Criterion // 1998 // 171 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // October 4th, 2010
Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?
Barring a few exceptions, I'm not a big fan of films driven by special effects. As impressive as the visuals may be, I just can't bring myself to care very much about robots blowing up tanks. As these are the films that have benefited the most from high definition so far, I've had a burning question as to why I really needed a Blu-ray player. I finally have my reason. While a war film, one with a whole lot of explosions at that, The Thin Red Line is a beautiful tone poem on the banality of combat and the troubled relationship between man and nature. I can't believe how it looks on Blu-ray. Criterion's edition is a visual wonder, the best I've ever seen, and my absolute justification for the high definition format.
Based on the novel by James Jones about his experiences in WWII, we find ourselves in Guadalcanal, the heart of the Pacific Theater, with a company of infantrymen led by Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte, Affliction). He's an aging, power-hungry officer with little regard for his men, who orders his men to take a hill rife with Japanese soldiers. It's no doubt a suicide mission, but if they can take the bunker on the ridge, it may turn the tide of the war.
Piecing out a plot in The Thin Red Line is not so easy; the film is less a dramatic story than a series of events. While that makes for difficult coherent description, this is entirely the intention of director Terence Malick (The New World), in his return to film after a two decade hiatus. Can you describe the plot of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass? Poetry doesn't lend itself to such things, nor does The Thin Red Line. The film is one of images, feelings, and meditation; it is something you experience more than watch. It's a long and daunting, but supremely compelling film. If it isn't the very best war picture ever made, it is certainly the most beautiful.
One of cinema's masters at nature direction, Malick reached the pinnacle in The Thin Red Line, creating an all-time great scenic film. Shot in Australia and Guadalcanal, the film features some of the most striking images I've ever seen, shots of such breathtaking beauty that it's almost hard to believe such things actually exist. Pause the film at almost any moment and you'll see a frame worthy of hanging on a wall. Nearly the entire film is shot out of doors, and any interiors are dark, confining spaces. The exteriors, though, are expansive, seemingly without end. Malick embraces the freedom of the outdoors, harsh and unforgiving as it may be.
That sense of freedom enters into the narrative, as well. The first soldier we meet is Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ), an AWOL infantryman who has made a happy little place for himself living with the native Melanesian people of Guadalcanal. Like them, he lives off the land without amenity, but is completely happy away from the confines of his unit. Almost immediately, a lone naval vessel floats near shore. He knows they've come for him and, while the ship is landing near there anyway to partake in this battle, the freedom in nature he experienced no longer exists while with his unit.
Man's relationship to nature is one of the major themes of the film. Though there are plenty of films that deal with such topics, rarely are they as meditative or poetic as this. In the opening shot of the film, we see a crocodile creep slowly into the marsh. It's a languorous shot of an animal totally at peace with its environment (never mind the havoc it'll soon wreak against its prey). The shot doesn't mean much by itself, just the first of many such images. We only see a croc one other time during the film, a bound and distressed specimen that, now that it has been rendered harmless, the soldiers are taunting. Malick isn't claiming that man necessarily aims at superiority over nature, but some do. This contrasts very nicely, however, with the oneness of man and nature in the opening sequence with Witt. Malick adds into this relationship with the nature-scarring effects of the battlefield. The soldiers march through scorched earth with pristine wilderness in the background, sad imagery that puts in no uncertain terms the relationship has with nature during wartime.
On this viewing, what struck me most about The Thin Red Line was how my impressions of the performances have changed. In 1998, aside from the few and brief appearances from major stars like George Clooney (Intolerable Cruelty) and John Travolta (Battlefield Earth), most of the actors in the film were obscure, at best. Then, in fatigues and covered with mud, each and every character looked exactly the same. The anonymity was very effective. Things have changed in the years since the film was released. By whatever combination of expert casting and coincidence, the infantrymen became a list of some of todays top actors. Now that I know the faces of Adrien Brody (Predators), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), and Tom Jane (The Mist), the effect is considerably diminished, but it's easier to appreciate the individual performances, which are mostly understated and excellent. One of the few exceptions is Nolte, at his blustery best barking orders to Elias Koteas (Defendor).
Criterion has gone above and beyond with their Blu-ray release. It is spectacular in every way and is immediately one of the best discs in all my collection. The original release was quite good at the time, with a strong transfer and DTS sound. The new high-definition transfer that Criterion has put together and Malick supervised is amazing. There is incredible detail throughout the picture, with so much more in the frame than was visible in any previous edition. Whether it is the blades of grass, the distant birds, or the gun tracers, everything is visible now; I thought it was beautiful before, but I had no idea. Sound, likewise, is fabulous, and comes with the funny recommendation that Terence Malick suggests you play the movie loud. He's correct, of course, there is a wide range of volume between the soft voices and the massive explosions, so it is important. Be prepared for some ear-piercing sounds, though.
The supplements are up to Criterion's usual high standards. The audio commentary with cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill is detailed and intelligent. Three featurettes give us an even deeper look into the film. The first features interviews with the actors that includes plenty of audition footage, some from unlikely names who did not make the cut. The other two, one with the editing team and the other with composer Hans Zimmer (Beyond Rangoon), tell very similar stories about the director's strangely distant relationship to his film. An additional interview with Kaylie Jones, daughter of the original author, is pretty amusing. Speaking of Jones, in addition to the customary essay on the film, the booklet includes an archival essay from the writer on what disgusts him about war films and it is a hoot to read. Newsreel footage, recordings of Melanesian music, and a trailer round us out. There's a lot of value here, both in quantity and quality.
The Thin Red Line is unquestionably my favorite war film, probably not coincidentally because it has less to do with actual war than most. For his incredibly sparse body of work, Terence Malick is a master filmmaker who captures nature like no one else; this picture has an otherworldly beauty that is deeply affecting to me. It doesn't hurt that Criterion has done so well with their Blu-ray release. I've very impressed; this is almost certainly my pick for Blu-ray of the year.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 171 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Archival Footage
* Isolated Music Score