Celebrating Twenty Years of Terrence Malick’s "The Thin Red Line"

Director Terrence Malick filming his new movie during day one of Fun Fun Fun Fest at Auditorium Shores on November 2, 2012 in Austin, Texas.

Terrence Malick may be one of the most highly respected filmmakers in the history of cinema.

He began his career in feature-film all the way back in 1973 with his debut Badlands, a reassessment of the classic Bonnie and Clyde narrative. The film looked gorgeous, and marked the arrival of a visionary new director. These bold assumptions were later confirmed with the release of his second effort five years later; the magnificent Days of Heaven. This is arguably Malick’s definitive masterpiece, and is often considered one of the most visually astonishing films ever made. However, this is a statement that someone has undoubtedly applied to every single one of his films. He is known for bringing to the screen the most unbelievable imagery, and many dispute that 2011’s The Tree of Life is the best example of this. While this is definitely his most ambitious work, it remains divisive, and some audiences argue that Malick has become synonymous with cinematic pretentiousness.

Despite having his detractors, his status in modern cinema is rather unparalleled, and today’s best actors continue to hop aboard his projects with clear glee. His recent output has actually been pretty misunderstood, and Song to Song and To the Wonder often encounter unfair criticism. His earlier work seems to be more popular and widely enjoyed, and there is perhaps no better example of this than his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which was released a staggering two decades ago now.

This is a film twenty years in the making. After Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s absence lasted twenty years; absolutely baffling. However, his return to the screen was nothing less than triumphant. Adapting James Jones’ autobiographical 1962 novel, this second world war film explores the conflict at Guadalcanal, which was codenamed “Operation Watchtower” by the American forces. Audiences and critics both loved Malick’s (almost three-hour) epic, and if you asked people at random which Malick film was their favourite, this would likely be the reigning champion. Even after twenty long years, it remains a staggering achievement. 

(Original Caption) The entrance to the Zoo Palast during the presentation of Terrence Malick's movie.(Original Caption) The entrance to the Zoo Palast during the presentation of Terrence Malick's movie.

It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, of which it lost to Shakespeare in Love. Strangely, it didn’t succeed in any of the nominated categories, but certainly earned its accolades elsewhere. It won the Golden Bear at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival, and renowned movie-buff and director Martin Scorsese considered it the second best film of the nineties; among the highest praise a film could wish to receive. The Thin Red Line was certainly a significant release, and the cast remains one of the most impressive of the period, boasting the likes of Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, Jim Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson and John C. Reilly.

So much was left out of the final cut, including performances from Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman, and even narration from Billy Bob Thornton. Although it sometimes causes issues amongst his collaborators, his decisions can be impulsive but must be respected. Woody Harrelson reportedly stayed on the project a month after he had finished shooting his scenes just to watch Malick work. He has managed to maintain such degree of respect to this day, and although not as widely successful as he used to be, fans of the director continue to find something truly special in his work. The legacy of The Thin Red Line is one that will - unlike his work this decade - never endure uncertainty.

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