Light trickles over rustling green shadow: the shape of high grass on a jungle mountainside dances. Figures whisper beneath. Bullets: A body explodes, a frame or two of red splat is interspersed. From a few feet above, the camera rushes, rakes, soars over the floor of green. It's God's witness, not his judgment.
Terrence Malick's lyrical "The Thin Red Line" soars and sings like Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me," was a passage I recalled watching his adaptation of James Jones' novel of the Battle of Guadacanal, "If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me."
With his first two features, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," Malick was the self-silenced visionary of the supposed Hollywood Renaissance. One longed for poetry, a straining against the strictures of conventional narrative demands with "Thin Red Line," but Malick's brilliantly photographed epic of man versus nature, man versus himself, delivers far more. In twenty years, this will likely be the war movie of 1998 that's remembered. "Saving Private Ryan" yields its juice on a single go. Malick starts at war, digs deeper, goes native, gets at something abstract. He has always preferred the flower of imagery to the honey of plot-making. The hushed, incantatory narration meanders in and out of different minds with the blessed, cursed omniscience of a novel. "Why does nature vie with itself, the land at war with the sea?" Shooting with natural light on top of jungle mountains, almost entirely in the last, golden hour of day, the film is magisterial and unflurried, like Tarkovsky's equally mournful "Andrei Rublev" or late-career Kurosawa.
The events jar in this luminous, close-in, shallow focus, widescreen world. Ranks of semi-recognizable young actors have only reaction shots, others materialize only to die. Nick Nolte's muscular, coarse grace as a commanding officer is accented by Elias Koteas' terrifically compassionate captain, an attentive listener who will not sacrifice his men, and there is the intermittent apparition of Sean Penn's cynical sergeant: "You're running into a burning house, you can't save a single man." The dialogue is rife with strangulated repetitions of battle-mad exclamations. "So goddamn hard to stay upright," Penn muses.
How does a recluse like Malick, someone out of studio circles for two decades, get to make such a contrary, liberating picture? Producer Mike Medavoy, once agent to both Spielberg and Malick, traces their personal history: "I met Terry somewhere around 1967. I was in Monte Hellman's office, I was reading upside down, as a good agent will do, a treatment on Monte's desk. After like two paragraphs, I turned it around and looked at it. It was really well-written. I found him at the American Film Institute. I wanted to be his agent, he said he'd let me know. The next thing, five of my friends are calling and asking who this Terry Malick is who's calling and asking about me!"
While Medavoy concedes that Malick is difficult, he also sees him as a protected species. "It's obvious to anybody that this is a really profound mind, this is somebody that feels deeply about humanity, deeply about religion, y'know, feels deeply about life. He was an Oxford grad, taught philosophy at MIT. Really well-read. A guy who goes off and watches birds." Is that what he did for twenty years? "I don't know the exact reasons why he decided not to make films. I've asked the question and the answer was, 'I didn't intend to stop for twenty years.' I don't know if it's true or not. I've come to the simple fact that I don't care whether he wants to work. All I know is if the guy says to me, 'I want my privacy, I don't live here, I don't want to be part of this,' I accept it."
Sony, the film's original financier, expressed concern over Malick and the $52 million budget. Did Medavoy have any worries? "I've done 300 movies and I would say that the really good ones took a lot of courage, the really bad ones didn't take nay courage at all, just a matter of stupidity. You should have been there, taken a gun and given it to me, told me how to use it. The great ones were all turned down, 'Cuckoo's Nest,' 'Platoon,' 'Dances with Wolves.' You can go on and on. I wanted to do a Terry Malick film. This was the opportunity for me to do it. I look at filmmaking a little differently than other people. I am like somebody who facilitates someone else making a film. You go with that vision. He made the movie as he saw the footage [evolve]. In the final analysis, once you've made a decision to back someone, that's it, you're stuck. But I'm proud of this movie. It will outlive me. There are unpredictabilities about Terry, but my own sense of what Terry is? He's a philosopher."