Thin Red Line: Days of Hell

EVERY MAN FIGHTS HIS OWN WAR.

thinredline“I didn’t think he was capable of betrayal of this magnitude.” That quote is lifted from an Entertainment Weekly interview with one of the producers of this film, Robert Michael Geisler. He was referring to director Terrence Malick and those words illustrate to what degree the relationship between these men soured during the making of the film. Malick banned the producers from the sets in Australia, and his frequent inability to make decisions worried them greatly. The film’s tagline could perhaps be used to describe Malick himself.

The year is 1942 and the Battle of Guadalcanal continues; Japanese and mostly American troops battle to control the Solomon Islands, a gateway to Australia and New Zealand. We are introduced to several men who belong to C Company, 25th Infantry Division. Private Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) has been AWOL, living with natives in the South Pacific for a while, when he’s captured and brought back to duty by First Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn). They differ from each other a lot; Welsh is not yet cynical enough to shut off his emotions completely, but he knows that Witt is hardly cut out for the job. Perhaps the same is true for Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) who regards every man serving under him as his son.

Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), who has reached a certain age and been overlooked for promotion, treats the captain harshly but every attempt to bully him into growing a pair seems to fail. Still, Tall is determined to take the strategically important Mount Austen, regardless of the men’s complaints…

Poetic in tone
All the fuss Malick caused is understandable to some degree. He hadn’t made a movie since his celebrated Days of Heaven in 1978, and the news that he was finally mounting a comeback inspired such awe among so many Hollywood stars that he must have felt a great degree of pressure. James Jones’s novel had been filmed before, in 1964, but this remake became what one might call decidedly Malick-esque. Just like Days of Heaven, it is visually stunning and poetic in tone. The director aims to show us the innermost thoughts and feelings of several characters, revealing fears, longings and resentment. John Toll’s camera captures the beauty of a paradise being destroyed by “civilization” and the characters played by Caviezel and Koteas are the kind of people who can’t participate in the senseless mayhem without questioning the necessity of it.

In Malick’s view, the philosophical aspects of fighting the war include nostalgic memories from home as well as spirituality, and it’s not for everyone. It is a challenge to sit through at times; after all, the director achieved the same kind of emotional impact with the significantly shorter Days of Heaven. Still, he has that unique ability to draw a viewer (me, at least) into his universe and touch our hearts – and in this case, the film also has plenty of action in the depiction of the Battle of Mount Austen where the brutality and absurdity of warfare is evident.

This could easily have been Malick’s Heaven’s Gate, but in spite of its running time it is quite an achievement, one that helped the director find his way back, making two more films in the following decade.

The Thin Red Line 1998-U.S. 170 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Robert Michael Geisler, Grant Hill, John Roberdeau. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Novel: James Jones. Cinematography: John Toll. Music: Hans Zimmer. Cast: Sean Penn (Edward Welsh), Adrien Brody (Geoffrey Fife), Jim Caviezel (Robert Witt), Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas… John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly, John Savage, George Clooney, John Travolta, Thomas Jane.

Trivia: Several stars shot scenes for the film that were ultimately left on the cutting-room floor, including Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke.

Berlin: Golden Bear.

Last word: “Thin Red Line’ was the hardest [score to write]. Terrence Malick wanted me to write the music first. Usually you compose to a rough cut. I threw all my previous knowledge out the window and started again. I needed to provide a structure for him to build the film on. The one thing Terry gave me was the ability to be a better composer. I wrote for nine months without a day off. It was incredible pressure in the cutting room.” (Zimmer, Inside Film)

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