The Thin Red Line (1998) (Blu-ray)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 171 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: September 28, 2010
Review Date: September 26, 2010
A World War II film that’s more a meditation on life and death than it is a gung-ho action movie? Yes, that’s Terrence Malick’s unforgettable war movie-as-tone poem The Thin Red Line. There are the expected blood and guts action sequences to be sure, but clearly the thoughtful Malick had more on his mind than merely picturing the many facets of men at war. The film achieves great moments of heroism and cowardice, barbarism and humanity, apprehension and peacefulness, all within a period of less than three hours. The movie had the misfortune to premiere during the same year as Steven Spielberg’s wildly celebrated Saving Private Ryan, but The Thin Red Line has a completely different vibe from Spielberg’s blockbuster, and perhaps its tendency to peruse the human condition and see war as merely one cog in the mainspring of the cosmos caused a majority of the public not to embrace it. Though it scored seven Oscar nominations, it went home empty handed on Oscar night. (Terrence Malick did win the New York Film Critics Circle Best Director award, a well deserved honor.)
Eager to capture the pivotal Guadalcanal region of the South Pacific from the Japanese who have established a nearly impenetrable fortress there, a squadron of soldiers led by Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) take amazing risks to overtake the Japanese who have several heavily fortified, high ranged bunkers from which to attack their enemy. Though Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) disputes Tall’s orders to attack head-on and advises a flank maneuver that might save the lives of his company, the Japanese make a couple of key mistakes that allow the Americans to gain the advantage and successfully win the favored position, routing the Japanese along the way. Meanwhile, the peace-loving Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), the doggedly determined Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), the lovesick Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), and the deranged Sgt. McCron (John Savage) offer both their bodies and their souls for thoughtful consideration as the war marches on.
Terrence Malick has adapted James Jones’ heavy novel into this philosophical treatise on matters of wartime life and death, and the stream of consciousness thoughts by various characters during the film’s running time are usually quite moving in their simple poetic insights, but occasionally they can border on pretentiousness, especially when the sensitivity expressed in some of the ideas seems ill-fitting to certain characters (Nolte’s gung-ho colonel who’s finally got himself a war to fight is a good example). As always with his films, the images are ravishing, as mesmerizing as anything in Badlands or Days of Heaven and a constant source of admiration as we watch these gorgeous natural wonders utterly destroyed by man’s violence and aggression. As absorbing as the forward motion of the troops is toward achieving their objective, it’s sometimes slightly off-putting to be sidetracked by outside matters (the letter to Bell from his wife (Miranda Otto), while interesting dramatically, definitely deflates the gathering momentum of the storytelling) or the unnecessary cameo appearances by certain stars whose roles aren’t important enough to sustain their pop-ups for a few brief minutes (John Travolta and George Clooney are the biggest offenders here). On the other hand, seeing the film again after being away from it for so many years reveals several actors in small roles who have made major careers for themselves after their work in this movie (Thomas Jane, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody).
Nick Nolte, John Cusak (as a replacement captain), Woody Harrelson (as a soldier who makes a costly blunder), and Sean Penn all make the most of their on-screen and narrative opportunities, especially since Malick’s screenplay doesn’t really allow for character building arcs as in traditional narrative films. Even more impressive are Jim Caviezel as the pacifist private who does his duty with smiling, resigned determination and especially Elias Koteas whose Captain Staros, more interested in the lives of his men than in recklessly playing army with them as easy targets, remains in the mind through the entire picture, quite an achievement since he’s mostly absent from the last hour of the movie.
The film has been framed at 2.35:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is one of the most natural-appearing high definition pictures currently available on Blu-ray. Colors are beautifully saturated without ever taking on cartoonish over saturation qualities, and contrast has not been overly heightened. Detail is quite impressive here (you can count the feathers on an owl and injuries in close-up are very realistic), and flesh tones are completely natural and appealing. Black levels which are a shade less than optimum on the DVD are better rendered here, and a tiny colored scratch which runs down the left side of frame late in the film does not distract. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix gives the amazingly immersive sound design a beautiful plane on which to exist. The battle scenes are as alive and explosive as one would expect (you’ll thrill to the numerous pans through the soundfield as planes fly overhead, bullets zip by, or as bombs are launched), and quieter scenes are no less impressive with Hans Zimmer’s score spreading movingly throughout the fronts and rears but never overpoweringly so. The expressive use of the LFE channel, low and rumbling with deep bass during the war sequences and a more subtle usage during scenes of great tension, is also notably splendid.
The audio commentary is contributed by production designer Jack Fiske, cinematographer John Toll, and producer Grant Hill who talk consistently throughout the film telling anecdotes about working with Malick and, though not a very animated conversation, certainly one worth hearing especially for fans of the movie.
A featurette featuring interviews with various actors from the film runs for 33 ½ minutes in 1080p. Those participating are Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Sean Penn, and Dash Mihok.
“Casting” is discussed by casting director Dianne Crittenden in this 18-minute 1080p featurette. Among the screen tests offered are Ben Chaplin, Thomas Jane, Tim Blake Nelson, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Savage, and Nick Stahl. (Interesting are glimpses of people who didn’t get cast like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Crispen Glover, Neil Patrick Harris, and Johnny Galecki).
The film’s three film editors discuss their process of fashioning over a million feet of footage into a finished movie and working with the enigmatic Malick. The 27 ¼-minute featurette filmed in 2010 is presented in 1080p.
Composer Hans Zimmer discusses his challenging working relationship with director Malick in a 2010 interview which runs for 16 ½ minutes and is presented in 1080p.
There are eight outtakes which run for 13 ½ minutes and presented in 1080p. They may also be viewed separately by selecting them from an index.
Kaylie Jones, the daughter of original novelist James Jones, discusses her impressions of the period of history which the book deals with and her father’s war experiences in this 2010 featurette which runs 19 minutes and is in 1080p.
There are five period newsreels dealing with the capturing of Guadalcanal which can be viewed separately or together in 15 ¼ minutes. They’re rendered in 1080p
There is 6 ¾ minutes of Melanesian chants which were recorded in 1997 to be used in part of the scoring of the movie. Stills from the film illustrate the music.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs 2 ¾ minutes.
The enclosed 38-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, the chapter listing, some expressive stills from the movie, a celebratory essay on the movie by film critic David Sterritt, and a very interesting critical essay by author James Jones about the phoniness of Hollywood war films written in 1963 for The Saturday Evening Post.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
5/5 (not an average)
One of the most unusual war films ever produced, The Thin Red Line is also one of the most memorable films ever made about the brotherhood of combat, the prizing of life, and the waste of war. This Criterion Blu-ray package offers terrific picture and sound and a host of interesting and well produced special features. It comes with the highest recommendation!