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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle