The Thin Red Line [Blu-Ray]
Director : s Terrence Malick
Screenplay : Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Ben Chaplin (Pvt. Bell), Nick Nolte (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall), James Caviezel (Pvt. Witt), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Woody Harrelson (Sgt. Keck), John C. Reilly (Sgt. Storm), John Travolta (Brig. Gen. Quintard)
After spending 20 years in self-imposed cinematic exile following his two critically acclaimed, visually elegant films from the 1970s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick returned with The Thin Red Line, a nearly three-hour visual poem about the madness and violence of war ... that is never really about war, at least not directly. Based on the semi-autobiographical 1962 novel by James Jones (who also wrote From Here to Eternity) about the taking of Guadalcanal from the Japanese in 1943, one of the major turning points in World War II, Malick’s film is far more interested in juxtaposing the beauty of nature untamed with the harsh destruction of mankind at war than he is in telling a conventional story or developing fully realized characters. Not that this should be much of a surprise--both of his earlier films were similarly structured, and how you relate to both those films and The Thin Red Line will weigh heavily on the amount of importance you invest in narrative.
The film is essentially divided into three parts, with the majority of the battle sequences being confined to the middle third. The main objective of the soldiers is to capture a ridge that is held by the Japanese. As both a writer and director, Malick is nothing short of brilliant in orchestrating the mechanics of the mission so that the audience can understand what is happening simultaneously in multiple locations. Malick’s primary strength as a filmmaker has always been the breathtaking manner in which he captures landscape on film, but here he proves to be equally adept at dividing it into sections and keeping the audience aware of space. Much of the tension of the battle scenes comes from the knowledge of where the American troops are in relation to the positions of the Japanese soldiers.
Malick also shows himself to be an excellent coordinator of violent action, something the largely static nature of his previous films did not always hint at. The skirmishes and battles are violent without being especially gory, and intense in a white-knuckle kind of way. Malick builds suspense by getting his camera down into the four-foot grass along with the soldiers, creeping behind them, and allowing us to see essentially what they see, which is very little. Once the battles erupt into gunfire and explosions, the camera is let loose, panning and dollying alongside the violence, bringing us right into the midst of the fighting. The horrifyingly magnificent sequence in which the soldiers finally take the top of the hill is the film’s crescendo of emotional and visual power. As Hans Zimmer’s haunting musical score gradually floods the soundtrack and many of the diegetic sounds of battle fade out, we are left with stark images of American soldiers decimating the remaining Japanese, many of whom are sick or starved or at the edge of sanity. The result is a gripping, even devastating portrait of victory that is no victory at all and one of the single most powerful sequences you’ll ever see in a war film. It is gripping and intense, but more than that, it is sad; it truly makes you feel for the loss of human life, regardless of nationality.
Aside from the battle sequences, Malick and cinematographer John Toll (who won an Oscar for 1994’s Legends of the Fall) frequently turn the film’s imagery into the repeating stanzas of his poem. Malick is most fond of a low camera angle looking up into the canopy of trees overhead, with hazy shafts of smoky sunlight breaking through the leaves. It is a magnificent shot, even if we’ve seen it emphasized before in other films (especially in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July). The camera is constantly drawn to the animals whose lives go on despite the war-induced mania that is taking over and often destroying their habitats. In fact, the film opens with a shot of a crocodile, and in some of the most important sequences in the film, the camera strays away from the human characters to show a dying bird, bats, lizards, snakes, and other assorted denizens of the jungle. In many cases, it reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and the similar way in which that film used the wilderness and its creatures to emphasize the distinct difference between humans and nature.
The Thin Red Line presents us with more than a dozen major characters, some of whom survived the editing process better than others. Many of them are on-screen so briefly and with such little impact on either the narrative or the other characters that it is hard to remember when they appeared in the film and when they disappeared. They often look alike, and it is hard to catch whose name is what. However, some characters are around long enough to make an impact, most notably Ben Chaplin as Private Bell, a soldier whose strength revolves around his desire to get home to see his wife; Elias Koteas as Capt. James Staros, an officer who is able to balance the necessity of war with his dislike of seeing his men killed; and Nick Nolte as Lt. Colonel Tall, who sees only the necessity and exhilaration of war. The other characters, including First Sgt. Edward Welsh, played by Sean Penn (who got top billing), and Capt. John Gaff, played by John Cusack, simply float through the proceedings and move the narrative onward without significant effect. The result is that the characters essentially blend together, suggesting that Malick sees them less as individuals than as different faces of the same basic humanity, a sentiment that is ruptured only when the cast of able character actors (which also includes Jim Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and Tim Blake Nelson) is ruptured by the distracting appearance of above-the-marquee stars like John Travolta and George Clooney in distracting cameo roles that serve little or no purpose.
Malick was once a philosophy professor, so we know from the start that he is not making an adventure film or a war saga about the heroism of his characters. The Thin Red Line is, like many recent war films, an anti-war film. The larger thematic material is telling us that war is not only the destruction of human lives (both physically and spiritually), but is also the rape of nature. This is visualized best in the hill itself, which becomes a larger symbol of the natural world. When the American soldiers first advance on the hill, it is lush and beautiful, covered with a swaying carpet of long grass; after they take the hill from the Japanese, it is a burnt-out wasteland of charred dirt, decaying bodies, and empty mortar shells.
Unfortunately, instead of allowing the thematic material to emerge naturally from the film’s content and find its rightful place in the viewer’s mind, Malick tends to force it with often ponderous “inner monologues” from various characters, most of whom cannot be identified. That is, of course, the point, since these monologues have little to do with character and everything to do with larger, esoteric themes of goodness, evil, war, etc. Because those themes are naturally embedded in any narrative about war, Malick’s suturing them onto the film via voice-over feels at times like one push too many. Were these monologues really necessary, or was Malick fearful than his ideas wouldn’t come out otherwise? Considering that their addition was a choice Malick made in the editing room, it is most likely the latter, and that is, perhaps, the key to why The Thin Red Line is not quite the truly great film to which is aspires: It doesn’t have faith in its own impact.
|The Thin Red Line Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The Thin Red Line is also available from The Criterion Collection in a two-disc DVD set (SRP $39.95).|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 28, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new transfer of The Thin Red Line is not only the best I have ever seen the film look, including my initial theatrical viewing, but probably the best looking Blu-Ray I have ever reviewed. No big surprise, since the digitally restored 4K high-definition transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and supervised and approved by both director Terrence Malick and cinematographer John Toll. The depth and detail of the transfer serves The Thin Red Line well, since it is a deeply textured piece of cinema whose primary impact in in its imagery. Individual leaves on the trees are distinct in the far distance, and you can almost feel the sharp edges of the long blades of grass on the hillside. Black levels are deep and true, and there is no visible grain or dirt on the smooth image. The lossless 5.1-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original six-track magnetic master and digitally restored, is likewise outstanding. The soundtrack is excellent at using subtle background sounds of wind in the trees, birds chirping, and so forth to envelop the viewer in the natural environment Malick so deeply treasures. At the same time, the LFE channel supplies a thundering amount of bass to the many explosions, emphasizing their destructive nature. The sequence in which the soldiers are trapped in the jungle with unseen Japanese soldiers bearing down on all sides is a particularly great illustration of the depth and complexity of the soundtrack as it uses various explosions at different sound levels and in different channels to convey the confusion of where the enemy is located. Hans Zimmer’s musical score also sounds magnificent and is well divided among the multiple channels.|
|Not even the mighty Criterion Collection was able to wrangle Terrence Malick in front of a camera or into a recording booth to discuss his work, but rest assured that the impressive array of supplements included here include contributions from practically everyone else involved in the film. The excellent screen-specific audio commentary brings together cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill, each of whom is able to offer illuminate the film and its complex production processes from a unique perspective. The disc also includes five talking-head featurettes that focus on a different element of the film: acting (interview with actors Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn), music (interview with composer Hans Zimmer), editing (interview with editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein), the source novel (interview with novelist James Jones’s daughter Kaylie Jones), and casting (interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, as well as a selection of archival audition footage from actors who were eventually cast in the film--including Nick Stahl, Elias Koteas, and Dash Mihok--as well as fleeting glimpses of tapes from actors who were not cast, ranging from Neil Patrick Harris, to Crispin Glover, to Luke Perry). To help with the film’s historical context, the disc includes a large selection of World War II newsreels about Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, whose propagandistic simplicity contrasts sharply with Malick’s depiction of the war. The big news, of course, is the inclusion of 14 minutes of outtakes from the film, which is just a tiny sampling of the massive amounts of footage that were eventually left on the cutting room floor during the year and a half it took to edit the film. The outtakes, which comprise eight short scenes, are in a rough cut stage, but are polished enough to give us a sense of what was removed. Interestingly, only one of these scenes involves Adrien Brody’s character, who was apparently the most affected in the editing room. The disc is rounded out with six minutes of Melanesian chants recorded for the film’s soundtrack and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet contains a glowing essay by film critic David Sterritt and a reprint of a 1963 article by James Jones titled “Phony War Films” originally published in the Saturday Evening Post.|
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