Cannes Film Festival 2011’s Palme d’Or has been awarded to the elusive, reclusive and Terry Pratchett lookalike Terence Malick for his fifth film, The Tree of Life – having, what head of the jury Robert de Niro described as, “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it” to merit such an accolade. Past winners of the Palme d’Or include Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), starring the head of the jury himself, and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, Apocalypse Now (1979). Incidentally, both have been re-released in cinemas just recently.
True to his mysterious form, Malick was not present to collect the award personally. The director – who also writes the screenplay for all his films – is vehemently protective of his privacy, refusing even to conduct interviews.
The fact that there have been such lengthy gaps between projects is another of his idiosyncrasies that makes him all the more curious. But what Malick lacks in output, he makes up for in punch: his films beautiful, thoughtful and moving.
The Thin Red Line (1998), described as Saving Private Ryan for clever people by film critic Mark Kermode, takes its premise from James Jones’ autobiographical book of the same name. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the film is set in 1942 on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands (north west of Australia) and follows the attempt of C company to reclaim possession of the island from its Japanese occupiers.
Unlike a long lineage of war films that have been made before and after it, Malick’s depiction of war in The Thin Red Line (literally, “a thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack”) focuses on each soldier’s personal psychological, emotional and moral turmoil, with little concern for the era’s political and historical trifles. Malick uses the front line as an arena in which to explore broader issues such as the nonsensical nature of war, the ability of human beings to be both macabre and altruistic, the futility of man in this world and the inexorable continuation of nature.
Man versus Nature... The Thin Red Line is set on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands
The New World (2005) was made after The Thin Red Line and before his Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life. It is the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas and the love that blossoms between them in Virginia in 1607, after she saves Smith from death at the hand of her people. Similarly to The Thin Red Line, The New World is a story told in two halves: Smith’s departure for England, Rebecca’s – as she becomes known – marriage to John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and their journey to England the second and definitely more potent and stunning half of the film. Nature’s glory features yet more heavily in the latter film, as well as the destruction that humans are capable of, Imperialism and the beauty of love between two people.
Malick is not afraid to portray some of war’s atrocities with unabashed intensity. Japanese prisoners of wars sit unclothed – and, Malick would have us realise, no longer distinguishable as the enemy without their uniforms – covered in dirt and staring up insanely and imploringly. American soldiers vent their stress and angst onto their enemy; Gold teeth or wrenched from the mouths of the prisoners. Later the thief stares with disgust at the spoils in his hand before throwing them away and shivering in the pouring raining, sobbing. A close up of a soil-covered hand smacks unavoidably of that of a cadaver’s.
In an earlier scene, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) considers putting one of his soldiers out of his pain after he is shot, asking his medic, “can you give him the vials (of morphine) all at once?” The audience is forced to consider their own view on euthanasia and realise what barbaric situations war forces man into. Malick has a knack of conveying such raw sentiment without resorting to melodramatics or cliché.
Watching both The New World and The Thin Red Line, one wonders why Malick hasn’t branched out into nature programs. His cinematography would rival anything narrated by David Attenborough. The sky always looks amazing; colours are acid-intense; animals are repeatedly captured, contrasting with human folly and reminding us that nature remains despite all this. Chicks hatch from their eggs under bullet fire.
The voice over is one of Malick’s most notable signatures, giving us direct insight into the thoughts and feelings of his characters. As well as delving into the soldiers’ moral battles during battle, Private Bell’s (Ben Chaplin) longing for his wife is explored with flashbacks to scenes between the couple; the memories so discordant and antithetical to the scenes of war they are incorporated with. There is always such poetic beauty in his writing, none more so than, “We. We together. One being. Flow together like water ‘til I can’t tell you from me. I drink you. Now. Now.” Words that are echoed by Pocahontas in The New World – “You flows through me, like a river”.
Love is not presented in a conventionally romantic way, making the concept even more desirable. The chemistry and bond between two people is made so real and palpable it is almost too much to bear.
Relationships – Pocohontas and Smith; Rolfe and Rebecca; Staros and his wife – are portrayed using a dearth of words. It is all in the body language, the touch of the skin, the caress of hands, which makes the more laudable and wonderful of man’s tendencies seem more akin to… animals.
The Thin Red Line was meant to turn its actors into stars. But after reducing the original cut from five hours to the eventual two hours fifty minutes, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke were wiped clean from the reel. The remaining cast is still pretty impressive (Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travlota) but each assumes what end up to be supporting roles. Small roles, but all superbly portrayed. None better than Nick Nolte as Colonel Tall – think Lieutenant Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore from Apocalypse Now – the ruthless superior to the humane Captain Staros, who has no compunction about sending his men to their deaths.
In Malick’s films so much is expressed and acted with the eyes, more so than dialogue, which preludes bad actors. Luckily for his supreme talent (and elusiveness), Malick has his pick of the bunch with the crème de la crème ready to cut off their hands to work with him.
The New World gave Colin Farrell an opportunity to do some convincing and more substantial acting. (Can the same be done for Robert Pattinson?) The tenderness with which he gazes at Pocahontas is so intense; it is almost like being in the scene as the girl herself. Q'orianka Kilche was only fifteen when The New World was made and did a magnificent job of portraying the sort of emotions that many women don’t experience until their twenties. Christian Bale is just as successful in his portrayal of Rolfe as he ever is and as we expect him to be.
Terence Malick has been compared to Stanley Kubrick for his similar reclusiveness, glorious cinematography, diverse choice of subject matter and meticulous attention to detail. Neither director has any qualms about producing shots and sequences that take their time – designed to be savoured. Watching Malick’s films, one feels as if each stunning shot is worthy of an analysis and that each has been lovingly crafted, polished and perfected. And indeed, it is possible to see many aesthetic similarities between The Thin Red Line and Kubrik’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The footage of his (and Kubrik’s) films contain none of the visual “background noise” characteristic of films produced and consumed en mass.
If The Thin Red Line is Saving Private Ryan for cleaver people, then The New World could be described as a Space Odyssey for people who love nature – the exploration of new frontiers, alien species, death, primordial man versus new technology and long passages without dialogue. Wonderful music is another trait the two films have in common. While Strauss provided the sounds for Space Odyssey, James Horner – who also created the music for Avatar – wrote the score for The New World.
However, Malick’s tale of colonialism did successfully what James Cameron’s Avatar tried and failed to do four years later: retell the story of Pocahontas, show us why Imperialism is bad and create orgasmically glorious views of Nature.
Here is a true visual artist who makes up in quality what he lacks in quantity.
The Thin Red Line and The New World are both masterpieces that can be enjoyed like a novel – slowly, dipped into (their plot flow is second to the message) and most certainly more than once.