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Thin Red Line, The (Blu-ray Review)

18 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for realistic war violence and language.
Stars Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson.

Despite its seven Oscar nominations and substantial critical acclaim, a lot of people don’t like the second screen version of James Jones’ 1962 Guadalcanal novel, filmed in writer-director Terrence Malick’s typically ethereal take-it-or-leave it style. At the time, it was Malick’s first movie since 1978’s Days of Heaven — a complete cinematic original, which, by itself, should have been enough to spell out to every slow-witted IMDb.com detractor of Line exactly what was in store. (Oh, yeah, duh.) Well, there’s always the previous black-and-white version — not awful but far more conventional and compromised by the meager funding that anyone so typical of Allied Artists in 1964.

Rhapsodically photographed by John Toll and given one of Criterion’s most bang-up color masterings ever, Malick’s subsequent take couldn’t care less about conventionality — concentrating almost exclusively on the physical (we must take that elusive hill from which Japanese bullets are incessantly flying out of a bunker) and the uncommonly contemplative. Heavy on its mind is the relationship of wartime invaders to the crocodiles, reptiles, breathtakingly pigmented birds and Meanesians who’ll remain on the island after the American soldiers and their Japanese counterparts conclude what to these natives must be nonsense.

There’s a lot less dialogue here than I recall from a long-ago reading of the novel, but the words that remain are paramount. Certainly, Jones’ delineation of the grunt’s disdain for officers — a substantial theme of both the book and movie version of his signature work From Here to Eternity — comes through. And from the early shipboard scene between a lieutenant colonel and brigadier general respectively played by Nick Nolte and John Travolta (the latter strongly resembling a puffier version of ’40s and ’50s actor John Hodiak), it’s obvious that the brass is more interested in medals, while the enlisted men and draftees care more about living till the next day.

Then again, arguably the film’s single most sympathetic character is an officer (Elias Koteas) — a captain whose initial refusal to lead his men into a barrage of artillery ends up getting him transferred by Nolte (well, it’s better than a court martial). Playing a West Point grad best described by a rude compound word whose first syllable is “swing-,” Nolte may be right: Perhaps this captain is too soft. By the same token, we see that the soldier most spiritually at one with the island and its inhabitants is an AWOL-prone private (Jim Caviezel) whose cynically hardened sergeant (Sean Penn) rightfully regards him — in combat terms — as a consummate flake. Not every personality is right for every situation.

With the obvious exception of Apocalypse Now, this may be the most sensual war movie ever. One gets a unique POV sense of how physically difficult it must be to take a hill grass-blade by grass-blade when you have no idea what’s on the other side (and when you get to the top you’re still not likely to know). Sensual in a different way — and unlike anything I’ve never seen on screen before — is the no-dialogue flashback relationship between one private (Ben Chaplin) and his wife back home (gorgeous Miranda Otto, who was Eowyn in the "Lord of the Rings" movies). The initial portrayal makes her eventual and surprising “Dear John” letter all the more affecting: She leaves her infantryman husband, by the way, for an officer — and air force officer at that. Sensual in still another way is the movie’s portrayal of combat chaos: a venomous viper (who let all these people in my room?) is angrily poised to strike right in the middle of what is already one of the film’s more hectic skirmishes. Chaos is also reflected in the way name actors suddenly show up (John Cusack, Woody Harrelson) and disappear almost as quickly — just as individual soldiers might in a real-life situation.

There is no way the notoriously reclusive Malick was going to be interviewed here, but the extras give all kinds of insights to his working methods. The commentary is by producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk (who also helped give Days of Heaven its look — and, while we’re at it There Will Be Blood’s as well) and cinematographer Toll. I have always thought that in any other year, Toll would have been the year’s slam-dunk Oscar choice (not that winner Janusz Kaminski of Saving Private Ryan was any slouch). But only a few years earlier, Toll had already won two years in succession for Legends of the Fall (otherwise, one of the worst “big” movies of the past quarter-century) and Braveheart

Other extras focus on the actors and composer Hans Zimmer (I was struck this time how subtly great his score is — and with Zimmer, subtlety isn’t necessarily a trademark); this may be the best work of his career. And even-headed daughter Kaylie Jones (an acclaimed writer in her own right) offers about 17 minutes of insights about what her father taught her about war. If you ever saw 1998’s underappreciated movie version of her novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Kaylee was the inspiration for the character played by Leelee Sobeski – parented in the film by Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey (standing in for James and Gloria Jones). With a vintage James Jones essay on “phony war films” and an opening intro by critic David Sterritt, this is a first-rate package all the way. One of Criterion’s best, in fact.

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