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Return of the mystery man; Terrence Malick's back with his first film in 21 years. RICHARD WALLACE starts celebrating.

Like General Douglas MacArthur fulfilling his vow "I shall return" when rebuffed in the Philippines early in the Second World War, filmmaker Terrence Malick's re-invasion of Hollywood has been a dramatic return.

He attained legendary status for the only two movies he directed, Badlands (1974) and Days Of Heaven (1978) as well as his sheer elusiveness. Malick is one of the industry's biggest enigmas and while his return to active filmmaking has long been speculated about and mulled over, it's hard to believe the writer-director is finally back with The Thin Red Line.

The Oscar-nominated war movie is staged on an epic scale with the original draft of the script at approximately 300 pages, later trimmed to 180.

Most major actors in Hollywood read for a role - Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp and Ethan Hawke. Only Penn made the cut from this stellar line-up.

The Thin Red Line follows a fresh squad of American troops into the hellhole known as Guadalcanal Island, where they encounter incredible Japanese resistance and find themselves caught in one of the most savage battles of the 20th century.

The story was previously filmed in 1964, starring Keir Dullea and Jack Warden. However, more fascinating to cineastes is the prospect of seeing another feature directed by Malick, who has attained perhaps the highest regard among cinema aficionados for the shortest filmography.

Shortly after Days Of Heaven opened in 1978 to an extremely split critical reception and indifferent box office, Malick went travelling - to Nepal, to Europe, to anywhere but Hollywood.

The expected follow-up never came, although the film's studio, Paramount, through the reported largesse of Gulf & Western chairman Charlie Bluhdorn, provided Malick with an annual million-dollar stipend. His disappearance created a vacuum, and myths soon filled it. Malick associates, who to this day remain loyal to his request that they don't speak on the record, perhaps unwittingly expanded that vacuum.

Born in 1943, just months after the Allied victory at Guadalcanal, Malick is a native of either Waco, Texas, or Ottawa, Illinois, depending on the source.

The son of an oil executive, he studied at Harvard, read at Oxford's Magdalen College as a Rhodes scholar, taught philosophy, wrote for New Yorker and Time magazines, then joined AFI's first film studies programme in 1969. With time, a clearer picture of Malick's "lost years" has emerged. He is married, but perhaps separated, from a French woman, and divides his time between residences in Paris, France and Austin, Texas where he grew up.

In the late '70s, Malick proposed an epic project entitled Q. His original script was initially set during the First World War, but subsequent drafts travelled back to the pre-Jurassic era. The Thin Red Line has been one of three projects he's had on the go since 1989. Parts designed for the theatre and cable TV have since coalesced into a single project.

The Thin Red Line opens today. See Jonathan Ross's review on pages 6 and 7.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wallace, Richard
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 26, 1999
Words:495
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