Days Of Hell

Jones' widow, Gloria, made the trip to New York from her home on Long Island to attend a semiprivate screening with her daughter, Kaylie. Midway through the film, she bolted from the theater and caught the bus home. She now blames her hasty departure on her health. ''My daughter was so mad at me for leaving, but I couldn't breathe,'' she says.

Malick felt betrayed by how widely Fox screened the unfinished film in New York, though days after seeing the film, the New York Film Critics Circle voted him 1998's best director (Steven Spielberg was second). ''Terry was livid because he felt, how could we show a film that was not finished?'' Medavoy says. ''He knew [press screenings were] happening, but I don't think he knew the extent. He was pretty upset.''

With help from Penn, who went through the movie frame by frame and offered suggestions for cuts, Malick trimmed about five minutes. ''Sean felt at times there was some repetition and there needed to be some incisions,'' Medavoy says. ''He helped Terry with these changes.'' Medavoy called journalists and critics and asked them to see the film again. Gloria Jones also agreed to give it another chance.

The Thin Red Line opened in New York and L.A. Dec. 23 to sellout business. By Jan. 4, the film had already earned more than $1 million in seven theaters, with an impressive $54,000-per-screen average, though its real test will come when it's released nationwide Jan. 15. But its financial success or failure seems largely beside the point to many of those who made it.

''The film defies description, but you can't quantify Terry, either,'' Chaplin explains the morning after his first look at Line. ''Everyone thinks they've got a handle on Terry. He made two great films, and then he came back 20 years later and here comes a new one. He's just going to blindside you every time. He invented his style of filmmaking and his way of working. It didn't exist and, really, it still doesn't.''

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