Pacific Hell Amid Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’

[1 October 2010]

By Paul Maher

Paul Maher interviewed the following cast and crew from The Thin Red Line for this essay: John C. Reilly (Sergeant Storm), John Dee Smith (Private Train), Claude Lettesier (Ethnomusicologist) and Brad Shield (Steadicam operator)

There is a note placed at the beginning of Criterion’s excellent re-release of The Thin Red Line (1999): “Director Terrence Malick advises The Thin Red Line to be played loud.” This is interesting. A highly-reticent auteur, with the mountains of knowledge behind his aesthetic should choose as his one statement this one and only piece of advice passed on to the people of Criterion.

Malick knows loud; he engaged the services of Francesco Lupica and his Cosmic Beam to blow the roof off the mother on a Fox soundstage in order to achieve the metallic clang and boom one hears dropped into key sequences of the film, when doom and chaos becomes imminent. “The Beam idea,” explains film editor Saar Klein, “came a little bit later in the picture when we were looking for something to capture, sort of like the fear of war. He remembered a guy from Venice Beach back in the seventies, and tracked him down. That was actually found and worked incredibly well.”

In happenstance, most look back on the making of The Thin Red Line as a peculiar highlight in their careers. In retrospect, The Thin Red Line is now a cult classic and Terry Malick’s vision endured. Blessed with the foresight of longevity and not immediate gains, Malick has placed himself in the front ranks of American film directors.

cover art

The Thin Red Line

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody

(US DVD: 28 Sep 2010)

The Thin Red Line’s premiere in December 1999, at long last, came after 100 days of filming in Queensland, Australia; 20 more days in Guadalcanal, and filming stateside for several days off of Catalina Island (with Nick Nolte and John Travolta) and on a military base close to San Pedro, California (with Ben Chaplin and Miranda Otto). Following principal shooting, the film languished an additional year-and-a-half in post-production. It was indeed a long time coming, perhaps matching Stanley Kubrick in its lengthy production. For some of the cast and crew, The Thin Red Line was an endurance test and frustrating to the point where many in the studio and alongside the director questioned his seeming lack of direction. Also, Malick could never make up his mind about anything, a fact that even he admitted.

There were exceedingly high expectations for the film’s premier by Malick’s peers, the studio, the critics and the public—for there were some that had been waiting since the closing credits of Days of Heaven to see another film by this gifted visionary. However, this public spectacle was, for Malick, the most daunting of the directorial process. He already had it written into his contract that he would provide no interviews, nor would he consent to being photographed (one invited press member on the Australian set did manage to snap a photo of a smiling Malick, which he despised ever since). The prospects of walking the red carpet was for him comparable to running a gauntlet replete with clubs hammering blows—not on his body, but his psyche.

Malick sent his assistant to bring actor John Dee Smith (sitting with Adrien Brody, who was about to get the surprise of a lifetime when he saw how much he was not in the film) from the theatre to him. Smith, after receiving assurance from the theatre usher that he could gain re-admittance, found Malick sitting, alone, in his tuxedo. “He was in there, waiting for the after-party, or something. He wanted to tell me to never live in Los Angeles, and stay as far away from it as I could. The city, he felt, drained the soul and sucked the life force from you.”

John Dee Smith’s first experiences on set, having come from a theatre background, were frustrating. Malick’s process was to hire actors for their look, and not necessarily their acting skills (“Terry wanted to hire people, not actors.”). Malick told Jack Fisk that he would wait and see which of those “people” would rise to the surface. Two had, for very different reasons: Smith and Jim Caviezel, the future lead actor of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Smith remembers: “First day on the set I messed up my first scene. It had to be filmed four times in order to get my two lines right which eventually became a waste of mortars and gun blasts. I was with Adrien Brody in a trench and I messed up my mark badly [the scene is in the script; Smith’s Private Train character witnesses the wounding of Brody’s character, Fife]. I was embarrassed and apologized to Terry. I went back to my room. Adrien was mad at me too, and I ended up packing my stuff because I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. I then got a note slipped under my hotel room door by one of Malick’s assistants. I was to have dinner with Terry.”

“I went to the hotel dining room and was pointed the way to Terry. There we talked about life, about how I came out of poverty and my parents were killed and onward until I went to college before being cast in The Thin Red Line. Terry told me of his own faith and of his life in Texas. I ended up staying on the set and he used me for scenes where he could draw from my personal experiences and use it as dialogue. So there you have me talking about sleeping in the chicken coop a “whole lot of nights,” all true stories, and being beaten by a block. Terry prompted me through these scenes, saying stuff like [Smith does a great Terrence Malick-impression], “Tell more stories about the South.”

In the finished film, Smith appears in the first 15-minutes as a frightened private revealing to Penn, “I can’t help how scared I am Sarge.” In the film’s closing minutes, Smith reveals that because he has experienced life as bad as it can get, then it can only change for the better. Smith’s voiceover then closes the film:

“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

One of the constants of The Thin Red Line’s production was the artistic freedom Malick invested in his film crew and actors. Though he maintained a tight reign over the production with the scrutiny of a stoic perfectionist, there were moments when Malick’s pursuit of truth, the “glimmer of gold in the stream”, meant to some that he was merely chasing Fool’s gold. Though there was a script, Malick, an obsessive writer, added to and dropped dialogue from the script, or peeled out lines of vivid prose to embellish the moody sentiment he wanted to juxtapose against the battle-worn soldiers crawling through the hills.

The screenplay for The Thin Red Line had its origins almost ten years previous, when producer Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau found investors willing to pay Malick a fee to adapt James Jones’ book of the same title for the screen. The flimsy goal was to have Malick ultimately direct it, which was not a sure thing.

This project, among others, including an adaptation of Sancho the Bailiff, kept Malick occupied, by and large, for most of the early- to mid-‘90s. Simultaneously, Malick tampered with a long-gestating dream project titled Q, a proto-version of Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick’s investors gave him as long as he needed, which allowed him to remain in Paris close to Gloria Jones, the widow of The Thin Red Line’s author. Ultimately, Malick developed a script faithful to the novel which is by all accounts, a thick, profuse piece of literature exceeding 200 manuscript pages.

Malick’s “disappearance”, then, is really no mystery. After Days of Heaven, after folding up pre-production of Q, Malick was commissioned to write other scripts for various film industry figures. This kept his toes in Hollywood, so to speak, but he could remain away from the city he despised so much. The completed script eventually served Malick as a template. Film editor Billy Weber observed: “The script was extremely long and it was sort of all over the place and it was while Terry was shooting that he was able to refine it and create those situations between those characters. We had a couple of others (character relationships) that we ended up not using.  [Sean Penn’s] Welsh also had a relationship with Fife, and which… we had too much going on. There wasn’t enough focus and we really needed that. We felt that when you were watching the movie, we needed to focus on Witt’s character, on Jim Caviezel, he seemed to be the one. He’s the one that’s gonna’ get killed, and he’s the one that we really needed to focus on.”

Jim Caviezel was cast by Diane Crittendon, who saw in him Malick’s desire to have actors that looked like they came from the ‘40s. However, there was more to Caviezel that Malick picked up on immediately. “Caviezel was a mystery to Terry,” remembers Smith in his conversation with me (July 2010). The lanky, handsome dark-haired man that had only appeared in minor roles up until then, turned out to be an embodiment of the spiritual center Caviezel recalls, “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, “Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.” I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.”  (source: featurette in Criterion disc, an interview with casting director Diane Crittendon)

Of special importance were scenes with Sean Penn, the film’s cynic embodied in Sergeant Welsh [Penn also plays a similar role in The Tree of Life as Jack, a “lost man in a modern world”].  Caviezel: “Terry said to me, “What do you think of Sean Penn?” I said, “He’s like a rock.  One day you can go up and talk to him, and there’s some days he doesn’t know who you are. That’s Sean Penn.” When we were shooting that scene, Terry says, “Tell him that, tell him what you told me.” On many days Sean and I would go out and run and work out together, and I kind of talked to him a lot about where I came from, my faith, and so on. Once Penn asked me, ‘What makes you tick?’” 

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yeah.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Then he goes, “Well, I don’t not believe in him,” like that. I said, “You asked me what makes me tick and I’m telling you. I wouldn’t put that on you.”

“When I came on the set, Penn [as Welsh] said “You still seeing the big ole’ light?”  I think I said, “I still see a spark in you. I know he’s in you, I know there’s something going on.”

Penn recalls of his scenes with Caviezel: “I think some of it was just there, you know, between Jim and I. We were very different people, and I think that he could speak to this in some ways better than I could, because he’s got a… he’s a person of a particular faith. I think that we were not wildly far off of who each character was anyways. A lot of it was just there.”

Penn was one of the few veteran actors on the set (besides Nick Nolte), and many times he was a mentor of a sort to the younger upstarts Malick brought in to bulk up his forces. “I think I had a very different experience than the rest because I was the old man there. I mean we had a couple of guys like Clooney who came up for a day, you know, or Woody [Harrelson] was around for a little bit, but even those guys are younger than I am, so I felt like I’m the old man with my family and all these young guys having the experiences that I had had twenty years ago, for many of them it was a first film, and I can imagine that from their point of view that it was really a magical time.”

Minute But Powerful Moments

Nick Nolte prepared a voluminous amount of research in order to play Colonel Tall. Nolte was the very symbol of passion and devotion, enduring take after take in order to realize the notion of an officer that hasn’t had “his war” yet, and will not pass this opportunity by. He embodies the engine of war willing to eat up lives in order to accomplish its singular goal of victory. One interviewer picked up on Nolte’s capacity for ferocity in 1999: “Ferocity? That’s fairly easy for me to access,” said the 57-year-old. “I’ve been delving into rage for quite some time.” During one scene, as howitzers rained on the terrain around him, Tall is yelling orders to his disobedient captain. Malick told Nolte that in order to be effective, he had to be more powerful than the howitzers. “Of course I chose not to wear earplugs, so I couldn’t hear for several weeks afterward.” (“Actor Nick Nolte finds his range in rage roles”, Daily Herald, 2 January 1999)

On set, under the equatorial suns of Northern Queensland, Malick directed from a script perpetually in flux. David Harrod, hired to play the muscled Corporal Queen, bulked up on ice cream intermittently with bouts of weightlifting. In this scene he was to beat on a Japanese soldier captured by the company. Malick shoots take after take until Harrod’s blood starts dripping from his neck. He shouted, ‘Wipe the blood from the nape of your neck! Vigously!” Though the scene made the final cut, it was without the theatrics of Harrod’s dripping blood. Harrod remembered that Malick favored improvisation, no matter how extreme.

The whole of the script was filmed and its results brought to the cutting board of film editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber. Enough footage was photographed to eke out a monumental five-hour edit (by Weber’s estimate, 6,000 feet roughly equals an hour of footage. The million-and-a-half feet of film shot brought the total to 250 hours of film).

However, this was nothing more than a rough assemblage only resembling the finished script. The cries of Malickphiles eager to watch this cut would see less of a trace of Malick’s hands on it, than they would see a traditional war film with a linear plot, monumental battle scenes and miles of charred landscape and tropical canopies with light filtering the ever-present smoke. Malick’s reticence to sit and view this cut is telling. Though Weber threatened to stop work on the film if Malick didn’t watch the full five hours (he did, once), Malick already had other ideas.

The Thin Red Line’s first assemblage, according to Leslie Jones, was “chipped away” at first, before anything else was added. “His main objective,” Jones explains on Criterion’s featured interviews, “was to lose the dialogue and create voiceover paths.”  The five hours were trimmed; numerous scenes, significant or minor, were sliced away. Malick agreed to spend time in the screening room only viewing one reel at a time, and he watched each without sound. As the editors conformed the reels, they passed each to Malick. Playing CDs (“I think he was listening to Green Day at the time,” reveals Jones), Malick silently reviewed each reel. If there was any dialogue “that he didn’t care that he didn’t understand, we’d take it out. If he missed understanding it, we’d keep that in.” It was all about, in the end, creating long sections of the film in order to add voiceovers.

Most unusual to Jones was that for this film, they hardly watched the film as a whole. Once the editing team finally did, Malick was not present. His sole interest was the “feeling” each editor had for the finished assemblage. “I don’t think,” Jones explains, “he was capable of seeing the movie as a whole during the process. That was a big adjustment.”

Editor Saar Klein believes that Malick’s process wasn’t in viewing the movie as a whole, because there really wasn’t a goal. “There was an exploration when you work with him, you don’t know what the scene about and he doesn’t know what the scenes about until he sort of plays around with it and finds out what it’s about. It’s forever changing. He has a script, and the script isn’t necessarily what he shoots. Once he gets on the set, it’s just whatever inspires him.”

Most heartbreaking to the process was eliminating astounding scenes of John Toll’s beautiful photography. Before hiring Toll, Malick had already interviewed (with producer Grant Hill) several cinematographers . He phoned Toll and immediately “hit it off”. Though Toll was familiar with Malick’s previous films, he had no idea of Malick’s personality. Toll thought, “Well, it would be great to work with a director like that, because he’s obviously interested in making films, as opposed to just commercial product.”

Toll met Malick in Austin and ably detected Malick’s collaborative nature. Malick, he felt, had no direct vision. He thought in non-linear patterns [John Dee Smith calls Malick a “walking sentence fragment.”] He did sense that Malick’s nature was based on intuition, a process of knowing, eventually, where he wanted to go with all of the footage that was being shot. Scenes that were shot in the morning were also shot in bright afternoon light, and a third time during “magic hour”, a period of time as the sun sets and the light diffused as through a polarizing filter. That way, as he told actor Thomas Jane, he could place the scene anywhere he needed to without worrying about matching the sky.

Toll also sensed that Malick liked to find things along the way, groping through direction until what he wanted was clearly defined. Malick had no use for over-preparation. To him, it was pointless to create a framework to perfection until the objective of what he was trying to achieve was within sight.

“Terry,” Jack Fisk explains in Criterion’s film commentary, “loves grass.” To take full advantage of this, Toll designed a way for a camera to sweep through the grass with running soldiers using an Akela crane and no movie lights (except for the occasional use of muslin to bounce sunlight under the actor’s helmets). Of paramount importance was the use of Steadicam. Steadicam operator Brad Shield remembers:

“There was a lot of Steadicam in the film and the action pieces we got to do without extensive use of CGI were fantastic to be involved in.The attack on the Japanese camp, for instance.

Terry got some terrific Japanese actors and that sequence we shot over a few days . We would follow different actors into the camp, e.g.; Sean Penn from one angle, Jim Caviezel on a different take. Terry and John Toll would have trees burning, explosions going off (all very safe),and the Japanese actors were incredible, some on their knees showing bullets to the Americans, some fighting, some acting crazy. You would run in and think, ‘OK, this shot will be over in a minute,’ but Terry would keep rolling until we ran out of film. I am sure some of the best footage came out of that .The actors would really have to find stuff to do and I was basically just shooting what was in front of me almost documentary-style because none of it was set up after the first 30 seconds.”

Sometimes Shield used the assistance of the actors to find the best shots during the attack on the Japanese bivouac: “I had a terrific young actor Dash Mishok as my “go-to” guy, I said to him, If I am looking like I have nothing to shoot, take my camera on a journey, wipe the lens and find me some action.” He would come past me with his pistol out and search the camp site, or take me to where a fire was burning or some prisoners were being rounded up. Of course I had John Toll over my shoulder giving me great support and a great grip Mick Vivian and focus puller Brett Mathews, both who ran probably three or four miles keeping me on my feet (except one time I fell over a prisoner) and the whole thing staying in focus. That sequence still thrills me for the power, emotion and fear it invokes.”

For other sequences, filming required radical experimentation ultimately finding its rhythm and pacing in the confines of an Avid editing room. Says Shield: “There is a scene where Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel have a chat in a burnt-out colonial style house. The dialogue was different between takes with each actor ad-libbing his lines. Malick’s direction for the camera was basically to stay on Jim sometimes, then move to Sean and sometimes follow both of them. We shot this scene over a course of five to six hours. The camera starts on a birdcage, rises to the burnt-out timbers and then finds the actors who have moved on to different rooms. It has a very disquiet feeling and certainly does not feel set up in anyway.”

Other cast and crew members attest to Malick’s love of nature and his willingness to put to a stop any scenes already in progress or that were about to roll. “Terry offered me a bottle of champagne,” said Shield, “if I could shoot a particular eagle for him. I got it twice and sure enough he paid up, although the second one must not have been a very good eagle as he gave me Australian Champagne, a very poor second cousin to the French version.” Finding animals on-set meant that they would be filmed, and if so, it led to moments in Malick’s films, minute but powerful, that crystallized the Malickian essence.

Bead Kills a Japanese Soldier

Bead Kills a Japanese Soldier (still courtesy of Criterion)

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.)

Paul Maher is the author of the critically-acclaimed Kerouac: His Life and Work, Jack Kerouac's American Journey, Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis and Empty Phantoms. He is currently at work completing a collection of interviews with Tom Waits and beginning production on his first indie drama.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/130995-pacific-hell-amid-days-of-heaven-terrence-pae-2cks-the-thin-red-line/