Even before it arrived in theaters at the end of 1998, the World War II drama The Thin Red Line was a film defined by unexplained absences. Its director, Terrence Malick, had made two of the most rapturously regarded movies of the ‘70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and then vanished from the filmmaking grid. His reappearance after 20 years was an ecstatic, near-miraculous event in the church of cinema, but it left many a missing person in its wake. Well-known actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman did scenes for The Thin Red Line on location in Australia but went MIA in the finished three-hour print. Billy Bob Thornton’s narration was likewise scrapped. Adrien Brody, who shot in Australia for three grueling months, brought his parents to an early screening to discover that his leading role had been whittled down to a single line of dialogue. George Clooney, who featured prominently in ads for the film, is on-screen for all of 60 seconds.
We expect star turns from our big movies, but The Thin Red Line (loosely adapted from James Jones’$2 1962 novel and reaching theaters the same year as Saving Private Ryan) won both praise and scorn for its serene lack of interest in elements of the prestige studio picture. A plot, for instance: The film’s stunningly tense and kinetic middle hour traces a dangerously dehydrated U.S. Army company’s attempt to seize a Japanese stronghold during the Battle of Guadalcanal, but much of the rest of the action is dreamy, drifty, interior. The beatific Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) goes AWOL in an Eden of singing, swimming Melanesian villagers. Pvt. (Ben Chaplin) takes a walk, thinks of his wife, stares up at trees. Shots of sun-dappled leaves, grass, birds, and the occasional crocodile get more screen time than John Cusack and Woody Harrelson combined—as critic J. Hoberman put it, the film “thrive[s] on the tension between horrible carnage and beautiful, indifferent ‘nature.’ ” Dialogue is often thin on the ground, supplanted by Hans Zimmer’s plangent score, the whispers of wind and water, and a rotating, often confounding current of hushed voiceovers. To wit: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made.” What does that mean? And who said it? Perhaps only Malick knows for sure.
One may find The Thin Red Line—and Malick’s work in general—either to be intoxicating or soporific, enigmatic or diffuse, enormously moving or flattened by a kind of grandiose affectlessness. (Roger Ebert’s largely positive review acknowledged this split: “My guess is that any veteran of the actual battle of Guadalcanal would describe this movie with an eight-letter word much beloved in the Army.”) But Malick is fascinating even to non-fans for his rare ability to convince major studios to bankroll what are essentially big-budget art films (such as 2005’s The New World and the long-delayed Tree of Life, due next year) and for his hypnotic pull on actors. (Before The Thin Red Line was cast, Sean Penn told him, “Give me a dollar and tell me when to show up.”)
How does Malick do it? This riddle is partly solved and partly deepened by Criterion’s new two-disc edition of The Thin Red Line. Rich with interviews and commentaries from Malick’s cast and crew, if not from the sphinxlike director himself, it goes some way toward unpacking the methods of his exquisite madness, and gives us tantalizing glimpses of footage that didn’t make it into the finished film (Brody, Rourke, and bit player John C. Reilly all appear in outtakes). What may be most compelling about the extras, though, is how they mess with our more romantic notions of how a renegade auteur achieves his vision.
To figure out how Malick does his job, one might start with all the things he doesn’t do. He doesn’t watch dailies. He doesn’t do rehearsals (this was a sticking point for Elias Koteas, who plays a fatherly captain) or actor prep: Kirk Acevedo, who has a searing scene as a wounded grunt, recalls being abruptly commanded, apropos of nothing, to start crying for Malick’s camera. (There’s no other American war film in which the soldiers look so convincingly lost, shocked, and exhausted, perhaps in part because the actors were often lost, shocked, and exhausted.) Malick doesn’t exhibit much interest in shooting action sequences, even when directing a war film (he joked about hiring Die Hard 2 auteur Renny Harlin to handle the combat scenes). He doesn’t stick to the script, or even to the scene he’s shooting: He’ll stop actors in midstream and revisit the same material a week later, continuity be damned. Or he’ll have them perform a scene with the dialogue stripped out. Or he’ll halt a complicated action sequence—planes in midflight, detonations set to blast—to grab chance footage of, say, a red-tailed hawk in flight.
Of course, genius filmmakers are allowed to improvise, request supernatural feats from their staff, waste time and money, and generally behave in an inscrutable manner befitting their ineffable gifts. “It seems to me that Terry does so much of his work in the editing room,” explains production designer Jack Fisk on the commentary—but there, too, Malick works in mysterious ways. According to one of The Thin Red Line’s three editors, Billy Weber, Malick saw a full version of the film exactly once: a five-hour work print assembled during the 18-month-long post-production process, and screened for him under some duress. (“We forced him to watch,” Weber says in an interview.) Otherwise, Malick edited by watching one reel at a time, with the sound off, while listening to a Green Day CD. If he missed any dialogue, it stayed in; if he didn’t, it would likely be supplanted by music or voiceover. “I don’t think he was capable of seeing the movie as a whole during the process,” co-editor Leslie Jones says evenly. “…That was a big adjustment.”
It’s an adjustment for viewers, too, especially for that fervent cult of fans who have psychoanalyzed, memorized, and immersed themselves in The Thin Red Line over the years. (Among the men in my family, Nick Nolte’s volatile Col. Tall is as eminently quotable as Jeff Lebowski.) It’s startling to find out that this same obsession-worthy film is not one that its director could find cause to watch in full or to edit with the sound on.
To be sure, nobody other than Malick could have made this strange and exhilarating movie happen. And none of his quirks, if considered on their own, would necessarily give us pause (the renowned editor Walter Murch, for example, begins the editing process with a silent picture, though one assumes Green Day is not involved). Still, Malick doesn’t fit into our established category for cinema’s pure artists, who tend to fall somewhere on the control-freak spectrum—think of David Fincher asking for 100 takes of a scene or Martin Scorsese knotting the gangsters’ ties himself on the set of GoodFellas. Malick seems to be a different animal: unavailable, cryptic, indecisive, evasive, there-but-not-there. (His self-effacement may extend beyond a simple aversion to interviews.) To judge from the admiring but bemused conversations with his cast and crew, Malick is less like a conductor and more like a muse, perhaps, or an elusive father figure, or a benign god in whom an apostle can have faith but nothing so presumptuous as understanding. What emerges isn’t a group of people striving to fulfill an artist’s vision, but rather striving to figure out what that vision might be.
The impression of this collective struggle adds a poignant layer to the film itself. “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces of the same man,” muses Witt. Our war movies typically celebrate bands of brothers, but in The Thin Red Line, the unbreakable connections between the men are all the more deeply felt for being shown and intuited, rarely told. Bell murmurs tearful sounds that aren’t quite words to Doll (Dash Mihok) as they embrace after a harrowing battle. Welsh (Penn) barrels straight into opposing fire to aid a doomed soldier. Witt goes on a selfless one-man mission to flush out the enemy. Of course there could be no “stars” of The Thin Red Line: The men move with a single body and speak with one voice; an injury to one pains them all. It’s a film about a collective unconscious—and perhaps you could say it was made by one, too. The Thin Red Line was created by a man undoubtedly in search of a great cosmic truth—about war and nature and mankind and the whole damn thing—but it was also created by a company of men and women in search of the great cosmic Terrence Malick.