The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we’re going to examine the decades-spanning career of one of the most important filmmakers of this generation and generations prior: Terrence Malick.
Sometime after Days of Heaven released, one of the most fascinating director back-stories began with the apparent “disappearance” of Terrence Malick. For twenty years, Malick worked on several projects that were either completely unrelated to film or various film projects that couldn’t make it off the ground, including an epic script entitled Q, which would later become the basis for The Tree of Life. If you want more of the specifics of what exactly Malick was working on in this dormant period, this great IndieWire piece covers it all rather well, but the point remains the same: For two decades, Terrence Malick didn’t direct a single film, and because of the director’s reclusive nature, many believed that he had somehow “disappeared”.
And then, in 1998, exactly twenty years after Days of Heaven, Malick’s long-awaited third feature was released: An adaptation of James Jones’s war autobiography The Thin Red Line, which was already adapted in 1964 by director Andrew Marton. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, The Thin Red Line is one of the most harrowing of anti-war statements, and the most beautiful too. And with it, The Terrence Malick Retrospective continues, with this spoiled-filled account of the film’s production, themes, and connections with Malick’s previous work.
Welsh: “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
Witt: “I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.”
But it wasn’t just his imagination. It was as real as real could be. For that other world was Eden. And it was just as much a part of this world as it was its own place.
The opening scenes of The Thin Red Line call to mind the first act of Badlands, beginning in a place where its protagonists are at their most innocent and happy, and then killing that innocence in the process. The person in question is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), who is AWOL from his unit and living amongst the natives of a nearby Melanesian village in Guadalcanal. There, he is happy. Away from the constant death and psychological agony of World War II, by the time we see him he is practically one of the Melanesians as he builds huts with them, canoes in their boats, and swims freely in their ocean with them.
This is Witt’s typical, Malick-ian Garden of Eden. And like all the Edens in Malick’s films, it is taken away from him in an instant. Unlike Badlands and Days of Heaven, however, the film barely reaches five minutes before Witt’s Eden is suddenly taken from him without warning, as he’s found by the Americans and sent back to his troop to wipe out the Japanese soldiers occupying Hill 210. There he is commanded by Welsh (Sean Penn) the First Sergeant, Tall (Nick Nolte) the Lieutenant Colonel, and Staros (Elias Koteas) the Captain of his squad. Among them are many other soldiers, all of them removed from their own, respective Edens, searching for meaning in the chaos of this war.
The casting of these soldiers is one of the most interesting (and to some, controversial) aspects of the film. Filmed with loads and loads of A-list stars, all of whom wanted a chance to work with the mysterious Malick, there’s an almost meta-element to the casting of these various actors. Firstly, it recalls to mind older war film classics like The Longest Day, which also featured a large ensemble of the era’s hottest stars, only to end up subverting the expectations of those war-film roles.
The soldiers of The Thin Red Line are in no way brave, gung-ho, patriotic, selflessly heroic infantrymen who are there to fight the good fight and willing to bleed for the red, white, and blue. Instead, they’re all frightened, terrified, unenthusiastic about their positions, and in some cases completely incompetent in battle. There are really only two or three instances of intentional risk or sacrifice, and they’re fueled not by patriotism, or even heroism, but instead by irrationality, blind rage, or even suicidal tendencies. It’s clear from the very beginning that this isn’t a film about heroes but instead victims. Instead of war glorifying the individual, it “poisons the soul”, as one character puts it. And contrasting that with the all-star cast is an interesting method of role reversal.
The other interesting meta-element was the much-debated screentime of many of its stars, or lack thereof in this case. The Thin Red Line was originally meant to have Adrien Brody as the main character–or at least the character that “carried the film” as Brody himself put it–, with more stars like George Clooney, John Travolta, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Sean Penn and more in various supporting roles. Instead, Malick found in the editing process numerous opportunities to improve on his film, including the discovery that the storyline for Caviezel’s character was more captivating than Brody’s and fit the themes he was going for more naturally.
As a result, Caviezel’s Private Witt became the protagonist, while Brody barely got more than 5 lines in the film. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Viggo Mortensen among others were all victims of the cutting room, as none of them appeared in the final product. Actors like Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and John Cusack still managed to get fairly meaty roles, while lesser known character actors like Elias Koteas and Ben Chaplin got far more screentime.
The most fascinating thing about the use of the actors in this particular film is that each one acts like they’re the protagonist of their own film. It’s certainly true for Brody, who stated in interviews how upset he was that he gave the role his complete all yet nobody was able to see the true amount of work he put into it. Yet when you see his face in the five minutes of screentime that he has, you see a man who is clearly not an extra, but as much of a victim as all the rest of the characters in the film.
This is only fitting considering the film’s official tagline was “Every man fights his own war” and one of Malick’s obsessive themes that connects all of his work is the contemplation of man’s place in the universe, how important we are as a species in the grand scheme of life, and what mark will we leave when we’re eventually gone forever. Each soldier is certain–or at least has to be certain for fear of their psychological safety–that they’re the hero that’s going to live through it all and tell stories about the Great War to their grandchildren when they’re old farts.
Yet they’re all equal in their importance. What differs, however, is each soldier’s view of that importance. You have characters like Nolte’s Lieutenant Colonel Tall asking how many men have to be sacrificed to complete the mission. Or Koteas’s Captain Staros, trying to limit casualties to as few as humanly possible because he doesn’t like seeing his men get hurt. We see a man yank the grass from the soil yelling “That’s us! That’s all that’s left for us!” We see another man pouring dirt all over his face and helmet fearfully murmuring to himself “We’re dirt. We’re just dirt.” Penn’s Sergeant Welsh at one point says “What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness? If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this world. Just this rock.”
And yet, he’s saying that exact line to Private Witt, who has been to that other world where everything was okay. He still believes he can return there so long as he survives the madness of war, the poisoning of the soul, the psychological turmoil it creates. He even has a line on man’s importance in the grand scheme of this war, a quote from The Grapes of Wrath: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of. All faces are the same man.”
That last particular quote actually reminded me of something Harmony Korine said in a Q+A I attended for Spring Breakers. He stated that when he envisioned the four female protagonists of the film, he imagined them not as four separate individuals, but one single entity. And (mild spoiler for Spring Breakers incoming) when certain characters end up ditching the film, it ends up symbolizing that a part of that whole–that single entity–is broken off. In that sense, then it is most certainly true that all of the soldiers of The Thin Red Line are the protagonist, because they are all just parts of a larger whole.
But this “whole” that Malick is envisioning is much more than just this large troop of soldiers, and it even extends beyond the human race. Malick sees all of earth as this whole. As stated in the very beginning of the retrospective, Malick finds equal importance in every working element of the universe: The building of a pile of rocks is as much of a means of making a mark in human history as the killing of numerous innocent people in Badlands, and a swarm of locusts is just as monumental as the destruction of an entire home in Days of Heaven.
In The Thin Red Line, each of these soldiers are really just dying for nothing. They leave just as much impact as the leaves that fall to the ground when the trees are shaken by their explosions and ruin. There’s even a moment in the film where the numerous deaths of various infantrymen are interrupted by a shot of a small bird that’s been just as damaged from the ensuing battle; crawling, writhing around the ground, and flapping its wings in a futile attempt to fly away from the destruction its human counterparts are creating.
And as we see hundreds of these men losing their lives, the one true constant in this war is, yet again, nature. The vines and the trees outlive the humans. They’re the ones that leave the legacy of the earth. Each of these men the protagonists of their own inner war, and yet nature lives and moves on without them. And indeed, this indiscriminatory view of the world extends to the Japanese soldiers, who are feared in the first half when we never see them. Yet when their presence is finally known, we find that they’re just as frightened and lost as the Americans. And while these two fight, the Melanesians are probably still in their village, living peacefully, swimming freely in the same oceans that Private Witt once swam in for a brief but impactful period of time.
And speaking of Witt, whereas Badlands and Days of Heaven depicted Edens that were just lost for all time, The Thin Red Line is the first–and maybe only–Malick film in which we see a character actually succeed in returning to that Eden, only to be shunned for being involuntarily fed the forbidden fruits of war and human cruelty. And indeed, we see various other characters fail to return to their Edens. Ben Chaplin’s character, Private Bell, is the only character in the film that gets his own flashbacks, as we see him daydreaming of his beautiful wife, desperate to return to her. “If I go first,” he laments in his voice-over, “I’ll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.” And when he realizes that he may not come back the same man, he monologues to himself, “I want to stay changeless for you. I want to come back to you the man I was before.”
But as Badlands, Days of Heaven, Witt’s story-line and even the Bible have proven, once you’re out of Eden, there is no returning. All of these men’s lives change for the worst. Some may be strengthened by the pain, but they’re never going to go back to those halcyon days where they could swim as freely as the Melanesians in the water.
But what The Thin Red Line pointed out that both Badlands and Days of Heaven didn’t nearly as clearly (or tragically) was the sacrifice of the Deserter of Eden. In all three of these films, we see one of the protagonists “die” in a sense (literally in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line; figuratively in Badlands), as a means of rebelling for never being able to go back to that Eden. Yet in The Thin Red Line when Witt is killed by the Japanese soldiers, we cut later to shots of him swimming with the Melanesians again. Is death the only means of retribution for us, in that case? Is it only beyond the “dark waters” as Private Bell called it that we can return to Eden? According to Malick, maybe so, and there’s nothing wrong with finding peace in that way of thinking.
One final observation before we conclude this installment: Throughout The Thin Red Line, we hear a narrator that we never really get a good glimpse of throughout the experience. This is the voice that opens the film with “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” and then proceeds to narrate with some of the more famous lines like “What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of light and life. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”
When I turned the subtitles on, this mysterious narrator was credited as “Train”, or “Private Train”. According to iMDB, he’s played by John Dee Smith, but is he ever shown in the film? Well, thanks to the magic of subtitles, I discovered that he is only seen in the very end of the movie as another random, indistinct soldier, in the scene when everyone is called out to leave the island of Guadalcanal and return home. And as the boat is rushing towards the Eden that will never accept any of them again, it is Train who is seen babbling to the soldiers about how “My daddy always told me it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”
He continues, “Y’know, ‘cos life ain’t supposed to be that hard when you’re young. Well I figure after this the worst is gonna be gone. It’s time for things to get better. That’s what I want. That’s what’s gonna happen.”
He then begins the closing voice-over: “Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and 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.”
Could John Dee Smith’s Private Train be The Thin Red Line‘s equivalent to Days of Heaven‘s Linda Manz? The true protagonist that we’re seeing all of this through? Is he the lens that gives the film its trance-like, ethereal quality? Judging from his previous film, it’s as likely as it is interesting, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it to a heavy extent. But you have to admit that he does sum up the film very well with his final lines. All things in the world shine equally, because they are all an equal creation of God, the Universe, Nature, whatever it is you believe. And it was Witt that was able to see that shine in all men, in spite of the circumstances he found himself in.
But as with all of Malick’s films, we have to contemplate whether that shine carries on through those dark waters that we call death. For as Welsh said to Witt’s grave, “Where’s your spark now?”
The Thin Red Line remains Malick’s highest grossing film, though it’s pretty hard not to make so much money when you have so many battle sequences and famous actors in your movie. Disregarding that, the film was also nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. But most importantly, it heralded Malick’s cinematic return. But where would he go from here?
There’s a line that Private Bell says somewhere in the third act of the film. It goes, “Hours like months. Days like years. Walked in the golden age. Stood in the shores of the New World.” Well, that’s where we’re going next, folks. To The New World. Next week on Movie Mezzanine’s Terrence Malick Retrospective.