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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era