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30 September 2010updated 04 Oct 2023 9:55am

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

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.”

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