Terrence Malick is standing at the top of dancer, one of the hills nestled in the mountains of the Daintree Rainforest above the tiny town of Port Douglas in northern Australia. The 55-year-old director, whose balding head, gray beard, and thoughtful eyes make him look like a professor, is wearing blue jeans and a denim shirt and hiding beneath a floppy akabroo outback hat. He’s peeling lines of dialogue from a scene of his adaptation of The Thin Red Line as if they’re layers of an onion.
In the scene being shot, David Harrod, a Texan who gained 30 pounds eating ice cream and pumping iron to play Corporal Queen, is mercilessly beating a Japanese soldier with the butt of his rifle. John Cusack, who plays his superior, moves into the frame and pulls him off. By the eighth and final take, six lines of dialogue have been stripped to Harrod letting out a whoop. The emotion is pouring out of the actor, and so is his blood. ”Wipe the blood from the nape of your neck!” shouts Malick as he peers through the lens. ”Vigorously! Vigorously!”
Malick, who hasn’t given an interview since 1974 and has a clause in his Thin Red Line contract that he will do no press, has come to the end of the earth to shoot his first film in nearly two decades, an adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel about the raw human dynamics of a World War II rifle company in the Pacific. The director has enlisted a cast of unknowns (Harrod, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Dash Mihok), rising stars (Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas), and big names (Cusack, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, George Clooney) to re-create America’s bloody defeat of the Japanese at Guadalcanal in 1943. But it doesn’t take long to see that Malick isn’t making a commercial movie — or even a conventional art film.
”I don’t know if this will make sense the way a normal film does,” Cusack says, taking a smoke break beside a stream at the foot of the mountain after the scene. ”Terry’s wildly intuitive and impressionistic. He wrote a script based on the novel, and he’s making a film based on the script, but he’s not shooting the script. He’s shooting the essence of the script, and he’s also shooting the movie that’s up there on the hill. He’s trying to transcend the book and the script and himself. He’s just out there. He’s a wild cat.” Later, Harrod (whose blood-spurting take didn’t make the final cut) adds: ”Terry’s big on improvisation. He liked the blood improvisation, especially because it was my own blood.”
It wasn’t the only blood spilled during the journey of The Thin Red Line to the screen. Before the war was over, Malick had divorced his second wife, Michele. He’d frozen out producers Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau, who spent eight years nurturing the project and him. He’d reduced Fife (played by Brody) from a main character to a glorified extra. He’d written a part for Gary Oldman then told him not to show up. He filmed scenes with Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas then cut them altogether. (He’d even given his divorce attorney a bit part then cut him, too.) He wrote narration, hired Billy Bob Thornton to record it, then discarded it for a symphony of eight narrators. And he’d left Twentieth Century Fox with what he’d envisioned all along — a $52 million esoteric meditation on God and man and war and trees. But as fate would have it, Malick delivered his picture the same year Steven Spielberg made a World War II movie with Tom Hanks.