Films

Apocalypse then

Terrence Malick is back with a hallucinatory war saga

Brian D. Johnson January 18 1999
Films

Apocalypse then

Terrence Malick is back with a hallucinatory war saga

Brian D. Johnson January 18 1999

Apocalypse then

Films

Terrence Malick is back with a hallucinatory war saga

THE THIN RED LINE Directed by Terrence Malick

A crocodile eases its armoured length into a green swamp. A dugout canoe knifes through turquoise waters. A native boy on a coral beach holds a handful of twitching crustaceans up to the sun. Those are the opening images of the most lyrical, least conventional war movie since 1979’s Apocalypse Now. The Thin Red Line is a hypnotic, elemental meditation about the fear, bloodlust and insanity of men blowing each other away in a tropical paradise.

Given the timing, comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are inevitable. Both are visceral epics about scared Americans marching to slaughter in the Second World War. And both contain some of the most compelling battle scenes ever filmed. But the movies are as removed from each other as the beaches of Normandy and the Pacific atoll of Guadalcanal. Private Ryan is the quintessential combat adventure, with an honest hero leading a squad of men on a mission. The Thin Red Line—based on James Jones’s extraordinary 1962 novel about the 1942-1943 battle for Guadalcanal—unfolds like a hallucination.

It is a frustrating, sometimes maddening film. The impressionist narrative keeps drifting into a demilitarized zone of philosophical reverie that is a hair-trigger away from pretension. The characters are as elusive as wildlife. And in the end, the drama falters. But there is a visionary purity to The Thin

Red Line that distinguishes it from anything to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

It has been two decades since Terrence Malick has made a movie. He turned his back on the business after just two films: Badlands (1973), a tale of a couple on a killing spree, and the ravishing Days of Heaven (1978), about a love triangle in Texas wheatfields. Neither was a hit, but both were wildly acclaimed by critics. And with only two pictures, Malick was considered one of the seminal directors of the 1970s. Spending the past 20 years in seclusion only enhanced his legend—making him the J. D. Salinger of the screen.

The 1970s was perhaps the most expressive decade of American cinema, an era when the likes of Coppola, Scorsese and Altman pried an unparalleled freedom from the studios. With The Thin Red Line, it is as if Malick has emerged from a ’70s time capsule—a Hollywood where anything goes. Here is a director with no commercial track record whose biggest film involved just four characters, and he is handed $75 million to write and direct a war epic with 60 speaking parts. Not only that, he manages to enlist such stars as Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney, even though some of them are consigned to roles no bigger than a foxhole.

Trying to imagine war from the inside-out, Malick uses as much narration as dialogue. And it is hard to get a fix on the characters, who duck in and out of the drama like unknown soldiers. Penn is underused as the

cynical, resilient Sgt. Welsh. Canadian Elias Koteas plays the sensitive but vacant Capt. Staros. Pte. Witt (Jim Caviezel) is a heroic enigma. Re. Bell (Ben Chaplin) longs for his wife, who is depicted beside billowing curtains in too many flashbacks. Travolta and Clooney, meanwhile, pop up in distracting cameos. The one actor who stands out is Nick Nolte, who bullies his way above the fray with a sensational performance as the raging Col. Tall, who is willing to send his men to their deaths to capture a hill—his bombast, as Jones describes it, “was like some scene from a movie, a very bad, cliché, third-rate war movie.”

The Thin Red Line is not that movie. Far from it. In Malick’s vision, bravery and cowardice seem equally mad. Not a shot is fired for the first 50 minutes. Slowly the tension escalates, driven by the mantra pulse of Hans Zimmer’s Gorecki-like score, gaga And while the bloodshed is

graphic, the drama remains rooted in the petrified anticipation that surrounds it.

Malick’s one telling omission is the incidence of homosexuality in the book. Jones dwells heavily on the incendiary mix of adrenaline and sex among the soldiers, young men thrown together in combat like desperate inmates. Instead, Malick dwells obsessively on nature, effectively making it the movie’s most powerful character. Cinematographer John Toll has a field day—literally—as his camera stalks soldiers through elephant grass, rainforest, cane and bamboo. The drama is intercut with primitivist tableaus of flora and fauna, along with National Geographic glimpses of the islands’ Melanesian natives.

Essentially, Malick has recast The Thin Red Line as Paradise Lost. Divine light slants through the jungle canopy while the animals watch the war. A phalanx of upside-down bats in trees stare down the camera. This is the jungle of Conrad and Coppola, a heart of darkness brightened by blood-red parrots. It may be the Second World War, but it feels more like Vietnam, with Americans fighting an invisible enemy that keeps melting into the wild.

Malick’s film recalls Apocalypse Now, another noble failure to illuminate the madness of war. But there is nothing burlesque about it. The film’s rhapsodic vision of grasslands waving in the wind is more reminiscent of Days of Heaven. Drawing his own thin red line between the blessed and the damned, he now gives us Days of Hell.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON