The Thin Red Line
Saving Private Ryan so thoroughly influenced action filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that not only wasn’t it the only war film released in 1998, it wasn’t even the best one. With each year, Spielberg’s war opus looks more dated, encumbered by its legendarily bad framing device and its inability to reconcile the numerous attitudes toward war into one coherent view of it.
By comparison, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line looks better than ever, and I’m not even talking about the DVD quality yet. Based on the book by WWII veteran James Jones, Malick’s film is one of the most honest ever made about the brutality of war. When soldiers are relieved of duty, they don’t make speeches about staying until the job is done; they make for the next boat out with scant hesitation. When a captain assures a sergeant that he’ll get a medal for his valor, the sergeant threatens to resign in protest if his actions are cheapened by a tacky piece of metal that will only remind him of the horror he witnessed in his duty.
Yet The Thin Red Line is also perhaps the most Romantic war film ever made. What sets it apart is that it never romanticizes war. Instead, Malick, that lover of nature, takes his graceful camera through the jungles of Guadalcanal (here played by several locations in Queensland, Australia). During battle scenes no less terrifying and bewildering than those of Saving Private Ryan, Malick’s impossibly fast dolly shots give way to unrelated close-ups of wildlife, often wildlife caught in the crossfire. The only thing romanticized here is the tranquil between battle, and the war serves only to scar this beautiful land and corrupt the human beings who fight it.
There is no glory in fighting. No one on the front line wants to charge when the Japanese stage an ambush that has them in perfectly hidden bunkers with a clear line of sight over the advancing Yanks. The aged colonel shooting for a general’s star on his helmet (Nick Nolte) orders men to keep moving directly up the hill. He wants his glory, and he’ll sacrifice hundreds to get it. Only when a captain (Elias Koteas) directly disobeys him does the colonel stop to consider what he’s doing, though not before he chews out the captain in front of God and everybody. Later, when the men break through, the colonel pushes the men far ahead of the water supply in the hopes of swift victory, compounding the soldiers’ misery.
Everyone who thinks of chasing personal glory ends up dead or disgusted with the very notion of such a thing. One soldier, Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) goes AWOL at the start to live with Meanesian natives. He finds a spiritual purity in the jungle and even finds a spark of light in death, though he does not celebrate it. His story forms a loose tapestry with the thoughts of others, and The Thin Red Line breaks all ordinary conceptions of a war film by wrapping up nearly all the action with an hour to spare and focusing exclusively on how the brief experience has changed the men, who think thoughts that are perhaps too Emersonian for a bunch of guys who dropped out of high school to enlist but never seem false or intellectual. For all its open revulsion with violence, The Thin Red Line finds a certain beauty in its epic tragedy, managing to show how life goes on even in the face of atrocity. As such, it’s the first war movie to operate on an emotional level besides nationalism or fear. One of the great masterpieces of the modern age.
Terrence Malick has never made a film that could be called anything less than sumptuous, and we’ve already been treated to one Criterion upgrade of the master’s films this year (the gorgeous Days of Heaven). I do not want to spring the trap of calling this Criterion’s best-looking transfer yet - mainly because I’ve done it three times already this year, from Days to The Leopard to The Red Shoes — but let me try to capture the power of Criterion’s Blu-Ray by relating an anecdote. I woke up fairly early in the morning to watch the film before my classes started so I could tackle the extras later. As I watched, I could scarcely believe how great the image looked. About an hour in, I needed to rub my eyes, so I went to take off my glasses. I wasn’t wearing them. In my half-awake stupor I’d simply put on the film and then been transfixed into sobriety. Upon actually putting on my glasses, the image looked twice as magnificent. Criterion thoroughly cleaned up a transfer that wasn’t bad to begin with (check comparisons here, resulting in a crisp, evocative picture quality that compounds the splendor and poetry of the film.
I was amused by a blurb of text that appeared when I selected the play button on the Blu-Ray menu. It said, “Director Terrence Malick recommends that The Thin Red Line be played loud.” As I soon learned, you don’t have a say in the matter. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. mix is equal to the picture quality in overwhelming power. The bass will rattle your teeth. Rear channels pick up subtler sounds (especially the ambience of the flashback sequences), and no sound is ever drowned out by other noise. Zimmer’s score works in tandem with the sparse dialogue, which is crisper than ever.
When Criterion first confirmed The Thin Red Line (even before they announced a release date), fan speculation built to a frenzy. Would the fabled original cut - lasting some 5-1/2 hours - be included? Well, no, and the eight outtakes included only amount to 14 minutes of additional footage. But even these 14 minutes are arresting, especially a poignant cameo by Mickey Rourke as a sniper.
A number of other extras are partitioned according to an aspect of the film. There’s a feature on the astonishing cast Malick put together, a piece on the music, the editing, the actors’ own opinions on the film, even input from James Jones’ daughter. Old newsreel footage of the Guadalcanal siege is included, as is a brief collection of Melanesian songs with production stills. Rounding out the features are the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by production designer Jack Fisk, producer Grant Hill and cinematographer John Toll that details the storied production of the film, the themes and so on.
An accompanying, 36-page booklet reprints David Sterrit’s essay on the film and an old essay by James Jones in which he decries war films for glamorizing battle.
The Thin Red Line contains majesty without being majestic, because such an attitude would lend itself too much to a love of the war on-screen. It never loses its beauty no matter how many times I watch it and I continue to marvel at just how completely, yet subtly, Malick turns every big-budget war film trope on its head. I would not call myself psychic for being able to predict that Criterion’s Blu-Ray will make the short list of nearly every year-end poll for the best home video release. Image and audio quality are simply to die for, and the extras are dense and rewarding. Most of the extras were made for this release, and the majority of what wasn’t hasn’t been seen before. I don’t really bother writing pans for my contributions here, so it must seem that I’m generally in love with any Blu-Ray I pick up. I cannot sufficiently stress, however, just how incredible this release is. I’ll wait until the end of the year so I don’t have to take my foot out of my mouth later, but the other studios (and even Criterion) have their work cut out for them if they want a more impressive release by December.
- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. When he is not writing movie reviews, he is inevitably writing something else and will continue to do so until he runs out of excuses not to go outside.
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