There were two World War II movies released in 1998. Both were nominated for a slew of Academy Awards. But they couldn’t have been more different.
The first, released that summer, was Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.' Embraced lovingly by critics, it was a weird kind of feel good combat picture: once you get past its admittedly awe-inspiring technical virtuosity (exemplified by the opening D-Day beach sequence that is the very essence of harrowing), the movie about a school teacher (Tom Hanks) and his band of misfit infantrymen rescuing a lone soldier, was plotted like a boys adventure story, and hamstrung by moments of big-hearted, soft-focused sentimentality.
This film ended up winning Spielberg another Best Director Oscar and the hearts and minds of the populace because of its easily digestible message, oversized action beats, and star wattage (the titular private, we must remember, was Matt Damon). It didn't ask too many uncomfortable questions, or get too in your face about the queasiness of war. But it did ask you to cry.
The second movie, released closer to the end of the year, was Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line,' the reclusive director's first feature since 'Days of Heaven,' some 20 years earlier. A metaphysical war movie centered around the battle of Guadalcanal (which, true to the movie's overall prickliness, isn't even mentioned until an hour-and-twenty-minutes in), it was tough and ethereal and didn't offer any kind of tidy message, beyond the overwhelming sensation that mankind, as a species, spreads only devastation and ruin, in an active campaign not against each other but against the natural world itself.
Based, very loosely from what I understand, on the novel of the same name by James Jones (another movie had been based on the same book, released in 1964 in Cinemascope), the movie opens with a young Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), who has gone AWOL, living amongst the natives on an island in the South Pacific. He's soon picked up by a Navy ship and reprimanded by cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who informs him that he will be getting into administrative trouble, but after he joins C-for-Charlie Company as a band of unlucky reinforcements for the siege of Guadalcanal.
Witt is joined by Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who has gauzy daydreams about his loving wife back home (Miranda Otto); Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody), in a role that at one time was the center of the film before being drastically reduced in the prolonged editorial process (more on that in a few); Woody Harrelson as the go-for-broke Sergeant Keck; and the eager Captain John Gaff (John Cusack); amongst others.
Witt is under the command of Captain Bugger Staros (Elias Koteas, in a wonderful, heartbreaking performance), who in turn reports to the ferocious Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte, radiating energy) and a svelte General Quintard (John Travolta, stealing his lone scene). There's a sense of detachment, that the men making the decisions are the ones furthest away from the action.
These are the plot specifics, more or less, of 'The Thin Red Line.' Soldiers storm grassy hills; some of them die. There's a veritable who's-who of stellar actors hidden amidst the grunts, too, with stars like George Clooney, Tom Jane, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, and Tim Blake Nelson popping up for a scene or two. But this isn't really what the movie is about. It's about the spiritual war between man and nature, and this is emphasized by the multiple shots of trees, alligators, birds, and other wildlife, and by the meandering narrative which is focused less on forward drive and more on observational notions about the cosmic juxtaposition of beauty and violence.
For a cast this large, the movie is largely silent, and as many movie stars that are in the film, there were just as many that filmed roles that were cut. Additionally, the movie is cocooned in dreamy narration, with a peak behind most major characters' minds (there's also a "neutral" narrator played by a non-cast member), woven together into a kind of aural poetry that lays atop the jaw-droppingly gorgeous visuals and haunting score by Hans Zimmer.
The results are a war movie unlike anything you've ever seen, a far-out, consciousness-raising meditation on the nature of man and violence. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for the right kind of movie lover, well, you'll be in absolute heaven. Malick is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and even though he had a long absence from the game, he came back and blew everyone away – the gorgeous photography, the editorial cubism, his naturalistic way with actors; everything is top notch and go-for-broke.
If you want your combat more rah-rah and less think-think, well, there's always 'Saving Private Ryan.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Thin Red Line' comes to Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection on a single 50GB disc. The disc automatically plays but halts on the gorgeous main menu. This being a Criterion release, the box is slightly squarer and chunkier; spine # 536. The disc is Region A locked.
I'm feeling a little bold today, so I'm going to go ahead and say it: 'The Thin Red Line's' 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) is the single greatest high definition transfer I have ever seen. I mean that. The bar has been raised. And now there's something to compare all other releases against.
In the booklet, the following note is made about the transfer: "Supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer John Toll, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from the original 35mm camera negative in 4K resolution. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system."
Basically, what all that means is that a whole lot of painstaking work went into restoring the movie. You really have to see this transfer for yourself.
From the opening shot, of an alligator sliding into water, you are impressed by the image clarity, the amount of depth, and the detail. But as the movie goes along, your jaw drops consistently: when they enter into the jungle and every emerald-green leaf is vividly rendered; the dirt on the actors' faces after a brutal siege; and the thousands of wild life photography instances – the birds, lizards, leaves, and the coconut with the leaf jutting out of it that ends the movie.
All the basics are covered too – skin tones look amazing, blacks are deep and bottomless (exemplified by a brief sequence of a nighttime attack on an airbase that was probably longer in a more abstract version of the movie), and for all that after-the-fact fussing, the movie never seems scrubbed clean or mushy in that typically DNR way.
Elsewhere on the disc, the small troupe of editors said that Malick was always drawn to the footage where there was a lot of depth – with soldiers marching to and fro in the background, etc. – and this transfer totally dignifies those decisions. This transfer totally outdid every expectation I had for the release, and, as I said, has set the new high-water mark for the format.
When you hit "play" on the menu, a small screen pops up that says, and I quote: "Director Terrence Howard recommends that 'The Thin Red Line' be played loud." Not wanting to disappoint Terry, I complied. And was just as blown away by the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.
Again, from the booklet: "The surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 6-track magnetic audio. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD."
So, of course, a lot of work went into the mix, but again no undue amount of fussiness can be heard on the mix, just crystal clear surround goodness. And yes, while not quite reaching the atmospheric heights of the video transfer, the audio is really, really, really ridiculously good.
One of the complaints about the movie when it was in theaters was that you couldn't understand which actor was providing which bit of narration. Part of this was intentional (as I stated before there's a "neutral" narrator that pops in), but it was also probably due to muddy movie theater sound. Here, you will have no problem matching the actors to the narration. It's really that good.
Elsewhere, the action sequences have a hearty robustness; you will feel every mortar round, every spent shell, with a heavy bass and tons of surround activity. (This is especially true if you follow Terry's instructions and play it super loud!) There's a level of delicacy and nuance to this mix that I wasn't quite expecting, and it caught me off guard, with a droplet of water given the same care as a gunfight.
And Hans Zimmer's beautiful score? My god, it's never sounded so good! Accompanying the crispness of the visuals, well, this is an embarrassment of riches. Truly.
There is only one mix on the disc, but there are English SDH subtitles available.
All of the extras presented here are also available on the 2-disc DVD set that Criterion is releasing concurrently. What's so interesting about the project of putting together special features for this release is that there was so much written about the movie, about how many actors Malick had either cut (like Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, and Viggo Mortensen) or severely truncated (like Brody, John C. Reilly and George Clooney). Plus, the months and months of work spent editing the movie, meant that there were probably hours of unseen footage waiting to be unleashed. The movie has an aura around it, so producing special features, you have to walk the fine line of indulging peoples' curiosity and maintaining the mystery. And they did a fine job.
'The Thin Red Line' is in the running for "Blu-ray release of the year." The movie itself is a marvelously beautiful meditation on the psychic toll of battle, a movie that challenges all of your preconceived notions of what a "war movie" is. Terrence Malick, after two decades of absence, created a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is still being puzzled after more than ten years later. The video is an all-time high for the format, and the audio is just about as good. The special features are voluminous and wondrous – a peek behind-the-scenes on one of the most infamous and speculated-about productions in Hollywood history that still, amazingly, maintains the film's alluring mystique. I cannot recommend this release enough. It deserves a place on any film fanatic's shelf – one that will give your audio and video set-up a dexterous workout while also challenging your personal beliefs and notions. War may be hell, but 'The Thin Red Line' is heavenly.