The Thin Red Line
After directing two of the most extraordinary movies of the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, American artist Terrence Malick disappeared from the film world for twenty years, only to resurface in 1998 with this visionary adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal. A big-budget, spectacularly mounted epic, The Thin Red Line is also one of the most deeply philosophical films ever released by a major Hollywood studio, a thought-provoking meditation on man, nature, and violence. Featuring a cast of contemporary cinema’s finest actors—Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, and Woody Harrelson among them—The Thin Red Line is a kaleidoscopic evocation of the experience of combat that ranks as one of the greatest war films ever produced.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line gets an upgrade on DVD from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Fox released the film on DVD back in the early days of the format and never revisited it, beside maybe repackaging it, leaving us with an incredibly subpar transfer. Though colours actually didn’t look too bad (if open to improvement) the transfer looked to have been heavily compressed, loaded with heavy pixilation, large blocky patterns, and all sorts of other artifacts. Well, I’m happy to report Criterion has substantially improved over that previous edition.
The transfer found here is far smoother, and nowhere near as noisy, but there are still some visible artifacts in spots, likely an unavoidable situation since they’re packing a 3-hour movie onto the disc. All things considered, sharpness and detail remain fairly strong and consistent, going a little soft in spots. Colours look quite a bit better here as well, with better looking reds and greens, and blacks still have a nice deep look. The print has a few minor marks, but nothing that calls attention to itself.
The Blu-ray version of the film, also released by Criterion, presents one of the company’s best high-def transfers I’ve come across and would of course point everyone in that direction as it really out does the image here by leaps and bounds. But, for those not ready to move to the format yet and own the previous Fox DVD, this edition is definitely worth the upgrade. A very sharp, significant improvement.
Unfortunately Criterion’s DVD is actually a downgrade in the audio department when compared with Fox’s DVD. Fox included a DTS track (along with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track) where Criterion only includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. It’s a strong track and does sound great, but I still think Fox’s DTS track does out do it.
But we still get a very active, very loud, and very effective surround track here. The film is reflective but it gets very loud during action sequences, and the sound effects, which include many explosions and bullets whizzing by, surround the viewer, naturally moving between the speakers. Hans Zimmer’s score also beautifully fills the environment, with some decent, subtle bass. Bass overall when it comes to music and effects is good, but I think it’s actually stronger on the Fox DVD (but definitely better on Criterion’s Blu-ray, like every other aspect.)
It’s disappointing Criterion chose not to include a DTS track, though I suspect it may have been kept off to conserve space (it’s possible the DTS track actually harmed the original Fox transfer, since they take up so much room.) Still, while a step down, it’s more than fine in presenting the film.
(In an amusing touch, when you select to play the film, a menu screen comes up with a note informing the viewer that Terrence Malick suggests the film should be played “loud.”)
Criterion’s two-disc set is loaded with supplements, upgrading substantially over Fox’s barebones edition. Though I would have preferred a more analytical slant, the supplements being more technical in nature as a whole, they’re still welcome and all excellent.
The first disc is pretty much devoted to the film, but contains a couple of supplements starting with an audio commentary by cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill. While they do touch on Malick’s visual style, themes present in the film, and possible metaphors, this is basically a technical track, also having the three offering their memories of the shoot. They go into great detail about Malick’s shooting style, which was, despite the script, mostly improvisational. Characters would change from day to day, with one character becoming the focus one day, while another would get the focus another day. They talk about how the film was shot in many locations, including individual sequences between two actors, where one actor in the scene would be filmed in Guadalcanal and another in the same scene would have been shot in Australia. They of course cover the costumes, sets, various locations (apparently they came across many war artifacts, such as shells and equipment left behind at Guadalcanal) and share many anecdotes, including an interesting one about the trouble in shipping guns to Australia, where they’re apparently banned. There’s also stories about communications between the set of The Thin Red Line and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the constant battle with Crocodiles and malaria. It’s a long track, and at times it can get incredibly technical, but it remains fascinating and is lifted by moments of humour. Though I would have enjoyed a more analytical point of view (there’s a little here, but not much) it’s a wonderful track and worth the time.
The first disc then closes with the theatrical trailer for the film.
The second dual-layer disc presents the remaining features with Criterion spreading out a number of interviews on the release, first being a featurette with a number of interviews with the Actors from the film. The 33-minute piece features Dash Mihok, Elias Koteas, Sean Penn, Kirk Acevedo, Thomas Jane, and Jim Caviezel. The interviews with Koteas and Penn come from older interviews with the actors taken around the time of the film’s release, while the rest have been recorded for Criterion. Everyone of course first talks about their desire to be in the film, Penn being the most adamant in getting “word out” that he was interested in being in Malick’s next film (and he ends up taking credit for getting leading the way for other big names to seek out parts as well) and then everyone talks about the shoot and what it was like to work with Terrence Malick (or “Terry” as they all call him.) The most intriguing aspect is that everyone had to go through a boot camp scenario, which involved a lot of physical work and sleeping in large groups in tents, though it sounds like the bigger names like Penn and Clooney didn’t really have to do all that much, and amusingly it sounds like Caviezel and Adrien Brody got closer than either really intended. They all share horror stories about filming, with Mihok sharing the most horrifying detail, which was that the uniform he wore throughout the whole film was never cleaned at all and smelled like “rotten ham.” He also shares a story about how he and Brody entered a Battle of the Bands while in Guadalcanal. They all share some wonderful stories, but the funniest thing about the entire segment is that everyone (except maybe Koteas) has their own impersonation of Malick, and scarily they all sound very similar.
Casting is an interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who talks about the yearlong casting process for what was apparently 126 speaking parts. She talks about what Malick was looking for, which wasn’t stars specifically, though they got plenty of those in smaller roles, and she talks about the ones that stood out most to her (Caviezel, Jane, and Nick Stahl.) The segment includes footage from some of the audition tapes for Jane, Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, John Savage, Ben Chaplin, and even Elias Koteas (and not surprisingly they’re not always the roles they were eventually cast in) but it also shows quick clips from other auditions for actors that weren’t cast, the list of which includes (but is not limited to) Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Crispin Glover, Neal Patrick Harris, and I’m pretty sure I saw “Sideshow” Luke Perry in there as well. Unfortunately we don’t get their full auditions (or any audio) but it’s fantastic footage all the same.
Editors is a 27-minute interview with editors Bill Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein, who all talk about the painful and long process of editing the millions of feet of footage. Malick apparently has an incredible ability in recalling certain footage that was shot and when editing a sequence together he could recall a particular moment involving something like a certain leaf that might film within a sequence, and then it was up to the editor to go through the footage and find it (thankfully all of the footage was precisely categorized by the sounds of it.) And not surprisingly there was a lot of improvisation in the editing rooms, and the film would change daily, but most interesting is where they all recall how hard it was to actually get Malick to watch what they had done. Apparently they had to force him to sit down and watch the first rough cut, which ran close to 5 hours, which was then cut away at to get it down to what he wanted. After that, though, it sounds like Malick never saw the full finished cut straight through, having just watched it in sections. Klein also talks a bit about the voice overs, which were literally made up on the spot, but again, could change day to day. Though all the supplements on this edition are fascinating, this may be the most intriguing one, as it goes into an incredible amount of detail as to how painful it must be to edit a film for the director.
Music is, as most would probably figure, an interview with composer Hans Zimmer. Zimmer, for me, is a hit or miss composer, but his score for this film is incredible. In this 16-minute feature Zimmer goes over how he first met Malick and their discussions about the score, with Malick going over the “feeling” of the film rather than the 198 page script. Zimmer wanted the score to “ask questions” and be about fate and it’s obvious it was a challenging process for him, especially since Malick kept cutting dialogue, putting “the weight” on Zimmer and his score. He talks about the different styles and influences, and covers the long process that was involved. It also includes footage of sessions. I wasn’t actually looking forward to this one (and admittedly it’s the last feature I watched) but it’s actually quite a good interview.
The next feature is a big surprise since I figured Malick would never want things like this shown, but Criterion has managed to include over 13-minutes of outtakes, which is made up 8 deleted scenes. Since the film was apparently 5 hours in its rough form, and also considering Malicks free shooting style, I can figure there’s a lot more, so it’s curious as to why these were chosen. They’re all quite good, though, and all work very well on their own. There’s another sequence with Clooney, who talks to Chaplin’s character after he gets that unfortunate letter from his wife, and then there’s a great bit with Brody, showing what eventually happened to his character. You also get a little more of John C. Reilly and a great short sequence with Japanese POWs, plus an incredibly emotional scene with Nick Stahl. But the one that most people will be happy to see is the much talked about sequence featuring Mickey Rourke as a sniper. A fantastic inclusion and a genuine treat, even if it’s only 13-minutes.
The final interview is a new one with James Jones’ daughter, Kaylie Jones, which runs 19-minutes. She first talks about the book and Jones intent with it and his thoughts on war. She then moves on to her father’s early life and his joining the army, the attack on Pearl Harbor, his participation in the battle at Guadalcanal, and then what he did to get out of having to go to Normandy. She then talks about his writing and his dislike for the film adaptation of From Here to Eternity, his anger over the McCarthy hearings, and then moving to Europe, and how he went about bringing up his children there. She then spends the final portion of the interview covering her fathers’ thoughts on the army (which he both loved and hated) and the bureaucracy within it. While I guess I was hoping she might provide some thoughts on the film adaptation, maybe even guessing what her father may have thought about it, she ultimately doesn’t, but it’s still an incredible, fairly touching interview as she shares her memories and thoughts about her father.
Then in a total Criterion touch, they include actual newsreels about Guadalcanal under the aptly titled supplement Guadalcanal in Newsreels, presenting five segments running a total of just over 15-minutes. They’re fascinating on a number of levels, primarily for the upbeat way the news is delivered, and the general “oh, those crazy Japanese” tone to a lot of it (and let us not forget the use of “Jap” when talking about the enemy.) It also offers some historical context, though really a one-sided, more upbeat one, granted. Another fantastic inclusion and, since I get such a huge kick out of stuff like this, possibly my favourite feature on here.
The second disc then concludes with recordings of Melanesian Chants, which were made in November of 1997 at a church on Guadalcanal. I’m guessing these were possibly recorded by Malick or members of the crew to be used or serve as inspiration for music in the film, but I couldn’t find any information on this, but the music does sound similar to chants that play frequently throughout the film. The segment runs almost 7-minutes.
And finally, Criterion includes a booklet as always. In it we get a nice essay on the film by David Sterritt. But the real jewel in the booklet (and the set overall) is 1963 article by James Jones called “Phony War Films” where the author describes everything wrong with war films in America (and Russia) and points out all the clichés and dishonest themes. It’s just an absolutely incredible read, a wonderfully thought out and entertaining piece.
And that closes it. It clearly blows away Fox’s original DVD (which had no features, other than an insert with cast biographies.) Again, I sort of wished for a more analytical view in the supplements, but I was still beyond pleased with everything on here, all of it worth watching or listening to, and I can’t say there’s a real dud on here. Just a wonderful effort on Criterion’s part.
Though there are still some transfer issues and the audio is a bit of a downgrade, this new DVD edition is an absolute winner from Criterion, with Fox’s bland DVD edition finally being replaced. Throw in some incredible supplements and a bargain price of an MSRP of $29.95, and you have a hell of an edition. Highly recommended.