Gilbey on Film: the making of The Thin Red Line

Is it better to have worked for Terrence Malick and been cut, than never to have worked for him at a

As I've remarked here before, my youthful appetite for buying DVDs has subsided almost completely; I've got most of my favourites on the shelf, and there's nothing I'm bursting to add to them. But I'll be making an exception for the Criterion Collection edition of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick's 1998 film about the Battle of Guadalcanal, which is released this week.

I already own a copy that has been played to death, but this, as any Criterion fan would expect, is the bells-and-whistles version -- or as close to bells and whistles as you can get without a commentary from Malick. No matter: he has supervised and approved this version, and there's a commentary track that includes contributions from Jack Fisk, who has served as either art director or production designer on all five of Malick's movies, including the forthcoming Tree of Life.

One of the chief attractions of this DVD and Blu-ray will be the inclusion of 14 minutes of hitherto unseen footage. The actor John C Reilly, who appeared in the film, told me recently of a scene he shot which he hopes will be among this extra material:

It was a two- or three-page monologue, the heart in some ways of James Jones's point of view in the book, his take on what war is. It's sort of a Vietnam perspective on war, but the incredible thing is that it was written right after the Second World War. It's about how the army and the country doesn't care about you; war is like real estate and the army is just a hotel -- you do your bit and you move on, and the hotel doesn't care who the guests are. It's a very postmodern attitude towards war.

So we shot this massive three-page scene, and there was so much pressure. Terry's so legendary, and this was his first film in 18 years. And right after I'd finished delivering this monologue, he turned to me and said: "You know, John, I'm always slightly disappointed when y'all open your mouths to speak. I almost wish the movie could play like a silent picture." I was, like, "Oh." But it's so typically Terry. I understood what he was saying. I felt it too. Some of the greatest moments in that film are silent, when the camera's just moving around and you're allowed to meditate on what it would be like to be in the situation that those men are in.

There will always be infinite versions of any film -- from the contrasting experiences of those who make it, to different edits of the finished footage, through to the myriad interpretations from viewers once the movie is released. But while The Thin Red Line is, to my mind, a masterpiece, it is shadowed by an even larger and more mysterious picture, with an unknown running time and a cast list that stretches into infinity. It's not uncommon to hear of actors whose performances were dropped from a film for some reason, be it space (I'd have liked to have seen John Lithgow as Steve Martin's agent, arriving by jetpack in LA Story) or logistics (such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, who finished principal photography on Eyes Wide Shut, only to be replaced altogether -- by the Swedish actor Marie Richardson -- when she wasn't available for reshoots).

But when The Thin Red Line was being edited, the cutting-room floor was carpeted with a larger, and more illustrious, number of cast-offs than usual. Billy Bob Thornton recorded an entire voice-over that went unused; actors who were hired and photographed but MIA from the finished film reportedly include Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen (who starred in Malick's 1973 debut Badlands), Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas. I wonder if it's better to have worked for Malick and been cut, than never to have worked for him at all.

Those are just the performers who were expunged entirely. There's a whole other stratum of actors whose contributions were substantial on set but fleeting in the final cut. "Terry broke a lot of hearts," Reilly told me, singling out the actor Tim Blake Nelson (best known from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Good Girl, and as the director of O, a modern-day, high-school Othello). "Tim was there for months and months, and he was barely in the movie.

"The premiere of his first film [Eye of God] happened and he wasn't able to attend it. You'd go and get in costume and make-up and you'd be, like, 'Am I gonna work today?' You'd sit in your trailer for hours not even knowing if you were gonna be used. It was kind of a bewildering experience but I'm happy I was part of it."

I'm not sure if Adrien Brody feels that way. When I interviewed him in 2002, he seemed unresolved about the whole affair. He gave six months of his life to the movie -- "Worked hard, never complained, almost got malaria" -- and then sank into his seat at the premiere as he realised that he had been reduced from chief protagonist to bit player.

"I've tried to make that experience positive," he said, in a manner that suggested he hadn't achieved it yet. "For a long time afterwards, I really identified with soldiers. That movie was my experience of being at war. I'd given everything to the general and to my country, and when I returned home I was let go. I was like one of those Vietnam veterans who came back to all this anti-war sentiment; they were effectively abandoned."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder