Thursday, November 08, 2007

[DVD] The Thin Red Line (1998)

Chao Keng

It took 20 years for Terrence Malick to return to the cinema with The Thin Red Line, and if I recalled correctly, the audiences here were spoilt that same year by another much hyped about war movie, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which delivered to action junkies some of the more in your face type of action with plenty of violence and gore, coupled with dismembered limbs flying all over the place. By the time Malick's movie was released, war movie fans here had already been spoilt by Spielberg's offering, and have already given respect to Tom Hank's Captain John Miller, so much to say that Malick's movie, without the fast cutting action sequences that the Private possessed, was boring.

Personally, I'd like to set the record straight. If Private Ryan is akin to fast-food, delivering what is expected of a war movie without much frills, with its realistic war violence, then The Thin Red Line is like a fine restaurant cuisine that deserves to be savored and appreciated slowly. Not to say that it is slow paced, but for a war movie, it is exquisitely filmed, and captures real human emotions, good and bad, from both sides of the battleground, not just having Matt Damon looking afraid. And to anyone debunking the action sequences here as being less than stellar, they do not know what they're talking about. Granted that there are only 3 major action pieces, and the wait of almost an hour to get a shot fired, it was well worth the wait, but remember that action here takes a backseat.

For anyone who has been in the armed forces, I'd like to think that we can easily identify with any of the perspectives that were presented here by the ensemble cast. And when I say ensemble, I mean it with a capital E. One of the plus points for the marketing folks of this film to go ballistic with, is the wealth of talent at Malick's disposal - Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Ben Chapin, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, and folks like George Clooney and John Travolta who were obviously there for cameo star power. Some were filmed but dropped off, like Tom Cruise, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen etc, and I hope one day we do see that ultimate extended originally conceived cut of this movie.

What make this film a triumph, was its characterization of the folks caught up in war. Not everyone allows for adrenaline to take over and becomes a Rambo overnight. More often than not, even with weapon at hand, we are afraid. Afraid of death, of the necessity to tote the line and follow dumb orders (we know how stupid sometimes officers can get), and the constant lingering thoughts of loved ones when you're out in that field. Yes, even though I, and many other local males, have never been at war (and hope not to be), training exercises and operations do allow for such experiences (hey, we are dealing with real equipment, and if safety isn't followed, then at the extreme, death would come knocking).

While many films have been made about the European theatre of war, very few good ones have been made on the Pacific theatre, and The Thin Red Line is set in the Battle of Guadalcanal, were a group of American infantrymen get ordered to take a hill and an airstrip on that island, to secure bragging and landing rights for their fighter jets, so as to achieve air superiority over a 1000 mile radius. It is the build up to their initial attack, that we learn a bit about our characters, and you can treat them like the buddies in your platoon - the one who goes AWOL, the one with a wife/girlfriend, the officer looking for his days of glory at all costs, and the one looked down for being soft. What I liked about Malick's presentation, was through the use of narration in between dialogues, it tells a lot more on the background of the character, and allows us to read into their thoughts, hypocritical or otherwise. And it doesn't shy away from the negative aspects, and what I found amusing, was how corrupt the process of awards can be.

The Thin Red Line is one excellent movie which looks at the mindlessness and insanity of war. And for action junkies, it doesn't roll over from providing some of the most intense war action sequences, with soldiers attempting a full scale frontal assault charging up an enemy occupied hill, but my favourite would be where it captures perfectly in fluid motion, total confusion and utter mayhem unleashed when two sides meet in a village, where you can either follow the lead character on the camera's foreground, or focus on the wildly active background.

The Code 3 DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment comes in anamorphic widescreen, which is about the only way to enjoy this masterpiece. There are no audio options available, so thank goodness it's in 5.1. Subtitles, being Code 3, are available in English, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and Thai, and scene selection offers 31 chapters for you to zoom into the best bits of this 170 minute movie.

There are only 2 special features here. One is the theatrical trailer (2:53), which made it look like a straight forward action movie, probably cut in a way to draw in the crowds. The other feature is the collection of Melanesian songs from the CD "Melanesian Choirs: The Blessed Islands - Chants from The Thin Red Line". 11 tracks offered, with a combined runtime of 23 minutes. No titles for the tracks though, so you'll have to rely on memory which chant belongs to which track. The breakdown: 1 (1:23), 2 (1:16), 3 (2:15), 4 (0:28), 5 (1:27), 6 (3:39), 7 (2:34), 8 (2:17), 9 (1:25), 10 (3:17), 11 (3:01)

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