A Game Of Rivalry That Woody Harrelson And Sean Penn Played In The Jungles Of Australia

Abhishek Srivastava - 71 weeks ago

Terrence Malick’s war-drama, The Thin Red Line carried a serious overtone but actors Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson were involved in a different game during the shooting of the film which was quite contrary to the mood of the film.

Nominated for seven Oscars, the war-drama The Thin Red Line features in the list of top ten great war movies of virtually every publication. The film was directed by the recluse and elusive Terrence Malick who shot to fame with his utterly gripping Badlands in 1973. The Thin Red Line was based on a novel written by James Jones (also the author of From Here to Eternity and The Longest Day) and dealt with the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign of the second World War. 

(A still from The Thin Red Line)

With The Thin Red Line, Malick was making a movie after a gap of ten years (though it eventually became twenty years). After having acquired the rights of the book from the writer’s widow, Gloria Jones, he began work on the script and was ready with the first draft of the film in 1989 – eleven years after he had directed his last film Days of Heaven. Despite his best efforts, the film could release only in 1998 and one of the factors which contributed to the massive delay in its shooting and subsequent release was the cancellation of funding for the film by Sony’s new boss – John Calley on reasons based on the viability of the project. This forced Malick to take his project to other studios. Fox 2000 Pictures agreed to come on board with the condition that Malick was to cast five actors from the list of ten they had provided. Malick’s reputation as a Rhodes scholar and a former freelance writer for Newsweek, The New Yorker and Life ensured that top stars like Al Pacino, Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio were willing to work with the filmmaker with slashed remuneration. Spoilt for choices, the casting process proved to be a tedious exercise for the filmmaker. Eventually none of the actors were cast and instead Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney, John Cusack and John Travolta came on board. 

(Nick Nolte (centre) with the cast of the film)

Though the gritty film carries a serious undertone, Nick Nolte in his autobiography Rebel – My Life Outside the Lines has described an incident which was just contrary to the mood of the film. The incident involved Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson who played the role of First Sergeant Welsh and Sergeant Keck respectively in the film. The funny incident relates to the point of time when the film was being shot in the rainforest jungles of Queensland, Australia and involved the one-upmanship the two actors tried to have over each other. It all started when Woody threw a snake in Sean's vanity trailer and Sean, as a measure of retaliation, answered back by calling the local radio station disguised as Woody’s assistant and informing them of Woody’s appearance at a local park where he would be signing autographs for his fans for ten dollars apiece. When this news reached Woody he had no option save to reach the location and sign autographs for free. 

(A candid image of Woody Harrelson and Sean Penn during the shooting of The Thin Red Line in Australia)

Nick further writes in his autobiography that though he did not know Woody well, he got a call from him seeking his help to bring Sean to a certain location. Woody assured a reluctant Nick that he was not going to hurt Sean. Nick was requested to come down to a police station which was more like a bungalow. The two policemen stationed there were junior artists from the film and were known to Woody. After Nick reached the spot, Woody requested him to call Sean informing him that he was being asked by the chief policeman to undergo a blood alcohol test being a non Aussie and he wanted someone at the station to vouch for him. 

(A still from The Thin Red Line)

The entire trap was set to perfection which had two junior artists from the film unit dressed as policemen and a third one in the role of the car driver who had rammed his car into Nick’s. When one of the artist disguised as policeman took the driver for interrogation and when things got heated as per the script, Sean in fear tried to flee. When he heard two gunshots, he automatically retraced his steps and then tried to get out from the back door of the station which was locked. It was at this moment that the driver, all worked up, entered the main hall shouting that he will kill someone unless someone drives him out of the station – his eyes staring at Sean, and giving others the impression that he had killed the second policeman. Sean’s immediate response was a request not to kill anyone and he was willing to drive him out. Sean was instructed to get the keys which were on the desk and go out via the back door. To his surprise, the moment Sean opened the back door, Woody greeted him with a camera clicking the moment. He then pointed Sean towards two video cameras which were recording every moment.

Sean was least amused at Woody’s behaviour and only remarked that had this incident happened in LA, he would have killed someone. After this incident everyone on the set waited eagerly for Sean’s revenge. Soon after the incident Woody had to travel to another place leaving behind his children at the location. A strict vegan himself, Woody’s children had never touched meat in their entire life, so when he heard the news that beef soup was served to them in his absence, he was furious. To get his pound of flesh, he headed straight to Sean’s location but thanks to Malick’s wife Ecky, she informed Woody that she was not aware of his children’s dietary habit, and she has been giving them ham sandwiches and the news of beef soup was totally false. 

(Adrien Brody (centre) played the role of Corporal Fife in the war-drama)

Nick Nolte in his chapter on Sam Shephard further informs that during the staging of a play that featured him, Woody and Sean, the two actors had truly buried their hatchet by then. It was at Sean’s insistence that Woody had landed a role in Sam’s play. 


The Thin Red Line / Woody Harrelson / Sean Penn / Nick Nolte / George Clooney / Adrien Brody / Terrence Malick / Rebel My Life Outside The Lines / Guadalcanal Island / Second World War / Queensland / Australia

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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