Berlin Flashback: In 1999, 'Thin Red Line' Earned the Fest's Golden Bear

ALEX BERLINER/BERLINER STUDIO/BEIMAGES
Then-married Robin Wright Penn and Sean Penn at the L.A. premiere of 'Thin Red Line' on Dec. 22, 1998.

The World War II drama was a massive event for cinema lovers, marking the return of director Terrence Malick — the enigmatic auteur behind such towering New Hollywood classics as 1973's 'Badlands' and 1978's 'Days of Heaven' — after a 20-year absence from filmmaking.

When The Thin Red Line screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1999, it had already been in theaters in the U.S. since Christmas.

The World War II drama was a massive event for cinema lovers, marking the return of director Terrence Malick — the enigmatic auteur behind such towering New Hollywood classics as 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven — after a 20-year absence from filmmaking.

The 20th Century Fox film featured a who’s who of male acting talent, from proven stars (Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, John Travolta) to promising up-and-comers (Jim Caviezel, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson) playing the men of C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, deployed to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific in an effort to seize the island from the Japanese.

Malick’s original edit was reportedly five hours long. By the time the final cut came in at a relatively lean 170 minutes, entire performances by the likes of Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas and Mickey Rourke had been removed. (No one could have been more devastated than Adrien Brody, however, who arrived at the premiere assuming he was the movie’s lead only to discover that his role had been reduced to a smattering of screen time.)

Despite the radical reworking, the final product was generally well received by critics. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “visual knockout” and declared it “an uncannily timed movie phenomenon.” (The release coincided with the bombing of Iraq, aka Operation Desert Fox, ordered by then-President Bill Clinton.)

Berlin loved it, too, awarding it the fest’s top prize, the Golden Bear, and giving cinematographer John Toll an honorable mention. It earned seven Academy Award nominations as well, but won none.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 10 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.