FOR THE LAST 20 years, writer/director Terence Malick has
seemed more like some kind of Hollywood urban legend than an actual
person. The director of the critically acclaimed Badlands and
Days of Heaven, he suddenly, and without explanation, left filmmaking
and nearly vanished from the world after the completion of the
latter film in 1978. There were rumors of Malick working as a
dishwasher, hitch-hiking around the country, writing under pseudonyms,
and being sighted like the undead Elvis.
During his sojourn in the land of myth, there was endless speculation
about why anyone with such an extreme talent for cinema would
just pack it in. It was one of the great Hollywood mysteries,
until John Travolta, a few weeks ago, explained it. Apparently,
at least according to Travolta, who would be found out quickly
if he were lying, mind you, but still...anyway, according to Travolta,
Malick stopped making movies because the studio told him he couldn't
cast Travolta as the lead in Days of Heaven, and would have to
cast Richard Gere instead. If this story is true, it merits the
biggest "Huh?" in Hollywood history. But that's what's
so charming about Malick: It's easy to relate to the disappointment
he must have felt; but to pack up all that cinematic talent and
walk away from what had become one of the most revered careers
It probably takes someone with a singular emotional makeup to
create such striking films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The
Thin Red Line. Oddly, now that he's completed this latest work,
he's already begun another, The Moviegoer, starring Tim Robbins
and Julia Roberts, and apparently based on the Walker Percy novel
of the same name. But again, for a filmmaker who prizes subtlety
as much as Malick does to take on Julia Roberts, who essentially
acts with her teeth, one can only warrant a bewildered, "Huh?"
Nonetheless, despite or perhaps because of his quirky emotional
nature, Malick has again made an incredibly beautiful film that
succeeds on many levels, and fails on a few others.
The Thin Red Line, like Malick's life, is extremely difficult
to explain but intensely engaging in its unfolding. It tells the
tale of the second-wave assault on Gaudalcanal, one of the most
grueling battles in the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII.
Beginning with a beautiful and playful sequence showing two AWOL
soldiers reveling in the romantically natural life of a small
Melanesian village, The Thin Red Line tries to introduce an Edenic
counterpart to the coming battle scenes.
In the hands of most filmmakers, this would quickly become corny;
but in spite of the sustained shots of rainforest canopy and the
naively philosophical voice-overs from one of the soldiers, it
fails to elicit any eye-rolling. By being extremely forced this
style seems natural--it's so removed from the ordinary manner
of filmmaking that what would be a cliché situation is
merely striking in its oddity.
The AWOL soldiers are soon reunited with their company, and a
parade of stars appear in minor roles, emphasizing, perhaps, the
insignificance of individual soldiers in such a massive enterprise.
Sean Penn, George Clooney, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, John
Cusak, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, John Savage, John
Travolta, Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, and Lukas Haas all drift
through the battles, some of them barely speaking a line.
This overwhelming incursion of industrialized Americans into
the previously idyllic Pacific island is shown with eerie acuity
in a scene of soldiers marching up a forested hill. As they trudge
in an endless line through tall grass, a single Melanesian man
in traditional garb walks past them in the opposite direction.
Malick leaves this scene, and many others, without dialogue or
extraneous commentary, and it gains force from the frightened,
tired, confused and numbed expressions of the soldiers heading
into almost certain death.
Odd bits of voice-over flit through other scenes, with one of
the lead characters noting that "God is the source of all
boredom." Trying to show this boredom both precedes and follows
battle, and in so doing Malick makes his one misstep: While it
works up to the first gunshot, after the intensity of a long battle
sequence the inclusion of another long period of inactivity is
hard to justify. Consequently, the final hour of this three-hour
film seems somewhat unnecessary. Malick uses this final section
to show that the soldiers had romanticized nature and the Melanesians,
and to show the ways in which their battle experiences made it
harder for them to see the jungle as a primal paradise. Unfortunately,
this message is diminished by its placement after a complicated
and intense series of battle scenes.
John Savage shines here as a soldier who breaks during battle,
and has to keep reading his dogtags, perhaps to see who he is.
Other soldiers lose control of their bodies, or run madly into
fire, or are horrified at having sent their troops in the wrong
direction. The chaos and force of war is shown, not by focusing
on one soldier or group of soldiers, or by presenting the field
of battle as a whole, but by focusing on dozens of unrelated,
individual human acts. This gives the sequences a disturbing intensity
without sacrificing the vastness of the battle.
Malick's film also stands out from other war films in the way
he deals with the enemy. One of the most unethical elements of
many war films is the treatment of the opposing army as a faceless
body of monsters.
Malick is extremely aware of this tradition, and the first appearance
of the Japanese soldiers comes in the form of silhouettes on a
hillside. One of the soldiers shoots one, then rejoices and is
disturbed in his kill.
Later, the Japanese soldiers are represented only by hands on
guns; and after that, as shadowy close-ups of faces. As more time
passes, the soldiers come into focus, screaming and running toward
the American troops, fully visible as warriors. Then, as the Americans
begin to advance, they encounter Japanese soldiers holding wounded
comrades. Some are naked, or armed only with knives, trying to
defend their injured compatriots. At last there are mounds of
dead and dying Japanese soldiers, begging for life, cursing the
Americans, or sitting in desperate prayer.
It's the slow revelation of the enemy's humanity, and the variety
of ways that the Japanese soldiers react to the Americans, that
sets Thin Red Line apart from so many other efforts in this genre.
While there have been films that have tried to say that the enemy
is "just like us," The Thin Red Line maintains a strong
sense of difference between the American and Japanese troops while
still showing the Japanese as individuated, human, sometimes fragile,
This sensitivity to difference, and the original way in which
it is expressed, is only one of many elements that recommend The
Thin Red Line. The cinematography, as in all of Malick's films,
is strong enough to withstand slow shots and long moments of silence.
The music, which is used sparingly, is never invasive or manipulative
(the soundtrack is by Hans Zimmer, who has gained a strong cult
following in the last 15 years). The acting--especially by Penn,
Koteas and James Caviezel, who get the most screen time--is impeccable
and conveys the disturbing sense of being an invader in paradise
with a short lease on life. If it weren't for the final hour's
attempts to add another face to this already highly faceted work,
The Thin Red Line would be a nearly perfect film.