Pacific Hell Amid Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line'

by Paul Maher

1 October 2010


A Film for Future Generations

In The New World (2005), one extra found a baby snapping turtle, small enough to fit in one’s palm, crossing a road during the filming of a battle scene. Malick immediately placed the turtle into the dying Indian’s scene, by making it part of a shamanistic ritual. The turtle is place on the dying man’s abdomen and left to scuttle up his chest. The scene made all three cuts of the film. Actor John C. Reilly (Sergeant Storm) recalled another occasion: 

“There was this day when there was this army base, and there were hundreds and hundreds of extras and this huge base with tents and trucks, and vintage airplanes taking off and landing.

It was this big massive shot, and the camera was gonna’ be in the back of this truck with some of the main actors, myself included, as it drove through the camp. So in order to get the shot, they had to orchestrate this massive group of people, like an entire camp. ‘STAND BY! SHOOT THE AIRPLANES! GET THE TRUCKS GOING! OKAY, EXTRAS!’  There was dust everywhere and there was noise, and everybody’s waiting and we’re in the back of the truck, ‘HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO.  STAND BY!’ And all of a sudden, Terry’s like, “Oh look, there’s a Red-Tailed Hawk! Look! John, John [Toll] get the camera! Get the camera! There he is!’ We’re all like, ‘Are we really filming a hawk right now? Are you kidding? There’s airplanes taking off!’ We sat there for five or ten minutes while he got different angles of this bird flying through the sky.

It was like the script didn’t really matter to him, the story didn’t matter, although we shot the script and we shot the story, the movie didn’t really resemble the script by the time he finished editing it. I think that shows real vision, you know, he didn’t let anything distract him from what he found to be truthful or meaningful, whether it was a Red-Tailed Hawk or whether it was a bug landing on a leaf, or whether it was an extra suddenly starting to cry because he was moved by something, or whether it was the main actor doing a speech. So, it was just like he was gathering moments, just taking them with him and then he’d get back and say “Let’s turn this into a movie.”

Brad Shield remembers lunch-time excursions with Malick:

For a little while Terry would have me and a small crew join him at lunch time. It was then we shot various nature shots around our location. He loved doing this and seemed very relaxed and enjoyed not having the whole circus of a film crew around him. The final shot of The Thin Red Line came out of one of those lunch times strolls, the coconut sprouting on the beach.”

The sound recordist on the movie, Paul Brincat, recorded various Melanesians (on the island of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands) singing church hymns and local songs, I still remember the joy on Terry’s face at the amazing opportunity as he got his gear ready in the morning to go record more of these wonderful songs. The scene where we start on a cross and tilt down to some local folk gave me goose bumps when we shot it, and the beauty of those voices. It still does today when I see the movie.  Terry wanted it to feel as though the audience has stumbled into the middle of the war. We were not watching a movie, nothing was set up and we as an audience were in the midst of these characters and their struggles.”

Ethnomusicologist Claude Lettesier spent four hours in the jungle recording atmospherics ambient sounds as well as the Melanesian chants for the film which, on a tip from Malick’s wife, Alexandra brought Malick enough pleasure that he and Letessier prepared and released a CD of the music. Lettesier recollects in his discussion with me:

“I was in contact with churches and religious congregations. I remember getting NO help or information from any of the local authorities. The Solomon Islands Society is a multi-tribal society with its own tribal rules and customs. A village in Malaita is very different from another on another island. What really struck me is that blend of ancestral chant and Anglican hymns. We had, Terrence Malick and I, released a CD with all those chants. I believe it is called The Blessed Islands.  Mr Malick is listening to the universe as a multidimensional/ multilayered space. He perceived a cosmic/ spiritual/ universal message in these chants. After a few weeks recording those chants all over the islands, I perceived that dimension, too. Nobody owns those chants. The people on the islands own it. Whoever claims ownership, other than them, will get super bad karma!”

Much has been written about the many hours recorded of Billy Bob Thornton’s narration based on new dialogue Malick had written apart from the script. Thornton’s narration was thrown out because Malick didn’t want people to be reminded of Thornton’s Slingblade character, in favor of eight other narrators. One of them, John Dee Smith (Private Train), spent weeks in the company of Malick reading into a microphone on the Fox lot. Those days weren’t spent spouting constant original content, but of rephrasing lines spoken in a variety of ways; altering inflections, stressing vowels, varying the accent(s).

Malick is a perfectionist, and he would give lines for Smith to repeat ad nauseum, (“Man, I just wanted to go home, to walk out the door and off the lot, but I had a contract,” says Smith) many of which were made up off of the top of his head, often without any notes to remind him. Others came from stacks of index cards. What piqued Smith’s frustration was repeating them hour after hour for eight-to-nine hour days.

“I would say ‘what’s this war in the heart of nature?’”

“Okay, now say it with emphasis on “war.””

“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

“Great, now stress it like you’re addressing a deity.”

“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

Ambiguous and arguably frustrating, Smith did not understand the meaning of the content he was recording. Klein explains, “The process of voiceover with Terry is interesting because it doesn’t really start right away. I think he knows of voiceover all along, filling it into cards with ideas. But that’s just an ongoing process, and a lot of times that’s like, you cut things together and the voiceover doesn’t go in until a little bit later, or you take it out. It’s a form of scaffolding. ”

Jones recalls, “There was a lot of thinking of who would have a voice in the movie. Would there be a neutral voice, like a narrator? Would everybody have a voice? We just experimented, a lot.”  Smith spent time with Malick when he wasn’t recording new material; he often followed Malick into the editing rooms and watched footage projected on a screen ( he remembers seeing Mickey Rourke’s full scene, which Smith thought was “powerful”, part of which is included on the Criterion disc).

Based on what he saw, Malick came up with new ideas of how he wanted to treat these scenes. Smith describes Malick as a man that had his fingers in everything much to the dismay of the people working on the film. As the film gestated, Hans Zimmer composed and recording new music, most of which never made the film’s final cut. He had composed some before production began for Malick to use for guidance.

In the weeks leading to The Thin Red Line’s premiere, Smith remembers a significantly longer cut. Malick, according to Smith, wanted to create the ultimate “Malick Experience”. When Malick was pulled away from Smith’s recording sessions to take a phone call, he returned visibly upset. Smith learned that the current state of the film had to be reduced to “three hours or less” in order to fall in line with Fox’s contractual demands (agreed upon with influential theater-chains with the hopes of recouping their profit gains by repeat showings and possibly an Academy Award to bolster the film’s credibility in light of the confusion that ensued in Malick’s wake).A cut, a few minutes longer than that made for the public weeks later, was prepared for limited screenings for critics and press.

To Malick, the film was unfinished, still, and he felt betrayed that Fox would go ahead despite his disapproval. The result was a vote by the New York Film Critics Circle appointing him as 1998’s best director, followed by Steven Spielberg. ‘‘Terry was livid,” recalls Mike Medavoy, “because he felt, how could we show a film that was not finished? He knew press screenings were happening, but I don’t think he knew to what extent. He was very upset.’’ (source: You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot)

Last minute cuts? Sean Penn assisted with identifying repetition. Alexandra Malick, credited for continuity in the end credits, did just that.  Characters amid minor storylines were eliminated, such as conflicts between Captain Staros’s replacement, Lt. Band and his underlings, both present in the Criterion cut as outtakes chosen by Malick for inclusion. that had formerly survived the earlier cuts: Lukas Haas, who dies in battle,  Adrien Brody’s cowardly Fife is pulled from the front line and medically evacuated (cowardice personified, Fife gets pulled off the line, Witt dies). Rourke’s brief screen time as a shell-shocked rogue sniper (“What does it take not to burn you out? You gotta’ roll motherfucker,” he states as he pounds black dirt with a fist) was canned as was Bill Pullman’s minor character.

Other extended scenes of Witt and Hoke AWOL with the Melanesians were reduced by request of Fox to include more combat sequences. In another compelling scene, the boyish Pfc. Bead (Nick Stahl), after taking a crap in the brush is surprised by the enemy. The ensuing slaughter and his portrayal of stark, raving fear (one striking image has him trying to wipe a bead of blood off his muddied boot and wiping his hands on the leaves) are compelling and would have warranted inclusion had not Fox made its demands to sacrifice art for practical marketing strategies. The promotional photos, official soundtrack booklet and early film trailers indeed reveal many scenes not in the final cut. Malick had every intention of including these. It is possible then that The Thin Red Line could obtain an epic scale comparable to Bertolucci’s 1900 without falling apart, if Malick is left to his own devices.

The fact is that there is enough of The Thin Red Line languishing in Fox’s vault to reassemble another cut of the film as Malick himself hinted to various people in the past few years. The process would involve moving the film around like a Rubic’s Cube, evolving and expanding it much like the extended cut of The New World. 

Malick did not attend the film premiere. Much like the five-hour cut, he probably did not wish to watch again the 175-minute version. He was ready to move on to other projects, such as Che, the life of Che Guevara, or The English Speaker and especially Q.

Months later, Malick passed on attending the Oscars for which The Thin Red Line was nominated for Best Picture. It won no awards. Critically, it was either lambasted as an unfathomable mess, or revered as a genius by-product of eccentric filmmaking. Thrusting “this Great Evil” into the blank stares of popcorn-eating, Coke-drinking moviegoers and imposing the spiritual broodings of Simone Weil, the Bhagavad-Ghita and Wordsworth’s The Prelude via voiceovers was a recipe for disaster. Malick, it is now apparent, wasn’t returning to filmmaking to appease modern-day audiences, he was addressing future generations, when the modern hell of the world has reached its apex, and there is nowhere else to turn but inward, to find our inner eye, reuniting as “One Big Self”.

For much of the filming, it became apparent to producers like Grant Hill, that Malick was on his own mission. He answered to none, nor was he accountable to anybody. We can only be so lucky to know that the same is true for The Tree of Life. After two years in post-production, this too is finally complete, but will not reach audiences until some time in 2011 (Fox Searchlight has picked up distribution). Malick has begun production of a new as-yet-untitled film. It is clear: Terrence Malick is forging his own true path toward eternity.

For the Criterion release of The Thin Red Line, the label worked closely with Terrence Malick and John Toll. There was no talk of an extended cut, and, according to Criterion, the existence of one is just a rumor. “John and Terry were heavily involved in the new mastering and Terry had input into all other parts of the release as well,” states a Criterion insider. Malick chose to stay true to the original theatrical mix with no aural embellishments. Is there a future for Malick’s Badlands with Criterion? Criterion states, “We’d love to work on Badlands but it’s not in the works at the moment.”

Still courtesy of Criterion

Still courtesy of Criterion

Actors and crew interviewed for this article by the author (July 2010): John Dee Smith (actor, Private Train), Will Wallace (actor, Private Hoke), Francesco Lupica (musician, co-composer), Claude Letessier (ethnomusicologist), Brad Shield (Steadicam operator), Laura Dunn (director of The Unforeseen, prod. by Terrence Malick, 2007) Leslie Woodhead (director of Endurance, prod. by Terrence Malick, 1999.)

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