A Terrence Malick Profile

Rory Barker profiles legendary director Terrence Malick…

As a wave of great American filmmakers were unable to continue making films and the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and John Ford were consigned to history a new, younger generation of US filmmakers emerged. Garnering the golden combination of both commercial success and critical acclaim consistently, this generation – involving Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg – all began releasing major feature films in the 1970s. Although these three filmmakers have become the most famous and sought after directors in contemporary cinema, another auteur that emerged from this generation then to go on to shun the spotlight was Terrence Malick.

Like Spielberg (Duel, 1971), Coppola (The Godfather, 1972) and Scorsese (Mean Streets, 1971), Malick made his first big budget movie Badlands in the 1970’s. Badlands drew many comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a great American box office success, and therefore may begin to explain Malick’s own commercial success with his film. However, what the critics had noticed was a director ignoring classical narrative structure, creating dream like films with perfect scores and idyllic scenery, and emoting a feeling of poetic cinema.

Malick’s background, unlike most other successful filmmakers, does not solely involve film. Malick studied philosophy at both Harvard and Oxford University before becoming a professor in the subject at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while also writing articles for noted publications such as Newsweek, Life and The New Yorker. Malick’s switch into cinema was a sudden and unusual one, having expressed limited passion of the media prior to wanting to make a film. Malick’s first foray into film, the short Lanton Mills (1969), ensured production bosses were happy to grant him a relatively large budget of the time of $450,000, with which he made Badlands.

Once Badlands became accessible to a wider audience, it became clear why Malick had chosen this new career path. Badlands was a highly philosophical film, the majority of which came from Sissy Spacek’s character, 15 year-old Holly. Providing an ignorant but thoughtful voiceover throughout the film, she displays a simplistic yet insightful view into the actions and reactions of Kit (Martin Sheen), her narcissistic serial killing lover. The film makes several intelligent points on society, many of which are still relevant today including the depiction of Kit, whose moral conscience is non-existent due to his desire to be of importance or even famous. This investigation into the need for fame is one that reverberates around society today, over 35 years after the release of Badlands.

Malick’s next film Days of Heaven (1978) was released five years after Badlands and drew many similarities. The setting was once again evocative and filmed artistically, proving integral in the quality of the film with Malick once again painting the American mid-west in an extraordinary light. There was also a repeating classical score, and another parallel was the narration throughout by a teenage girl with a heavy accent, Sissy Spacek being replaced in Days of Heaven by Linda, portrayed by Linda Manz. The film stars Richard Gere as young, handsome farmhand Bill, a role that was turned down by several up and coming actors of the time including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and finally John Travolta (scheduling conflicts).

This was Gere’s breakthrough role and the one that brought him to the attention of the American public and Hollywood producers alike. Gere’s character Bill is in love with Abby (Brooke Adams) and travels the Midwest with her and her younger sister Linda until they come to work for a farmer, played by Sam Sheppard. A love triangle emerges between Bill, Abby and the farmer, with Malick incorporating silent movie techniques in order to display their relationships, the film surprisingly lacking in dialogue. This triangle has drastic consequences as Malick revisits the themes of morality being disregarded by intense feelings with a dramatic climax.

After the making of Days of Heaven came Malick’s strangest action yet. He had already been famed for shunning the limelight, making films and then never taking part in any of the press involved, but he put this reclusive nature into a new stratosphere as he disappeared from the film industry for the next 20 years. His whereabouts never properly confirmed to this day, though rumours that he taught in France for the full period may well be true.

Malick finally returned with his much anticipated World War II film The Thin Red Line (1998), based on the James Jones novel of the same name. This film was eagerly anticipated by critics and Malick enthusiasts who held his previous works in such high regard, but was overshadowed among Hollywood and the American public by Spielberg’s spiralling WWII morality tale Saving Private Ryan (1998). The Thin Red Line nonetheless secured seven Oscar nominations (though not winning any) and included an all-star cast with big names such as John Travolta, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Jim Caveziel, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, John C. Reilly and Nick Nolte. On top of this, Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortenson and Gary Oldman found themselves flying out to Australia and the Solomon Islands for an extensive shoot only to find their scenes end up on the cutting room floor among at least 6 hours of footage never to be seen.

The extensive casting, along with over a million feet of film shot, was only part of the confusion during production. Malick argued vehemently with the film’s producers Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau, resulting in him banning them from the set of the film, as well as the Oscar ceremony. Whether the final product is what he originally set out to make based on James Jones novel is debatable, but there is no argument that the film is anything but typical Malick. His defining style of picturesque locations on a philosophical subject and once again investigating the morality of his characters creates a mesmerizing final film that leaves fans eager to see more of what has been left on the cutting room floor. There is also the voice over narrative – another Malick trait – particularly from Jim Caveziel’s character, who in the final film seems to be the lead character and the one most identifiable to the audience.

Malick went on to make The New World (2005), his least successful film. Malick’s own take on the story of Pocahontas, The New World features Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis and Christian Bale – the stars once again desperate to be a part of one of his few films. The film follows the Malick guidelines of being set in picturesque locations and a particular era of history, another trademark of his films. These trademarks, which have become apparent through his body of work, ensures that Terrence Malick remains one of the great auteurs in contemporary American film industry, and begins to explain why this talented director decided to switch the focus of his career from philosophy to film.

Although Malick’s films are few and far between, his distinctive style and his disdain for making a film following classical narrative guidelines means that he has become one of the greatest and most sought after directors of all time.

Terrence Malick is currently in post production for his new film The Tree of Life, currently scheduled for a 2010 release and starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, with Pitt taking over after Heath Ledger’s untimely death just before filming began.

Rory Barker

Badlands is available on DVD from LoveFilm.com for only £3.73 including postage.

Around the Web

  • Anonymous

    This article has the writing style of a high school essay… disappointing to say the least.

  • Well, do feel free to link to one of your own anonymous and show us how it’s done.

  • Three words: fuck you, Anonymous.

  • Flickeringmyth<br /><br />Beautifully written article. It betrays a sense of love for the director, and is thankfully, not written by an academician. Besides, the subject of your article is a director whose films would be failures if one ended up ‘writing’ too much on them.

  • Fiarosh – threatening and racist comments won’t be accepted on here I’m afraid. <br /><br />I’m not one for censorship but it would be nice to keep any comments civil and on topic please!<br /><br />Thanks<br /><br />Gary

  • Thomas Shaw

    Last year I viewed a new print of Days of Heaven at the Academy theater, and there was a panel discussion after the showing. Brooke Adams was there, as well as a number of key creative crew members. What I found interesting, was that although I absolutely love Malick’s quasi-silent film technique, this is not a style he sought out intentionally. According to Adams, the original shooting script

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I’m with anonymous. "Malick’s background, unlike most other successful filmmakers, does not solely involve film." Huh? As opposed to whom? Michael Bay? Quentin Tarantino? "Providing an ignorant but thoughtful voiceover throughout the film…" Wha? Kid, you need an editor. This is terrible writing.