Terrence Malick was a broad-shouldered young Texan who, after Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship, decided to become a movie director. In 1974, he wrote and directed Badlands, one of the finest and least appreciated of the great movies of the 1970s. In 1978, Malick followed Badlands with Days of Heaven, a penetratingly dull and lavishly photographed movie that cemented his reputation as a difficult director who cared nothing for the budget and everything for the movie. The film was hardly a great success but on its strength, and the strength of Badlands, Malick was given a carte blanche deal at Paramount. Then he disappeared.
Perhaps Malick sensed the age that allowed him to make these moviesand gave birth to Coppola, Scorcese, and Altmanwas vanishing. On the horizon loomed the '80s, a decade that proved more than a little unkind to the wünderkind of a decade earlier. Or perhaps he simply had nothing more to say. For whatever reason, Malick's name remained absent from the credit list for 20 years.
In 1998, something drove him back to the Hollywood whose advances he'd so willfully spurned back in 1978the result is The Thin Red Line. The timing of Malick's return and his choice of vehicles are as perplexing as his departure. There has been no great transformation in Babylon, no 1970s-style renaissance. Hollywood seems as determined as ever to take the shortest route to the blockbuster. And 1998 was also the year that Spielberg released Saving Private Ryanleaving Malick and his little WWII movie in the longest shadow Tinsel Town can cast.
Which may explain why The Thin Red Line was not technically released until 1999. But other than the raw fact of the war, the dirt and olive drab and gunpowder of it, Line is as different from Private Ryan as Badlands is from Jaws. Based on the 1962 autobiographical novel of James Jones, Line is set during the brutal fight for the island of Guadalcanal.
The choice of a story that takes place in the cinematic backwoods of the Pacific is a critical one, one that gives Malick a cleaner canvas on which to work. Though the Japanese were undoubtedly the aggressors in WWII, they carry far less baggage as opponents than the thoroughly clichéd evil of the Nazis. It is this moral elbow room, this gray area that lies at the heart of Line, and makes it a challenging and mature work. It will also almost certainly doom it at the box office.
The opening scene says it allor, at least, most of it. There are no credits, no quick cuts or one-liners; in fact, there are no people at all. The movie begins with a shimmering green crocodile slithering into an algae covered pool accompanied by voiced-over philosophical musings in a smooth, Texas drawl. It is a scene that is at once beautiful, menacing, confusing, profound, and pretentiousall of which can just at easily be applied to the movie as a whole.
When war does come, the battle scenes are as terrible and gripping as any on film. Unlike Ryan's brilliant choreography and tidy editing, Line's battle scenes are a mess; they echo with chaos and confusion and seem to last forever. Malick's vision is at its most powerful in the numbing and tragic assault for the first hill. Lines between courage and cowardice are blurred and the victory, when it does come, is victory only in the purest tactical sense of the word; in the moral sense it is clear that everyone involved has lost. And this is the film's greatest strength, its unwillingness to resolve the confusion and ambiguity of the war. All we are left with is loss.
When Malick stays close to his actors in action, rather than in voice over, the result is excellent filmmaking. This is a true ensemble piece, and the cast, though made confusing by one too many dark-haired, strong-nosed, dreamy-eyed Southerner, is powerful. Despite Malick's efforts at equal emphasis, the movie stars still rise to the top. Nick Nolte's desperate performance as Lt. Col. Tall and Sean Penn's snarling, vulnerable Sgt. Welsh both give a much needed dose of down-to-earth acting, as does Elias Koteas' sincere Captain Staros. Of the newcomers, it is James Caviezel doing his best Ralph Fiennes impression as the mystical Private Witt who seems most likely to be seen again.
The more difficult question is whether Malick will be seen againor even if he should. There is something terribly uneasy about Line, and something uncanny about a Hollywood studio film made in the late '90s that is so unabashedly philosophical, that stands so far back from its own action and asks, quite literally, the big questions. It is a trait that is both admirable and irritating, and much of Line whipsaws between film school pretentiousness and old master brilliance. By retreating from film for two decades, Malick has become the Rip Van Winkle of Los Angeles and he gives Line the feeling of a recently uncovered lost classic. Unlike Scorcese, Coppola, and the rest, Malick never had to learn the grim lessons of the box office. His vision is still that of the iconoclastic '70s and Line holds in itself all the grandeur and all the failings of that Golden Age.