• After a twenty-year hiatus, cinema’s J.D. Salinger, Terrence Malick, made his glorious return. It is easier to do now after the fact, but the expectations and anticipation for his return had to be palpable among cinephiles in 1998.
  • With that long of a stretch after Days of Heaven, what does Malick open with? He opens on a crocodile slipping into the water with Hans Zimmer’s score (along with The Lion King this is his best to date in 1998, and the one that changed his style) welcoming us back. Malick is fascinated by the dichotomy–the beauty of nature- and the ugliness of and war/man/sin. Malick’s trademark style (even after just two films) is evident from the outset:  the exterior photography, the voice-over “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” is the first question. Malick is setting up his motifs formally. Next is the sun poking through the trees (like Kurosawa’s Rashomon)—a key shot for The Thin Red Line– repeated often.

Malick sets his motifs early

the sun poking through the trees (like Kurosawa’s Rashomon)—a key shot for The Thin Red Line– repeated often.

one of a dozen shots like this- Malick often uses a low-angle camera, shooting up to the sun. You feel as if these soldiers would be admiring the undeniable splendor of their surroundings if they weren’t so justifiably petrified.

  • Dissolves here again for Malick as his go-to transition choice. This is a 170-minute, largely plotless (the goal is to take control of the island I guess but this will frustrate plot-focused movie watchers), tone poem—so the lyrical dissolve editing fits perfectly.
  • After establishing the conflicted beautify of life (crocodile), the voice-over, and the shot of the heavens (through nature) and setting all of that up formally—Malick opens on an Eden. The Eden in The Thin Red Line is depicted by those native to Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands (the film shot on location there, and in Australia) along with Jim Caviezel as Private Witt. He has gone AWOL again to enjoy this peaceful escape of war. There’s playing, swimming, singing—he says, “the kids around here never fight”. Witt is Malick’s Christ figure here in The Thin Red Line (the subtext is more important than the text really) and it is best to watch the film that way.
  • The dialogue is plaintive, written with the parable in mind just like Days of Heaven. Witt says, “I’ve seen another world” and says “They’re my people.”

Malick’s camera is rarely sedentary (when he’s not in montage mode)– often pushing through the grass and thick jungle with the soldiers

  • Unlike the solo voice-over of Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick will pass the baton from character to character here in a new, free form ensemble, multi-pronged style. It is Nashville’s ensemble meets the multiple voice-over style hinted at (but not to these depths) of Goodfellas or Casino. At one point, Malick even has a dead Japanese soldier take part. The characters all have Malick’s voice, asking philosophical, rhetorical questions, meditating on death, war, and the meaning of life.

Malick often jump cuts to flashbacks of Ben Chaplin (Private Bell)’s character and his wife. They two never speak together in scene, these scenes are carried by the voice-over. These are interludes in The Thin Red Line– breaks for the norm—but these cutaway segments will become Malick’s entire style for later 2010’s films like To the Wonder and Song to Song. This is where he gets the Antonioni meets fragrance commercial comparisons.

  • Ambient noise–  capturing nature and the crickets – constant cutaways to wildlife: birds, owls, bats, snakes and more. Malick is one of cinema’s great photographers (especially exteriors including nature), but he is also one who builds his film, his rhythm,  in the editing room.

I don’t know if there’s a shot that captures Malick’s content obsessesions better. His Christ-figure helping give life to nature here. Caviezel (this is just a few years before Mel Gibson would tap him on the shoulder to pay Christ) washes a solider in a symbolic baptism.

  • The all-star cast ensembled is one of the best of the late 20th century. It is told that the actors lined up (many were actually cut altogether—Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen), many offering to work for free or nothing, for the enigmatic Malick. Massive stars like Travolta, Clooney (just becoming one in 1998) are used for a scene or two. Future Oscar-winners like Jared Leto and Adrien Brody (those great shifting eyes here) are just at the beginning of their careers and don’t even get a line of dialogue really…maybe one. Brody’s part was cut way down apparently in post-production and it was a massive surprise to him when he saw the finished film (his Private Fife is essentially the largest character in the book). Nolte is shouting the entire time—you wonder how he didn’t have a heart attack filming this- and he is tremendous here. His battles with Elias Koteas are some of the best sections in the film. Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel’s relationship and philosophical discussions are sublime as well. The film is a coup for both. Malick taps into The Deer Hunter for the John Savage character with PTSD.

the cast is loaded with phenomenal actors– the work of Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, and Elias Koteas stand above the others

  • Malick’s camera tracking through the grass—there’s a great frame of forty men on ridge in camouflage.

Malick often captures death in The Thin Red Line. In one sequence the heavens seem to open after the earth swallows them up- the clouds magically shift to the shining sun. In another strong sequence, after a death, Malick cuts to the leaf with the sun pouring through.

Where does this evil come from?” – Nolte’s character talks about looking at the inherent evil in nature. “Look at this jungle”. He goes on about the vines swallowing up life.

As Caviezel’s Witt passes away, Malick quickly bounces again to the heavens through the trees and then back to Eden with Witt swimming with the children again like the opening.

  • The final image is a single lotus growing—a great bookend with the opening crocodile.
  • For what it is worth (and this is no insult)- it is not as beautiful as Days of Heaven. The film will also always be paired with Savings Private Ryan as part of 1998. From one of my favorites- Jeffrey Anderson,  “Saving Private Ryan is a technical masterpiece, a crowd pleaser with all the correct  cues in place, so that the audience knows what to feel and when to feel it…{ here in The Thin Red Line} “Every single shot has some kind of poetic paradox, from the very first shot of a crocodile slithering into the swamp, to a bird being born and dying in the middle of a battle, to the tall wavy grass against the huge sky, to the soldiers passing by an elderly Melanesian and doing nothing. Malick wants us to think about the duality of everything. Man fighting man seems ridiculously small when you think of the battles between earth” https://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/thinred.shtml
  • A brilliant summation from Matthew Lucas –https://medium.com/@matthewlucas/film-1998-the-thin-red-line-terrence-malick-18d51cf2e80a “War is nothing to be celebrated or glorified here  –  it’s nothing less than the rape of the natural world.”
  • A masterpiece