“The Thin Red Line”

“The Thin Red Line” is likely Malick’s most talked about film, and probably not just because it’s a great film (it is). Coming 20 years after “Days Of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” is the epitome of a Terry Malick film. Based on a book, which was worked to a 198-page screenplay, shot with dozens of actors, plenty of dialogue, and massive battle scenes, the final product was startlingly different and a borderline unrecognizable film for those involved (especially Adrien Brody, who, again, is still sour). But despite all the unorthodox technique in the film-making process, likely one of the most unorthodox aspects involved Hans Zimmer, composing six hours of music over the course of a year before filming even started. And the nine-month project weighed upon the composer: “I sound flippant about it [now], but it was six hours of music and it was hard work and I thought it was going to kill me,” he said on the Criterion DVD. “I remember going home, clutching my chest and going, ‘I don’t think I’m going to see Christmas’ and meaning it. I wasn’t joking.”

All of which occurred before Malick made it to the cutting room and began piecing together what would become an eerily quiet film, that in true Malick fashion was much more about essence and impression than narrative and dialogue. “It was so complicated, especially once we set upon this course of removing more and more dialogue,” Zimmer said. “I kept feeling the weight of the lack of words on my shoulders trying to keep the river running. After a while it became a minefield of my own neurosis.” The results though, are hard to argue with. Zimmer’s key piece of music from the film (which certainly did become a showcase for his work), “Journey To The Line,” has popped up in numerous trailers since and even laid some of the foundation for Zimmer’s epic “Time” from “Inception.” Not to mention that the “Journey To The Line” beautifully encapsulates Malick’s transition from the tension of the inevitable battle to the wistful meditation on meaning that the film is really after — that central sleight of hand that Malick achieved: what is ostensibly a war film is actually something far richer and overtly philosophical.

“The New World”

To say that Malick has made a bad habit of alienating composers would be something of an understatement. The worst score-related debacle of his long career would likely have to be with James Horner. The late composer was far from shy on his feelings about working with Malick. “I never felt so let down by a filmmaker in my life,” he said in 2005. The problem, you can likely guess, was Malick’s fickle editing. Horner began his work on the score before the first cut of the film was completed, keeping up as scenes were edited together. But as Malick kept tinkering, Horner’s score became less and less usable. “In editing, Terry, as he does in his film-making, made much more of a dream world and he disassociated the scenes. There was no through-line any more,” Horner said in 2015. “He doesn’t know how to coalesce a story from beginning to end.” Horner went so far as to say that Malick didn’t know how to use music in a movie, and even tried to get him to watch movies that use music effectively (his example being “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”).

Of course, what ultimately happened was Horner’s work was mostly cut, and what wasn’t was chopped apart and spread out (in a manner Horner wasn’t happy about). “Not only did he throw out my score, he loved my score, he didn’t have a clue what to do with it. He didn’t have a clue how to use music,” the composer said. Instead Malick leaned on classical compositions, choosing Wagner’s “Das Rheingold – 1. Vorspiel” for the beginning and end. It’s a dazzling piece of music that sparkles and shivers with the sort of purity Malick wanted to imbue upon this new world. But of course Horner hated this too: “He was taking Wagner like a thick blanket and putting it in his movie. I swear to god…” All of which leaves us to wonder what Horner’s music could have done for “The New World,” which, of course, is already a feat of visual poetry that captures a magnificent fall from grace. And, as Horner said, could it have been as successful as Titanic?

  • bohmer

    “He didn’t have a clue how to use music”, what?!

  • Jim

    With respect to the late James Horner, the idea of ‘New World’ potentially replicating ‘Titanic’ is ghastly. It’s a far, far, far more artful, intelligent and sensitive film. And whatever the acrimony behind the scenes, its use of the Prelude from Wagner’s Ring Cycle – and equally Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 – is easily one of the most exquisite blends of cinema and music ever.