On DVD: Criterion Attempts to Get to the Bottom of Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick's epic war-film daydream The Thin Red Line (1998) is already out on DVD, but it is being reissued this week from The Criterion Collection, and when Criterion steps up to the line, you salute and say yes, sir. Malick's film remains an underseen masterpiece, the ignored eccentric twin to Saving Private Ryan (the B.O. ratio in 1998 between them was six to one), and a confounding experience for mainstream audiences used to having their hands held.

It has no single protagonist. Characters appear and disappear with no fanfare or background information (they're often movie stars to boot; when you see John Cusack or Woody Harrelson in a crowd of character-actor mugs, you expect them to take center stage and keep it). The freeflowing narration is not exposition but interior-monologue poetry, spoken by unspecified characters. Meanwhile, it's spellbinding visually -- if there's a central figure, it's not quite Jim Caviezel's beatific Witt but the Guadalcanal landscape (shot in Australia and the Solomon Islands), the wildlife obliviously feeding on itself, the endless hills and sky and sun and sea. Three hours later, even the unwilling viewer emerges burned and humbled.

But here's the thing -- rumors have circulated about how this strange mega-art film got made on the Hollywood dime. Simply, the story (propagated by disgruntled actors cut out of the movie) says that Malick's original five-hour cut was essentially a normal film, faithfully adapted from the James Jones novel, and focused to some large degree on Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody). When Malick was told to cut it by two-fifths, Malick rejiggered the whole enchilada, in an act of brazen defiance, as a non-narrative poem, with Brody barely appearing.

Now, with Criterion's extra disc of interviews, we learn the truth. Or something like it. According to the actors (including Caviezel, Sean Penn, Dash Mihok and Thomas Jane), the casting director and most vitally the team of editors, the rumors are far from true -- Malick never intended to make a straight-on war film, no matter what his huge original screenplay said. From the outset, Malick's approach was like that of a dreamy, stoned impresario-king, somehow allowed to keep his entire schedule open to happenstance and accident. The script had scenes in it but often no specific characters -- Malick would decide which actor would be featured at the last moment. He'd spend days wandering around behind the actors, telling them to improvise, and often to say nothing at all. If he found beautiful natives doing fascinating things, he'd shoot them, while the production machine waited.

Malick remains a mystery to almost everybody, even for personnel who've spent years working with him. On location, the actors could ask him about their roles, or about the movie in general, but, according to Penn, "He'll answer you, but it doesn't help." Everybody, even the editors, does a Malick impression, aping his high-pitched, ruminative drawl, usually saying things that the listener would have to parse like a Zen koan. Amusingly, everybody accepts this working method as the way things always are "on a Malick movie," even though he'd only made two films before this and the last one was 20 years prior, and, let's face it, neither Badlands nor Days of Heaven is very much like the free-structured weave-world of The Thin Red Line. Something about Malick, apparently, encourages people to surrender to his every inscrutable whim.

It's also a movie famous for what was left out -- Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortenson, Bill Pullman, Martin Sheen and Lukas Haas all shot scenes but were dumped. Most famously, Mickey Rourke has gone public with how much he put his heart and soul into his scenes, and how bitter he felt when Malick cut them. Well, amid a slew of outtakes, Criterion gives us a glimpse -- Caviezel's Witt confronting Rourke's bush-traumatized grunt in the wilderness, and though our visit with Mickey is all too brief, it's hard to say it shouldn't have been jimmied into the film's rambling structure somewhere.

In fact, there should be much more -- Malick shot a million feet of film. But there will never be a director's cut, apparently. The editors report that they had a hard time getting Malick to even watch his own film, and the impression is that he could've tinkered with its parts indefinitely. Getting him to go back and work up another version out of the heap would be like trying to herd cats.


  • The Pope says:

    Time to call it on Malick. He made one brilliant film, BADLANDS and then lost the run of himself on DAYS OF HEAVEN and ever since then, he shoots and shoots and shoots and then cuts and cuts and cuts hoping that he can find the picture in the editing suite.
    Poetic is the default response too many critics have for incredibly unique talents. Malick is just that but is also incredibly profligate.

  • Od says:

    Wrong on all counts, pope. The earlier movies were formalist exercises but Thin Red went for hardcore visionary mysticism and it's all there. It's just too good. They should release the whole shoot on multi-chapter dvd and add a shuffle format - the quality across the board is that high, besides John Travolta. A poetic but not douchey epic to rival Apocalypse Now forever

  • The Pope says:

    Thanks OD for proving my point.