As the soldiers of Army Company C-for-Charlie make their unrelenting and bloody charge up a hill during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal, in writer-director Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, there are moments of eerie, still quiet, like the calm eye of a hurricane. Within one such pause, a reprieve from the nerve-rattling storming of a Japanese stronghold, one soldier begins to really examine the grass-covered hill, each blade seemingly as long and sharp as a sword. He sees one strand in the undulating mass and finds it streaked with a thin red line of blood.
This poetic moment — amid a battle as brutal and visceral as any in conventional war films, including Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — encapsulates both the themes of The Thin Red Line and the peculiar gifts of the brilliant and enigmatic Terrence Malick, who made two touchstone films of ’70s cinema, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).
With The Thin Red Line, based on the novel by James Jones (From Here to Eternity), Malick delves once again into a number of complex philosophical issues. One is the relationship between man and his physical environment, specifically how humans scar the land but nature goes on, absorbing their blood and rejuvenating itself.
The film opens with the same soldier, a deserter, living among a tribe of Melanesians in the Solomon Islands, a primordial Eden that the invading armies will soon desecrate.
"Saving Private Ryan starts in hell and gets out of it," says producer Mike Medavoy in Los Angeles. "This movie starts in paradise and slowly descends into this kind of hellish situation in which you basically see the contrast between heaven and hell."
Another thematic thread involves the latent violence woven into the human unconscious, the ways that it’s channeled in extreme situations, and how that impulse either dovetails or conflicts with the intense, emotional drive of love and loyalty.
"War is insanity; it’s the horror of all," explains actor Nick Nolte, "and we fight it over land, over ideals, theology; we squabble and end up in killing each other. This is insane, and then we deny the fact that we are the killer. We justify, we rationalize."
Nolte, who describes his character, the gung ho Colonel Tall, as "self-will run riot," spent a great deal of time looking at the world through Jones’ particular viewpoint and calls The Thin Red Line "an anti-war book."
"His basic theme," Nolte says of Jones, "is that in the moment that you know you are going to die, in that moment of tremendous fear, it drops away, and all of the conditioning and your personality drops away, and what it is you’re faced with is unbearable, compassionate love for your fellow man. He felt that was the most amazing thing to come out of this war."
Malick has taken Jones’ lead and turned the novel into his own visceral and poetic anti-war war movie.
"It deliberately sets out to say that all faces are of the same man," explains Medavoy, "that we’re no different from the Japanese. That nature itself takes its revenge upon people. That if it’s your time, it’s your time."
In the way soldiers display fear and lack the moral certitude typical in World War II films, The Thin Red Line is more akin emotionally to the films made about Vietnam.
"I think in a lot of people’s perceptions, there is a difference between World War II and Vietnam," explains Australian-born producer Grant Hill, "just in terms of the political structure and the way in which countries have gone to war." Part of the idea, says Hill, was to display war in its grittiness without suggesting "that people got less hurt in one war or were less affected by it."
Producer George Stevens Jr., a decade older than the 56-year-old Malick and whose Hollywood director father served during World War II as the head of an Army Signal Corps film unit, has a different historical perspective.
"It was a war in which enormous sacrifice was made for what was seen to be and proved to be the larger public good," Stevens explains, "and I don’t see this film as being in conflict with that."
Much of the curiosity about The Thin Red Line stems from the aura of mystery which surrounds Malick. Not only has he been away from filmmaking for two decades but he sidesteps the publicity machine of Hollywood by not granting interviews.
Medavoy and Stevens, who have known Malick since his days at the American Film Institute in the late 1960s, both jumped at the chance to work with him again, and dismiss the image of the eccentric hermit.
"Reclusive is a word that sticks to him," Stevens says of Malick, "and Terry is private but he’s not reclusive. He’s a gregarious, lively, sometimes entertaining, complex, maddening, amusing human being."
"He’s an extraordinary individual in the sense that he’s got this wonderful breadth of intellect," explains Medavoy. He added that Malick has also been "a Rhodes scholar, a philosophy professor at MIT and a journalist who’s written for Life, Newsweek and the New Yorker."
"What it is with Terry," continues Nick Nolte, "is that his mind is so wide, so broad, so encompassing on so many different subjects and curiosities, that you really are awed a bit."
"I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision," says Grant Hill about the gap between Malick’s films. "I think that probably he went away for a weekend and came back 20 years later."
Hill adds that the large cast and crew of The Thin Red Line were anxious to work with Malick and that the atmosphere during the five-month shoot — primarily in Australia — was not only "familial" but highly rewarding.
"He’s very involving in drawing out from everybody their feelings and their responses to the material," explains Hill, "and so you find, almost by a sort of a very slow distillation, that there end up being pieces of yourself up there in it."