After 20 years, Malick returns with 'Thin Red Line'
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From Correspondent Ron Tank
HOLLYWOOD (CNN)-- "The Thin Red Line," director Terrence Malick's much-anticipated World War II story, showed record-breaking promise in its initial limited release as it debuted last month to a whopping $182,639 in a total of just three theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It's the best limited-release debut ever for a film, and the trend continued in the New Year, with a box-office take of $1.2 million on just 61 screens last weekend.
Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones, "The Thin Red Line" tells the story of the men of Company "C", who fought and died during the fierce battle of Guadalcanal. The story begins as Army troops are moved in to relieve battle-weary Marine units, and follows their journey from the unopposed landing, through the bloody and exhausting battles, to the ultimate departure of the survivors.
The film marks Malick's return to the director's chair after a 20-year absence. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, made two previous pictures, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven." For the latter, he received Best Director nods from the New York Film Critics, the National Film Critics and the Cannes Film Festival.
'An extremely wide mind'
1973's "Badlands" starred then-unknowns Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and even included a cameo appearance by Malick himself. But don't waste time looking for Malick in his latest film -- or in any promotions. His contract with Fox specifies that his likeness not be used to promote the film. To call Malick a recluse would be an understatement.
As Nick Nolte says, "he has an extremely wide mind." In "Line," Nolte plays Lt. Col. Tall, a career soldier who's ready to sacrifice his own men for victory in battle. "There's a little bit of awe you have in Terry, and so it makes you deeply committed to him and the process," says Nolte.
For this picture, the process started over 10 years ago. In 1988, Malick took his idea of adapting Jones' novel to producers Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau. They approached the author's widow, Gloria Jones, and acquired the rights. In September 1996, producer Grant Hill (of "Titanic" fame) came on board, and the film was finally on its way.
Big names, small roles
You would think that a big picture would have big-name stars in all the key roles, but quite the opposite is true of this film. The big name stars are there, but their roles are less than stellar. John Travolta is just one of several who take small roles in the film. George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson all wanted to work for Malick. True to form, the 55-year-old director chose unknowns for most of the key positions.
One of those yet-to-be famous actors, Jim Caviezel, says he's unsure if he's prepared for stardom. "I don't know if you could ever prepare for that," says Caviezel. "Nick Nolte told me one time, fame is like a red balloon. It just blows up, gets bigger and bigger. It's just full of hot air."
Twenty years ago, a less famous Travolta was slated to star in Malick's second film, "Days of Heaven." Since Travolta was busy making "Grease" at the time, new arrival Richard Gere got the nod. The film was a critical success, taking home an Oscar for cinematography. But the frustration of spending nearly two years editing the film led to Malick's 20-year hiatus from directing.
Malick also handled the editing duties for "The Thin Red Line," paring down piles of footage to the final running time of just under three hours. "I think he wants to make an entire different version of it," says Nolte, "because there are a lot of characters that aren't followed through."
And there's no telling what cinematic treasures ended up on the cutting room floor. Another newcomer in the film, Elias Koteas, says, "I mean, he could be filming one scene, and then while he's waiting to set this up, he could see something and move another camera and film that for awhile."
Judging by the reception thus far, Malick appears to have left all the right pieces in place.
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