In the 1970’s, Terrence Malick directed two of the era’s most celebrated auteur films in serial killer road movie Badlands and period piece Days of Heaven. The films, renowned for their elegiac qualities, astonishing magic hour photography, judicious use of voiceover and poetic sensibilities were two of the decade’s finest, showcasing the promise of a young filmmaker with a unique voice in American cinema.

Following Days of Heaven, however, Malick did not make another film for twenty years. In 1998, though, he returned with The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones’ semi-autobiographical novel from 1962, previously filmed in 1964 by Andrew Marton with less impressive results, about The Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. The film would focus on the exploits of a rifle company, composed mostly of petrified and inexperienced youths led by bureaucratic, self-serving leaders, who find themselves thrust into the Pacific theatre during WW2 and tasked with securing a hilly, tropical island under extremely arduous circumstances.

20th Century Fox

The movie would feature a veritable who’s who of Hollywood talent, both established and upcoming and would showcase the very best of Malick and the thoughtfulness and romanticism, which had characterised his previous features.

For the most part, the film is a deeply contemplative and expressive anti-war collage, that concerns itself with Malick’s usual thematic preoccupations: nature, existentialism, and violence. Despite its angry lyricism, periodic cynicism, and the harrowing scenes of brutality and cacophonous mayhem that it contains, it is threaded through with quiet, introspective moments where key characters consider their place in the conflict, its impact on them, nature’s indifference, their own purposelessness, the evil that men do, God, morality, the universe, and hope. Ultimately, The Thin Red Line is a haunting, mesmeric film that superimposes the horrors of war over the top of a natural world infused with colour and life that neither supports nor condemns the atrocities played out in its proximity.

Hans Zimmer composed one of his finest scores for the film, a haunting piece, that is by turns threatening, celebratory and deeply melancholy. John Toll, meanwhile, the film’s Oscar winning DP, perfectly captures the dreamlike, melancholic, and painterly qualities of the natural world in the film contrasted with the smoky destruction and confusion of battle.

Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s visceral, though narratively very traditional WW2 epic, would win most of the plaudits and box office receipts in 1998. However, in the end, it is Malick’s film that has stood the test of time, serving as a philosophical, empathetic meditation on violence, the devastation of war and its impact on the natural world and the human animal.

20th Century Fox

Criterion have done the film proud ensuring that the audio for Malick’s anti-violence masterpiece is crystal clear. On a decent home entertainment system, the film’s quiet moments play deeply philosophical, whilst every percussive explosion and shot fired during the film’s combat scenes lands like a physical assault. The real thrill though is how clean and precise the picture quality is. Approved by Mallick himself, the digital transfer is second to none. As a result, John Toll’s sumptuous photography is perfectly rendered, making for a home viewing experience that aesthetically and emotionally, is deeply satisfying.

There are plenty of extras on the disc too, including actor interviews, newsreel footage of the conflict from the period, and interviews with Hans Zimmer and author James Jones’ daughter who gives an excellent accounting of her father’s reasons for writing the novel. There is also an insightful commentary featuring DP John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk and producer Grant Hill that provides some wonderful insight into the production and the creative choices involved in the film’s development. The disc also comes with a booklet featuring a critical essay from David Sterritt and a James Jones penned essay about war films.

The Thin Red Line (1998) (The Criterion Collection) is released on Blu Ray 22nd November 2021.

By Mark Anthony Ayling

Mark Anthony Ayling is a Registered Mental Health Nurse and writer whose stories have appeared in Perihelion, Cracked Eye, and The Twisted Tails IX anthology. He has written book reviews for Bookbrowse and BlueInk Reviews and contributed film essays and articles at VHS Revival and Horrified Magazine. A collection of his dystopian fiction, titled Northern Futures, was published by Lillicat in 2016. Ayling is also the author of the periodic film blog/journal/diary The Random Movie Journal.

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