Thin Red Line (1998) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney
By Alan Bacchus
Last week for my inaugural Great Cinematography in Revue program, I had the opportunity to host a 35mm screening of Terrence Malick’s deservedly revered The Thin Red Line in a cinema full of cinematographers, and engage in a Q&A with the film’s Director of Photography John Toll.
It’s a glorious experience, a film which seems to gain more levels of depth with each new viewing. Based on the James Jones’ novel about the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal, under the eyes and ears of Terrence Malick The Thin Red Line is an unabashedly artistic rendering of first person’s viewpoint of war. Malick chose to show the battle from the point of view of a number of soldiers from Charlie Company who provide the introspective voiceovers. There’s Ben Chaplin, the defrocked officer who sacrificed all he had earned in the military for his wife, and who now finds himself a private in the front line infantry; Jim Caviezel plays Pvt Witt who, because of his spiritual connection to the aboriginal inhabitants of the South Pacific, comes into conflict with the cynical and hardened Sgt Welsh (Sean Penn); Elias Koteas as Lt. Staros emerges as the people’s leader, who stands up to the authoritative demands of the bullish Capt Tall – a truly awesome Nick Nolte performance whose impressively large jugular vein is strenuously exercised by the excessive amount of terse screaming. Although other famous actors show up for cameo performances it's these five characters who form the heart of the Malick’s unique vision of the war.
After 20 years between films, the ability of Malick to organize such immensely realistic and intense action is astonishing. From our conversation with John Toll however much of the credit goes to producer Grant Hill, who 'made it happen' and got the cameras up the mountains and into the tall green slopes of the Soloman Islands. Toll recounts a story about the use of his Akela crane, an enormous but robust device used to create the smooth camera moves through mountains. Hill had to organize a unit specifically devoted to constructing the platform which supported and levelled the crane, a crew which required a two-day prep time in order to move from one location/position to another.
In addition to production stories like this Toll debunked a number of myths about the film, namely that the film was edited down from a 5-hour cut. Toll admits the assembly (that is, the first edit which assembles all the best takes together in order) was 5 hours, a customary length for a film of that magnitude, but never was there any other versions of the film that wasn't Malick's.
The serendipity of having two seminal WWII films made in the same year, by two equally esteemed filmmakers (Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the other of course) was too perfect. Like a yin and a yang the two films both compliment and contrast each other perfectly – one set in Europe, the other in the Pacific; Private Ryan representing the visceral gut wrenching realism of violent combat, bloodshed of war, an unfiltered omniscient viewpoint of war while The Thin Red Line is a visual and aural rendering of war from the individual characters perspectives
As such, the squibwork and bloodletting in Line is kept to a minimum. Malick’s perception of war in relation to the organic natural world consistently dominates the visual language. Editor Billy Weber expertly weaves in B-roll of snakes slithering through the grass, iguanas climbing trees and other aspects of nature watching and being watched. Toll’s camera elegantly moves from the soldiers' movements to the trees and the grass and back and forth seamlessly. One of the seminal images of the film is the wandering Aboriginal walking past the platoon of soldiers completely unaware or interested the activities of the men. It’s a great moment of dramatic irony, highlighting the absurdity of war.
We can’t forget Malick’s use of sound which deserves an essay unto itself. Unlike Spielberg whose goal with Ryan was to reflect the realism of the environment. Malick’s sound design serves to adds more texture to the soldier’s individual impression of war. Line also features wall to wall music. Arguably it’s Hans Zimmer’s best score, a giant leap in quality from anything he’d created before – almost as if he were saving his best music for a film as special as this. The most inspired cue being the dramatic village attack, an astonishing orgy of action filmed with some equally astonishing steadycam work from operator Brad Shield.
At the time, much was made of the inexplicability of using such famous actors in unmemorable or throwaway roles, such as George Clooney, who shows up unceremoniously at the end with a speech, or John C. Reilly, who appears mostly in the background until he finally gets some lines of dialogue toward the end of the film. These casting choices work to compliment Malick’s vision and his attitude toward celebritysm. In The Thin Red Line, the film trumps any allusion of celebrity by the actors, just like the nature which will be always survive past the transitory aspect of war.