I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theatre of war, but throughout the cinematography by John Toll keeps reminding viewers the action is set in a beautiful place and oftentimes on a beautiful day. Even when Woody Harrelson accidentally blows off his rear end with a grenade you notice the lush vegetation around the soldiers and the blue sky above.
Supposedly the movie was to focus on Adrien Brody’s Cpl. Geoffrey Fife, but instead after months of editing the final cut puts the emphasis on Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt, who is first seen living with the natives in the South Pacific after having abandoned the army. To call him the protagonist would still be generous since after he is found and imprisoned the story then focuses on the invasion of a key Japanese location in Guadalcanal and Witt only rejoins the action later during the battle.
There is an interesting conflict between Lt. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), who seems like the kind of army man that sees the American flag every night in his sleep, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who is hesitant to attack a Japanese controlled hill. It is easy for Tall to bark orders about taking that hill no matter how many lives might be lost, but Staros is the one on the front line seeing his fellow soldiers get killed as they attempt to defeat the Japanese soldiers who are shooting at them from an elevated position inside bunkers. Understandably, Stavros feels this battle might need a new strategy.
That main battle is about all you get in terms of plot. Throughout the rest of The Thin Red Line you get brief glimpses of a wide cast that includes John Cusack, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Thomas Jane, Tim Blake Nelsom John Travolta, and even George Clooney for a brief moment. Even Mickey Rourke had some scenes, but they ended up being cut out of a first five-hour first cut. You get some brief scenes about life at home for some of these characters, but also many random scenes of the landscape, vegetation, and natives. The result is quite poetic amid the very graphic violence depicted on screen, but one wonders what the main plot is supposed to be.
I recently saw a stand-up special by Patton Oswalt in which he talks about how there are many male directors who will shoot hours and hours of footage and declare it a masterpiece. Then a woman calmly walks into the editing room to try to sort out the mess into a coherent movie. That might be a generalization, but it seems to have been the case with The Thin Red Line since editor Leslie Jones spent seven months editing the massive amount of footage. Eventually Billy Weber and Malick himself also participated in the editing process, resulting in the theatrical cut and the diminished screen time of many actors.
The end result is a movie that has a vague plot about the effect war has on soldiers and also about the beauty in the world when people are not busy trying to shoot each other. Every shot that does end up on screen is gorgeous, but you do wish there was a more straightforward narrative in order to remain engaged during the pauses in combat.