a deep compassion towards his men in both his actions and his own interior monologue.  Nick Nolte, as Lt. Colonel Tall, illustrates the interior state of an opposing ideology. He spends the film angry as all hell, barking orders to his men like a furious dog. He favors a blunt, brute-force approach to warfare that cares little for the human cost as long as the objective is achieved, all while feigning intellectual sophistication with invocations of his West Point background, where he read Homer’s “The Odyssey” in its original Greek.  Nolte’s voiceover reveals an extremely frustrated and disgruntled career officer, forced to carry out the demeaning commands of his superiors even as he endeavors to join their ranks. Blind obedience and self-sacrifice is the only way to advance, which is why he comes into such explosive conflict with Elias Koteas’ Captain Staros, a conflicted and compassionate underling who defies Nolte’s character by refusing to send his men into a veritable meat grinder with very little tactical benefit.  Ben Chaplin and Dash Mihok are blessed with ruminative voiceover moments of their own, becoming key figureheads of Malick’s larger vision despite their relative inconsequence. Mihok’s internal monologue displays his character’s growth from a smug, relaxed private to a stunned combat veteran horrified by what he’s seen, while Chaplin’s subdued thoughts linger on the lover he left back home— played by Miranda Otto in fleeting flashbacks, the only female figure in the film that’s not also a member of the island’s indigenous population.  

Adrien Brody’s performance as Corporal Fife is made notable by its absence: one of the first casualties of Malick’s ruthless tendency to cut entire members of his cast out during the editing process, Brody signed on to THE THIN RED LINE believing his character was going to be a central one;  after all, that’s what it said, right there in the script.  We know by now that Malick’s scripts are by no means an even-remotely accurate blueprint of what the finished product will become, but Brody did not have the benefit of hindsight when he shot his performance.  It wasn’t until he saw the finished film at the premiere that he learned his assumingly-meaty role had been savagely cut down to the barest sketch of a character— almost every line of dialogue had been excised, and he was left only with the silent terror that his eyes could visually convey.  In a funny way, Brody actually was one of the lucky ones; at least he had made it into the finished product. The same could not be said for other high-profile actors like Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, or Mickey Rourke, who all had made the long journey to base camp in the Solomon Islands and Queensland, Australia only for their scenes to be axed entirely.  Malick’s scissor-happiness extends to the voiceover aspect of the picture: actor Billy Bob Thornton reportedly recorded hours of monologue that never made it into the finished film. This haphazard, seemingly-wasteful approach can’t exactly be recommended for aspiring filmmakers to emulate, but it nonetheless works for Malick as as key component of his artistic process.  He’s not so much a “storyteller” as he is a “story-seeker”, gathering as much raw material as humanly possible and whittling it down to a shape that only reveals itself towards the end of the process. Case in point: THE THIN RED LINE was shot over 100 days, generating 1 million feet of film.  There’s simply no way to make that omelette without breaking an obscene number of eggs.  It speaks to Malick’s mythic stature amidst the industry that many actors stayed on for those 100 days — even after they had finished all of their scenes — just so they could sit and observe the mysterious filmmaker at work (1).  

THE THIN RED LINE marks the emergence of Malick’s latter-day visual style, which combines his innate sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world with compositions and movement that evokes the restlessness of his characters’ interior conflict.  A cursory glance at Malick’s filmography reveals a director who disdains shooting on a soundstage or under the harsh glare of specialized film lighting, preferring to embed himself and his crew entirely on location. With THE THIN RED LINE, Malick scouted the actual battlefields in Guadalcanal, but the remote terrain presented severe logistical challenges for the shoot, and malaria concerns limited filming to daytime hours only (11).  As such, the Solomon Islands and Queensland, Australia stand in for Guadalcanal, providing Malick and company with a wide variety of lush jungle vistas. The Guadalcanal of THE THIN RED LINE is a primordial paradise; a veritable Garden Of Eden in which its indigenous inhabitants never ate from the Tree Of Knowledge and thus live totally free of afflictions such as war, disease, and sin.  Working for the first — and to date, only — time with cinematographer John Toll, Malick exposes the 2.35:1 35mm frame with an abundance of natural light in a variety of color temperatures. Much to his cast and crew’s consternation, Malick would sometimes shoot the same scene in three different lighting scenarios: broad daylight, diffuse overcast light, and the golden glow of magic hour.  This approach didn’t mean he could not decide how his scene should look, but rather, his particular creative process demanded a scene’s look be varied enough so he could place it anywhere he wished in the edit without breaking continuity. It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker getting away with this, but such was the wide creative berth and logistical trust accorded to Malick by his collaborators.

THE THIN RED LINE was made and released at the same time as a competing World War 2 film, Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  The two works, even to this day, are locked into something of an of eternal competition, their shared subject matter inviting constant comparisons that seek to identify the “better” film.  Such debates tend to miss the point, as their differences extend far beyond which theater of the war their respective stories take place in. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is a film about the horrors of war and the extraordinary courage of the men who fight it, whereas THE THIN RED LINE uses the prism of war as a psychological device, enabling an intense meditation on the damage that armed conflict does to a man’s soul while simultaneously expressing the idea that combat is simply a part of the natural order of civilization— not unlike a cleansing wildfire making room for an ecosphere to begin anew.  This naturally calls for an abstract, introspective approach that stands in stark contrast to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s visceral grit and chaotic handheld photography.  THE THIN RED LINE maintains the same air of epic myth as DAYS OF HEAVEN, embracing formal compositions and camerawork that have an abstractifying effect on the action.  Evidenced in the many shots of the sun streaming through the dense jungle foliage, a kind of elemental spirituality reigns over the film’s visual approach: seemingly every shot is composed so as to emphasize one of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and wind.  Think to some of the film’s most enduring images: the breeze whistling through tall grass, the island’s indigenous population happily swimming underwater, a chaotic series of explosions back at base, and the dead Japanese soldier’s face peeking up from beneath the dirt floor.  Indeed, Malick’s depiction of the Japanese forces — the so-called “enemy” — is just as compelling and humanely oriented as his treatment of the Americans. At first they aren’t seen at all, belching out a fusillade of bullets from their vantage point up on the hill. They are, in effect, an unseen force; lethal in nature.  As we push forward with the American perspective, we get closer and closer to the Japanese. Shapes turn to silhouettes, then to recognizable human features. What was once a seemingly supernatural, unstoppable force is revealed to be fallible; fragile; vulnerable. In other words: human. Malick’s camerawork echoes this conceit, using propulsive tracking shots in concert with majestic crane and dolly moves that underscore his filmmaking as an act of searching or questioning.  

While THE THIN RED LINE had its fair share of shooting troubles, the overall production wasn’t nearly as troubled as either DAYS OF HEAVEN or BADLANDS before it.  It helped that Malick’s artistic approach wasn’t constantly questioned by his own crew, thanks to the prior success of those films as well as the air of mysterious genius that enshrouded his twenty-year exile from filmmaking.  He also enjoyed the return of trusted longtime collaborators, like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber, who came aboard seven months into a long post-production process to oversee fellow editors Saar Klein and Leslie Jones.  Hans Zimmer’s original score has since become rather iconic, with tracks like “Journey To The Line” penetrating pop culture to a degree that film scores usually do not, and also becoming something of a go-to piece for other filmmakers’ temp tracks.  The stately orchestra reinforces the sweeping scope of Malick’s vision with a propulsive majesty, underscored by the subtle sounds of wind instruments that evoke his elemental approach to the visuals as well as a ticking clock that anticipates the character of Zimmer’s contemporary scores for fellow director Christopher Nolan.  Zimmer reportedly composed over four hours of music for THE THIN RED LINE, but much like Malick’s seemingly-merciless excision of his actors in the edit, little of the maestro’s score was actually used.  In the end, Malick supplements Zimmer’s score with a collection of source tracks from classical composers like John Powell and Gabriel Faure, in addition to religious hymns sung by a Melanesian choir.  He also makes particularly pointed use of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question”, musically echoing his characters’ internal examinations and trauma.

THE THIN RED LINE sees the full extent of Malick’s modern-day aesthetic emerge for the first time— almost as if he had spent his twenty-year absence honing it to personal perfection.  The mythic posturing that formed the thematic bedrock of BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN remains, but it’s immediately evident that Malick no longer considers himself beholden to entrenched cinematic conventions like self-contained sequences of story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Instead, we are treated to lyrical, fleeting moments that harken back to the ideological purity of Sergei Eisenstein’s pioneering theories on Soviet montage, whereby it’s in the manner in which shots are strung together that gives a scene meaning rather than the images themselves.  It’s easy for critics to dismiss this approach as superficial, or pretentious —made empty by the absence of action or plot progression — but such takes tend to betray a lack of attention or understanding at best, or a willing close-mindedness at worst. Indeed, how one feels about Malick’s work as a whole often depends on how one feels about cinema as a whole: whether its functions as art or as commerce.  THE THIN RED LINE posits that cinema can be both, leveraging its Hollywood-sized budget and war-epic framework to convey intimate, abstract ideas about man’s place in the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  The creation that surrounds the film’s narrative — lush jungle, colorful wildlife, the eloquent cadence of the soldier’s innermost consciousness and self-awareness — is all-encompassing. No individual part is more important than the other.  Man, and the natural environment that surrounds him, is simply part of one larger and interconnected cosmic soul. Malick’s evocative cutaways illustrate this conceit, painting a larger portrait of the devastation that warfare brings to this soul with no more complex an image as a wounded bird trying to stand on its feet in the trampled brush, or blood splattering violently across long stalks of grass.  The same strain of soulful spirituality that marked BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN brings an added resonance to THE THIN RED LINE’s own sense of natural interconnectedness.  Malick blends core ideas from the spiritual traditions of both Eastern and Western faith systems, invoking a higher power through the lush paradise of Guadalcanal and the gentle breeze constantly blowing through its dense foliage, or via images of American and Japanese soldiers alike fervently praying to their creators as they prepare for combat or lay dying in the battlefield.  Like BADLANDS before it, Malick draws from the biblical story of the Garden of Eden as a cultural waypoint, giving his audience something to anchor themselves to as he plunges headlong into deep explorations of abstract ideas like the clash between agrarian and industrial societies, the loss of our collective innocence via the prism of suffering & death, the careless plundering and wanton destruction of our natural environment, and even original sin.  Malick finds manners both religious and secular to convey these ideas, especially in lines of voiceover monologue like: “what seed, what root did evil grow from?”. Indeed, the bulk of THE THIN RED LINE’s hushed voiceovers grapple with mankind’s innate capacity for cruelty towards others, and how warfare has seeped like a poison into the purity of this one cosmic soul— rotting it from within.  The act of war, as implied by Malick’s approach here, quite literally invites a tangible hell on Earth, ransacking the Garden of Eden that has been made for us; forcing us out into an emotional wilderness.  

THE THIN RED LINE’s existential unmooring stands in stark contrast to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s more-accessible message of warfare’s immediate pain and terror, which is understandably why the latter film had a higher profile at the box office and during awards season.  Simply put, THE THIN RED LINE is decidedly uncommercial: it’s a long, incredibly dense masterwork that applies abstract philosophical thought to the framework of the war genre.  That’s not to say the film wasn’t a success— indeed, Malick’s big return to filmmaking after twenty years was hailed as a major achievement and one of the year’s best films.  Generally positive reviews and a Golden Bear award from Berlin fueled a $98 million gross at the box office, followed by a sweep of Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Score, and Malick’s first nomination for Directing.  Malick’s reclusive nature made for a peculiar show at the Oscars ceremony— when his name was announced in the Directing category, the telecast showed only a picture of a chair with his name on it. While it ultimately went home empty-handed, THE THIN RED LINE nevertheless re-established Malick at the forefront of American cinema after two decades of silence.  The mysterious, reclusive filmmaker was officially back in action— armed with a stunning meditation on the inhumanity and emotional devastation of war that continues to resonate as a modern classic.

THE THIN RED LINE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.


Produced by: John Roberdeau, Robert Michael Geisler, Grant Hill

Written by: Terrence Malick

Director of Photography: John Toll

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones and Saar Klein

Music by: Hans Zimmer