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A War of Nerves

Director Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' is one of 1998's most hotly anticipated--and closely guarded--films. Can the WWII story dodge 'Saving Private Ryan's' shadow and make it to theaters on time?

November 08, 1998|JAMES BATES | James Bates is a Times staff writer

The film's director hasn't made a movie since Jimmy Carter was president and Leonardo DiCaprio was in preschool.

In August, in his hometown of Austin, Texas, a local theater featured a tribute to him as part of a "great directors" series that included two of his movies--his only two.

He doesn't do interviews and won't be doing any to promote his film, even though Hollywood is bankrolling him to the tune of more than $50 million.

So why is Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," based on James Jones' 1962 novel about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal, so often referred to as "the most anticipated movie of the year," as it is in the latest issue of Esquire magazine? Why for months has conventional Hollywood wisdom concluded that it's a strong Oscar contender, even though only a handful of people have seen even a frame of the movie?

Why were stars of such caliber as John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Bill Pullman and John Cusack lining up to appear in the film, even if some are in it for a couple of scenes, at a fraction of the salaries they normally get?

And, while the film clearly is anticipated in Hollywood, who says that anyone outside the 310 area code will care? Especially when so many moviegoers have been to the multiplex to see Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which since August has grossed nearly $190 million domestically?

Few movies have ever posed as many enigmatic questions as "The Thin Red Line," scheduled for release in late December by 20th Century Fox. And few movies have presented more unique and difficult marketing obstacles.

"This is a giant marketing challenge," said one senior executive at a Fox rival, who, like other executives interviewed about the film, didn't want to be named. "The only way to sell it is if it's a compelling story. It's coming in second to 'Saving Private Ryan,' and the director isn't known at all outside of a few film schools and in Hollywood. It has to be a great movie to work."

The handful of executives who have seen it insist it is a great film--although industry cynics note that executives always say that. Still, Fox sources insist it's a much different film from "Saving Private Ryan," more of an intense psychological tale, and that about the only thing the two movies share is that they take place during the same war, albeit in battle theaters half a world apart.

"There's definitely room for more than one war movie. It's not like it was when there wasn't room for two movies about a volcano with lava coming out," said one Fox executive of the studio's dismal "Volcano" that came out on the heels of Universal Pictures' volcano movie "Dante's Peak."

Such dilemmas are common for studios, with mixed results. "Deep Impact," about an Earth-threatening comet, and "Armageddon," about an Earth-threatening asteroid, grossed big numbers at the box office. But neither a Walt Disney film nor a Warner Bros. movie about 1970s track star Steve Prefontaine proved a box-office smash. Still unclear is whether the strong performance of DreamWorks' "Antz" will hurt Disney's upcoming "A Bug's Life."

If nothing else, "The Thin Red Line" has succeeded in becoming an obsession for movie buffs, film writers and critics.

Internet sites are filled with talk and anticipation. Members of the James Jones Literary Society in suburban Chicago are looking to the film to revive interest in the author, who died in 1977. During the recent press junket for their release "The Siege," Fox executives were peppered with questions about "The Thin Red Line."

Entertainment Weekly in its current "Power List" ranks Malick and the equally reclusive Stanley Kubrick, who with "Eyes Wide Shut" is making his first film in 11 years, at No. 101. The magazine calls them "The Hermits" and asks, "Who'll recognize them at the premieres?"

Aside from film buffs, few moviegoers know much, if anything, about Malick, let alone have seen his two previous films. Malick's debut was 1973's "Badlands" with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, loosely based on a killing spree in the 1950s, and 1978's "Days of Heaven" with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard, which takes place in the Texas plains in the early 1900s.

Both films were critical gems--"Days of Heaven's" sweeping visual look is still cited as one of the best ever made in Hollywood--but they were not especially commercial. Neither received Oscar nominations for best picture, and neither showed up earlier this year on the much-ballyhooed American Film Institute list of the 100 top U.S. films of all time.

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