Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line trickled into most U.S. movie theaters in early 1999, a few months after Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Ryan’s overwhelming success probably explains why the theater where I first saw Malick’s film was relatively big, even by multiplex standards, and fairly crowded with ordinary nacho-ordering opening-weekend moviegoers, ready for another World War II action epic. They got dogfaces taking that hill and assaulting machine gun nests, sure, but they also got lingering shots of parrots so colorful they practically glowed and misty beams of sunlight permeating a rainforest canopy. They got voiceovers ruminating over the shattered brotherhood of humankind and the content and nature of their individual souls. They got a nearly three-hour film that is only about war insofar as war is one of the most transporting, shattering, and existential of all human experiences. The woman sitting directly in front of me fell dead asleep within 40 minutes, and, indeed, the film made a fraction of the impact at the box office or that year’s Oscar ceremony that its predecessor did. I count that screening among the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life (despite the woman’s occasional light snoring). And now the Criterion Collection has superseded the previous DVD issue of The Thin Red Line with its own painstakingly assembled DVD and Blu-ray editions to enthrall, bore, or otherwise polarize audiences anew.
A simple plot summary makes this adaptation of James Jones’ novel sound more straightforward than it is. It’s 1942 and the Marines have already softened up the Japanese resistance on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. The Army arrives, and gung-ho Col. Tall (Nick Nolte in a late-career peak) throws his battalion against the exposed slopes of a towering grassy hill riddled with unseen gun emplacements. C Company is devastated in the attack, and thoughtful CO Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) defies an order to send his men back up the hill to their deaths. The hill gets taken nonetheless, and the thinned-out and jittery soldiers get sent back to the rear for some rest, only to be returned to the line just in time for a Japanese counterattack.
But The Thin Red Line opens far away from the war, on an idyllic Pacific beach, where C Company deserter Witt (Jim Caviezel, never this good since) has found refuge among peaceful Melanesians. Witt’s reprieve doesn’t last long, though, and thanks to the sympathetic though stoic Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), he soon winds up back with his comrades in the thick of the assault on the hill. The state of grace and harmony with nature and fellow humans that the islanders enjoy (and that Malick reiterates with his cutaways of parrots and sunbeams) is replaced by visions of humankind unnaturally at war with nature, and with itself. Thanks to the bunkers and the tall grass, the Japanese muzzle flashes make it look like the hill itself is battling the C Company soldiers dashing and dying across its flanks. A soldier cowering in the blood-spattered grass reaches out a finger to touch a delicate frond, which recoils at his touch. And when C Company finally tops the hill, they find not implacable Japanese warriors, but defeated men, as naked and vulnerable as infants.
The last thing The Thin Red Line is, however, is a straight-ahead polemic. Tossing aside the stock types and terse dialogue of most war films (even Ryan, to a degree), Malick overlays sequence after sequence with individual voiceovers—not mere exposition or commentary, but the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. The monstrous Col. Tall’s soundtrack ruminations reveal an aging middle manager desperate for a last chance at glory. Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) sustains his ongoing slog in the face of death by pinning his salvation on his bond with his wife (Miranda Otto, glimpsed in sumptuously poetic flashbacks). Other characters—including de facto protagonist Witt but also several who barely speak, or even appear, onscreen—muse on how human beings capable of such brotherhood, such union of spirit and purpose, are also capable of such unthinking savagery.
In only four films since 1973 (including Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The New World), Malick has earned this kind of indulgence from many moviegoers. He is, in fact, arguably the last of the great young American directors who arose in the 1970s still pursuing his generation’s promise of making great personal art via the cinema. That’s not to say I can’t see why Malick, and The Thin Red Line, madden other moviegoers—or even put them to sleep. He shot over a million feet of film, often abandoning the script and feeling his way forward, and then winnowed away whole subplots and characters to arrive at first a six-hour cut, and then the current epic length; the film sometimes mirrors the chaotic nature of its creation. But there is nothing else like it, and Criterion’s new edition, most especially the ravishing Blu-ray transfer, lives up to, and honors, the power of that very first encounter.