Acclaimed director Terrence Malick ended a twenty-year film-making silence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Based on the novel by James Jones, the film follows a group of soldiers during World War II, on tour in the Solomon Islands battling the Japanese. Among war films, it takes a more existential approach to the causes and effects of mankind’s continued conflict with itself. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay (adapted) and Best Music.
In order to properly frame a film like The Thin Red Line, it’s as important to know what it is not as what it is. Coming out so near to the other big war movie of that year, Saving Private Ryan, probably set many people up for a different type of film than what they received. The promotion for The Thin Red Line predictably focused on the long list of Hollywood actors involved (even though some barely registered as a blip in the final edit) and war scenes with explosions galore. But the two films were at best complementary opposites. Private Ryan augmented a much more traditional hero’s storyline with an almost hyper-realistic look and sound, taking you directly into the action for a first-person perspective. It was a sensory assault of accurate, but formulaic, war movie conventions.
Malick’s films, on the other hand, tend to have a distinctly dreamlike quality about them. They often feel as if they’re more about the reflection on an event than the actual event itself. Generous use of prolonged pans over nature and philosophical narration heighten this feeling. Plot point scenes within the film are often surrounded by a narrator coming to terms with their past (the events unfolding onscreen), man’s connection to nature and to mankind. Days of Heaven focused in this way on love and security, The New World analyzed ambition and conquest, and The Thin Red Line turns further inward to the dark constructs of war.
If there is a main character to the film, it is Private Witt. At the opening of the film we find Witt living peacefully amongst the indigenous peoples of the Solomon Islands. It’s a serene and beautiful opening, where a tribe is living at peace with themselves and nature, and sets up the stark contrast of violence and war that will soon follow. Witt also serves as the main narrator during the film (although there are others, as the focus shifts to other characters), but also its spiritual conscience. His thoughts veer towards the dichotomy of man’s technological progress over nature matched against the lack of peace and fulfillment he finds in this same technological world. The deadly march of war is similarly stacked against the struggle for true understanding and complicity by those who are actually ordered to carry it out.
Throughout the film we go from character to character and witness much the same feeling, although the differing personal stories shed a new light on the conflict. To be sure it is an anti-war film. But instead of pointing the finger at governments or systems, it seems to uncover the villain as being the dark heart of man himself.
Criterion delivers a sumptuous visual feast with the Blu-ray for The Thin Red Line. The cinematography is often just as beautiful as Days of Heaven, but the palette of the film is much larger. There are rich colors within the foliage and wildlife of the forest scenes, and layers of texture, from the steel hull of battleships to the muddy camps of the soldiers. In every instance, the level of detail and depth to each shot is impressive. Of particular note are the rich black levels in the darker scenes both on the ship and in the forest. This new transfer really shows the limitations of previous DVDs. Noise and debris are never an issue, and overall this is a striking presentation in every way.
As impressive as the video transfer is, the audio track is simply phenomenal. The only option is for English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but it is a stunner. I remember that even the original DVD release came with an insert card warning that loud noises within the audio track could damage some systems if played at high volumes. That warning should still apply, but on the plus side a really good setup can now be adequately put to the test! Hans Zimmer’s score comes through crystal clear, with gorgeous music weaving in and around the scenes of the film. The sound stage is fully utilized, giving instruments an impressive depth and warmth, even in many of the quieter sections of the film.
The environmental space is also well represented. The elegiac opening sections with Witt living amongst the Melanesian people blends a perfect canopy of nature sounds with the philosophical narration. As the movie progresses and more characters are introduced, things stay just as balanced. Dialogue is never subdued to the point of being overshadowed, although the film often intentionally takes it away from focus. And the battle scenes are only one volume notch below real. Although active combat only occurs for certain chapters, the activity within those scenes is nothing short of thunderous and all-enveloping.
The disc is literally packed with supplemental items. Features include (using the shorthand names from the disc’s menu, for space considerations):
- Commentary – Featuring cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk and producer Grant Hill, this commentary track is highly informative, as we learn about Malick’s process through others. A bit dry in spots, it is still a very worthwhile listen for fans of this film specifically, and Terrence Malick films in general
- Actors (HD, 33:35) – Several of the actors discuss what it’s like to work with Terrence Malick, and some of the specific challenges of this huge production.
- Casting (HD, 17:58) – Dianne Crittendon discusses the process of selecting the cast for the film, which includes archival casting demos and interviews with some of the actors about their experience landing the roles.
- Editors (HD, 27:21) – The Thin Red Line was an infamously long movie before being shortened to its current (still lengthy) running time. The editors of the film talk about the experience of having to manage miles and miles and footage, while shooting at a moving target with the director during the editing phase.
- Music (HD, 16:29) – Hans Zimmer is interviewed about his score for the film and his relationship with Malick. He goes into interesting detail about the construction of some of the sounds and style for this score.
- Outtakes (HD, 16:29) – Although only a small sample of scenes that were left out of the film, these outtakes are intriguing further looks at some of the characters.
- Kaylie Jones (HD, 19:05) – Daughter of the author for the original novel the movie was based upon, Kaylie Jones recalls life growing up with her father, his thoughts on war and some of the deeper meanings of the book.
- Newsreels (HD, 15:08) – A collection of 1940s war newsreels highlighting updates from the tours depicted in the film.
- Chants (HD, 6:47) – A brief set of Melanesian chants set to still images from the film
- Trailer (HD, 2:51)
- Booklet – A 36-page booklet is included that mainly features two essays. The first is “This Side of Paradise” by film critic David Sterritt, who offers insight into the themes and philosophy of the film. The second is an article from 1963 by James Jones that, while a bit cynical, is a rather fascinating look at his philosophy on war movies, with examples contemporary and prior to his writing.
Criterion has put together a gorgeous package for an equally engrossing film. Although The Thin Red Line avoids the bravura heroics and “authentic” tactics of more popular war movies, it makes up for it with unforgettable cinematography and reflective, multifaceted character studies that somehow ring more true than the vast majority of the genre. Not only is it a near-perfect reference disc for your home theater setup but it is an important catalog title, and a captivating film that reveals more about itself with each viewing. This is a must-see release and comes highly recommended.