The Shadow Army

Ruminations on a phantom version of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line
by Michael Atkinson  posted October 27, 2008
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This December marks a full decade since Terrence Malick returned from his 20-year void of Pynchonesque coverture and gave us The Thin Red Line, stunning the doubters with what was essentially a vast, lyrical, non-narrative art film made on the Hollywood dime. It was hard not to be impressed, by hubris as well as by grace. Still, it remains an underseen masterpiece, the ignored eccentric twin to Saving Private Ryan (which grossed six times as much), and a confounding experience for mainstream audiences used to having their hand held through a movie’s temporal flow.

Malick’s film has no single protagonist. Characters appear and disappear with no fanfare or background information (they're often movie stars to boot; when you see John Cusack or Woody Harrelson in a crowd of character-actor mugs, you expect him to take center stage and keep it). The free-flowing narration is not exposition but interior-monologue poetry, the source of which is rarely certain. With this dreamtime soundtrack we’re pressing our ears up to the poetic, achingly vulnerable inner thoughts of men-in-war, rising up and then vanishing like waveheads: "If I should never find you in this life, let me feel the lack. One glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours." "What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of light and life." The voices are virtually a movie all by themselves, a Tarkovskian metaphysical brood that transforms the film from a mere genre piece and into a transcendental meditation on innocence, experience, guilt, civilization, and nature. But The Thin Red Line is also a work of daunting visual force, and structural unorthodoxy—communal, not individualistic or heroic. If there’s a central figure, it’s not quite Jim Caviezel’s saintly Private Witt but the Guadalcanal landscape (shot in Australia and the Solomon Islands), the wildlife obliviously feeding on itself (this may be the most overwhelming portrait of tropical fauna since Imamura’s Profound Desire of the Gods), the endless hills and sky and sun and sea. Three hours later, even the unwilling viewer emerges burned by the film’s rocket of sympathy.

So, it’s somewhat unnerving to consider the meaning of The Thin Red Line’s form in light of the persistent rumors that the film in its present form is a monstrous, almost whimsical compromise from the movie Malick had meant to make. In reviews then and since, and in ongoing online dialogue, several possible scenarios have emerged, including the generalized view that Malick, having matured during his hiatus into the most whimsical despot filmmaker this side of Stanley Kubrick, simply decided that a traditional event sequence was no longer desirable, replacing it with a massive weft of fleeting perspectives and incidents.

No one knows for sure. Another scenario, raised in a long-lost magazine article written by an actor who claimed to have been cut from the film, maintains that Malick’s original five-plus-hour cut was a radically different film—that is, it was an orthodox narrative, close to the James Jones novel (and also using material from From Here to Eternity), attendant to a historical timeline, and focused to some large degree on Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody). Did this film ever exist? Can we even imagine it? The story continues that Malick’s intention was to prioritize the semi-familiar new actors playing the grunts and noncoms over the movie stars playing the officers, in what would seem to be an almost political gesture. Of course, the suits at Fox balked, and so Malick set about editing the film down by some 40 percent. Famously, when the producer of Breathless asked Jean-Luc Godard to cut 30 minutes, Godard obliged him by cutting, in critic J. Hoberman's words, "whatever he deemed boring," including transitions and expository scenes. In the embattled version of The Thin Red Line's genesis, Malick attacked his director’s edit in much the same manner, dumping most of the dialogue and nearly all of the story’s connective tissue. Fife was relegated to a few minutes of screen time, while scores of other prominent roles (including those filled by Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, and Bill Pullman) were scrapped altogether. Exactly how much Malick was forced to feature the name stars, in their relatively unimportant officer roles (Nick Nolte’s roaring colonel notwithstanding), at the expense of the other cast members is also an unknown. When I interviewed Caviezel years later and pressed him for the truth of the matter, he could only shrug and say, yes, the final film was somewhat, kind of, different from the few screenplay sections he saw, but Malick’s notoriously impulsive working methods changed the syntax of the movie every day in any case. No one else is talking on the record.

This disjuncture raises a crop of fascinating critical issues: How much does authorial intention matter? Does it make a difference that perhaps the film’s current form isn’t what Malick finally wanted? Does the possibility of Malick crafting the film as almost a defiant nose-thumbing, after he’d wanted to make a more traditional movie, affect how we see the film? If a director’s cut ever surfaces (there’s an online petition for its release, with over a thousand names), will it be less Malickian? Or more so? Would it be a better film, or less distinctive, less poetic? Which one would be the "real" film?

At the very least, it’s all a possibly apocryphal tale that backlights the unavoidable role of business and corporate bureaucracy in film culture, and the degree to which a film’s nature may not be the result of aesthetic choices, but short-sighted pragmatic demands. A filmmaker is rarely if ever as free as a poet or painter might be, and a feature film never represents only the labors, and intentions, of a single artist. Acres of cineastical cant and criticism and scholarship on filmmaking and directorial authorship have been accumulated over the decades, but this is the seldom-contemplated elephant in the auteurist screening room: how many great films owe their magical essence to financial pressures? How many films succeed because the ostensible artiste at their helm was compromised, or impeded, or forced to capitulate? Under most circumstances, we as viewers can forgo any such contextual consideration; the film is the film, period, however it may have arrived in its final figuration. But what if there were two versions of, say, Citizen Kane, one linear and simplified, one twisted into the neurotic hall-of-cracked-mirrors we know today? And what if Welles's ambition had first been aimed toward the first? We are unlikely to see "alternate" versions of Malick's masterpiece, whether formally more traditional or less, but even if we do, I doubt I’ll ever surrender my ardor for the woozy, meditative, heartbroken film with which Malick ended up, whatever its provenance. 


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Courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Woody Harrelson and Elias Koteas in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line
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The Thin Red Line screenplay


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct