Upon release, Thin Red Line was incorrectly placed in Saving Private Ryan’s shadow. As time passed, that light shifted, and Steven Spielberg’s D-Day epic has the shadow cast upon it. Thin Red Line towers over.
It doesn’t have the flash nor does it have Tom Hanks plastered on the box. For a mainstream audience, Thin Red Line might as well be the most boring movie about war ever committed to film. Those few that it grabs though, the ones that take the time to listen and soak up the words in-between the hilly action, those are the ones who begin shifting that shadow.
War movies never internalize the conflict. Logically, why would you? It’s a visual medium where people are shooting, bombing, and burning each other. Impact of those sights is instantaneous. Thin Red Line doesn’t need it. Instead, it shows the results before the action, a trip through a camp of wounded, dying, or dead soldiers further bottling up emotions and fears. That’s before a single on-screen shot is fired.
Despite being a background character, the heart of the film lies in the face of Corporal Fife (Adrian Brody). He has two lines, no more, no less. He never speaks on the field, sitting in the background, stunned at the experience he has been thrust into. In the midst of being given orders, there’s a sense nothing registers. Something hasn’t settled into his mind; it’s trauma without being physically impacted. There’s little more powerful than that.
Thin Red Line isn’t telling the story of Gualdacanal so much as it’s expressing philosophy of war and how it applies to this specific theater. Ideas about death, life, and living plus the meaning of it all -as generic as that may sound- intertwine between images of raided camps, the screaming living, and the unnervingly silent dead. Lt. Col. Gordon Tall’s (Nick Nolte) speech about vines wrapping up nature is thoughtful, endearing material. So is Thin Red Line.
Criterion’s treatment of the film elements is stunning, this intensely textured masterpiece brought to life with a clean, seemingly absent AVC encode. The barely evident grain structure leaves room for processing everything else, including what are, easily, the sharpest forests on the format. From rolling hills being aggressively fought over and their rolling grass to the beach side palm trees, nothing is lost to compression, softness, or lens defect. This might be the most focused effort to come from the decade.
Equally striking are soldier close-ups, saturated with sweat, bulky equipment, and coarse metal helmets. While Thin Red Line isn’t as consistent in the trenches as it is with the environments, there’s rarely a loss of fidelity or precision. Uniforms are distinctive, growing in grime as the battles continue, stitching evident even under the dirt. For what it’s worth, the disc also presents gruesome gore with the same attention to clarity.
Color saturation is dulled, the bright, saturated hues saved for flashbacks or the film’s opening scenes as two soldiers hide from the battle amongst the island natives. That ensures there’s an impact from those moments of happiness, although to be clear, it’s not as if there’s no pep from the battles. The layer of greenery is stunning even in a slightly subdued form, explosions are vivid, and blood is not held back.
The disc creates an intense dimensionality, ranging from brilliant, untouched whites, to heavy black levels that rarely push away from their powerful presence. Scenes at night lose none of their vigor or energy, and impressively, none of their textural qualities either. Thin Red Line continues to find community praise as one of the top tier visual discs ever committed to the format, and while that’s likely taking things a stretch too far, there is no doubt it’s a crowd pleaser.
Criterion’s message from Terrence Malick is to play the movie loud. Quite honestly, it’s hard not to. The film opens on a grinding orchestral cue that obliterates the sub and blares the highs. That’s just the set-up for what’s about to come.
While Malick surely wants the immersion of the battle sequences to shine (they are mixed flawlessly after all), the reality is the whole suite of sound should be experienced. You’re not going to miss the artillery fire if you turn the volume down, but you will lose the subtle jarring of explosions in the far distance, low droning music, and constant ambiance from the environment. Even on the ship before the landing, the hum of engines and waves battering the hull are evident deep into the barracks. The effect is perfect. So are those quaint movements of the grass or the shifting winds.
As such, it goes without saying that the monstrous battle sequences are pure reference. The set up is exquisite, with American bombers panning overhead setting a stage. The bass creates a sense of motion, timing, and place. As those thumps grow bolder, the fight inches closer. At 42-minutes, the war begins with a terrifying closeness, and it only works because of what came before.
That’s what sound design can do. While it’s easy to fawn over bullets dropping or whizzing by in the most standard of films, true award winning audio does what Thin Red Line does, toppling a visual barrier to break it from a flat screen. Spectacular.
Production designer Jack Frisk, producer Grant Hill, and cinematographer John Toll come together for this commentary track recorded in 2010. Acting as an insightful retrospective and informative technical piece, it’s constantly active. Featurettes are given basic monikers that eliminate the need to describe them. Actors lets the cast discuss their experience in front of the lens, Casting includes notes on who Malick wanted plus audition tapes, Editors describes the experience of cutting one million feet of film, Music is all score-related, and outtakes divulge a few deleted scenes. That’s close to 110-minutes total.
Gualdacanal in Newsreels is a 15-minute collection of how the war was being portrayed to Americans at the time, all of it (of course) positive. Melanesian Chants are featured in the film, while the entirety of the recording is left here. Criterion also supplies a trailer.