This interview originally appeared in The Houston Chronicle on January 14, 1999. Interview by Louis B. Park. Copyright of The Houston Chronicle.
Moviegoers seeing The Thin Red Line when it opens this weekend will know they've seen something impressive and harrowing. They may also end up scratching their heads, wondering just what it was all about. Unlike 1998's other big World War II movie, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line sometimes seems to need, if not an interpreter, at least a tour guide.
"It's nonlinear," said Jim Caviezel , who plays one of the U.S. Marines who hit the beaches of Guadalcanal, finding themselves in a desperate struggle against the Japanese, their incompetent officers and their private demons.
Caviezel was in Houston last week to talk about the movie. "It's like if you woke up from a dream and I said, `Tell me about it,'" he said. "And you said, `I started at Point A, and then went to Point B, and then to Point D.' And I said, `Wait a minute, what about Point C?' And you said, `It doesn't matter.'"
A dream - or nightmare - is a good explanation for what viewers experience in The Thin Red Line, which is based on the best-selling 1962 book by James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity.
The book begins with Marines below deck on a ship, waiting to invade Guadalcanal. The movie starts with Pvt. Witt, Caviezel's character, doing an introspective interior monologue while on a tropical island where he and another Marine have gone absent without leave. The two are soon captured and sent back to their unit.
Throughout the film, harrowing combat scenes as realistic and frightening as those in Saving Private Ryan are mixed with memories of stateside lovers, considerations of the meaning of war and life, and intimate, personal moments that are more literary in tone than what we usually see on screen.
Often it seems like the soldiers are fighting themselves - or war itself - rather than a tangible enemy, a notion emphasized by our not even seeing the Japanese except as vague shapes or gun flashes for the first hour of the movie.
"It's a meditation on the evils of war, as powerful as any personal prayer you could say in a moment of tragedy," Caviezel said.
"Terry Malick is like the professor Robin Williams plays in Dead Poets Society, and he tells his students, `Open your book and read the first couple of pages on how to write a poem.' The kid starts to read it, and the professor says, `Tear it out. Don't let anyone tell you how to make a poem.' This is what Terry does."
Another thing Malick does is attract stars like metal shavings to a magnet. The movie-star lineup in The Thin Red Line is impressive: Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and John Savage.
Aside from Penn and Nolte, most of the stars have very small roles, appearing in the movie just for a chance to work with Malick.
"I just wanted to be in it," Clooney said about his one-minute role in the film.
Malick, who lives in Austin, built a good reputation as a director in the 1970s, based on only two films, which he also wrote. They were the haunting young-criminals story Badlands and the heartbreakingly beautiful Days of Heaven. Neither was a box-office hit, but both received very good reviews and made it clear that Malick was a filmmaker of unusual vision and extreme technical skill.
Since Days of Heaven in 1978, for which he won several major awards, Malick, a Rhodes Scholar, has been the J.D. Salinger of cinema, retreating to Paris and almost completely from filmmaking. His reputation as a recluse and the enforced absence from filmmaking enhanced his status to near-legendary status.
When word went out that Malick was again making a film - a war movie - just about every male actor in Hollywood took notice.
Which explains why there are so many stars in the movie, and why Malick was able to turn what the studio probably hoped would be a straightforward, audience-thrilling war film into a complex, highly personal "meditation on the evils of war."
Which brings us to back to Caviezel. With all these big names in the cast, why is it that this virtual unknown has the largest role in one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years? The movie is an ensemble piece, with no real lead role, but Caviezel's Witt is at its center.
If the name of this rather shy young actor - clearly uncomfortable doing interviews - doesn't ring any bells, don't feel bad. You're not alone in not recognizing Caviezel, who was on the verge of giving up acting before The Thin Red Line.
Prior to playing this, Caviezel's most prominent role was probably that of brother Warren Earp, in Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp in 1994. Most recently he was a minor character in G.I. Jane.
"I told my wife, in another six months I'm seriously considering wrapping this up," Caviezel said. "Although I loved acting, I felt it was important to be working. If we have kids, it will be important that I pay bills. It would have been very difficult (to quit) because I loved it, but I could always do theater on the side."
Caviezel, 30, is tall and lean, but not as gaunt as he appears in The Thin Red Line, where his tall frame - "On a good day I'm maybe 6 feet, 2 inches; on a bad day maybe 6-1 1/2" - carried only 170 pounds, because the Marines were supposed to look like they have not eaten well. His now clean, handsome face looks haggard and dirty in the movie.
Caviezel didn't know who Malick was when he auditioned and was asked to go to Malick's house to meet him.
"To be truthful, when I went in and met with him, I kind of told him, this is who I was and what was important to me. We really didn't talk about the movie much. Maybe that had something to do with it.
"School and many things in my life have been difficult for me. I've had to work a lot harder than most people. I always figured college was for smart guys, so I came to Hollywood," he said with a grin.
"One thing was never a problem, and maybe it's a gift, is character and integrity," said Caviezel, who is deeply religious. "There are things that I believe in so strongly that I basically have said I'm willing to give up what I'm doing in order to have my family live a great life. I don't need to change. I need to be like myself; this is who I am. From the get-go, that was either going to push (Malick) away or draw us together."
Apparently, it drew them together. Malick changed his mind about the role he originally wanted Caviezel to play and cast him as the moral Witt, who avoids killing, even when it might save his own life.
Caviezel also lucked out in the editing process. Originally, Witt was just one of several important characters. Many other major and minor roles were cut completely from the film.
"I think we shot a record 1 1/2 million feet of film," Caviezel said. "That's basically 50 movies. Coming out of (shooting) that, it was like, well, what kind of film are we going to have here?"
Some filmgoers will be asking that question as they leave the theater. Few will doubt The Thin Red Line is achingly beautiful and frighteningly intense. But it is also a film that demands complete attention.
"If someone is very linear, Saving Private Ryan will work brilliantly for them," Caviezel said. "The Thin Red Line could have been about invading Guadalcanal, going to capture Henderson (air) field, getting the Japanese off the island - making it as linear as possible.
"But it's not. It's about the condition of the human heart and spirit. It's about the thin red line between life and death, between heaven and hell, between sane and insane. It stays true to that line. It's not really tangible."Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page