James Jones published his powerful battlefield-based novel almost twenty years after World War II’s end and the film made from it represented famed director Terrence Malick‘s return to Hollywood screens after twenty years. The sprawling ensemble assembled as its stars — including Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta, Adrien Brody, Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, John C. Reilly, Jason Patric and Mickey Rourke — put forth performances highly praised by the likes of Martin Scorsese and the late critic Gene Siskel, who called 1998’s The Thin Red Line the “greatest contemporary war film” he had seen.
But by 1999, the partners developing and producing the movie and another, The White Hotel, had locked themselves into legal combat that would take them through state and federal terrain, all over claims as to who may have bilked whom over shares of profits. And now, in 2013, the New York Supreme Court has denied a request for summary judgment in favor of Paul Verner, a defendant and attorney in the case, ruling that he did not meet his burden as there were still issues of fact to be decided at trial.
In 1994, a limited partnership, with general and limited partners, was formed to make films, including The Thin Red Line. As is common in such instances, the general partners have management control and joint and several liability for debts of the partnership; limited partners lack management control and have limited liability up to the amount of their investment; each share in partnership profits. In this case, the general partners were corporations controlled by the defendants, Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, and the sole limited partner was the plaintiff Gerard Rubin, who invested about $6 million.
Geisler and Roberdeau, a court earlier found, began to divest money from the partnership after its formation, representing themselves to third parties as possessing exclusive rights in the film projects belonging to the partnership. They sold The Thin Red Line for $1.5 million and, a trial court found, misappropriated the profits for themselves, instead of paying Rubin $1 million as called for in their partnership agreement.
Rubin learned this and sued Geisler and Roberdeau in 1998, with a court ruling in his favor, holding their partnership was beneficial owner of all right, title and interest in its projects, including The Thin Red Line and The White Hotel; the two men, the court said, had breached their fiduciary duty to the partnership and to Rubin. New York Supreme Court Justice Harold Tompkins ruled all profits belonged not to the two but to the partnership; he further awarded Rubin a $1.5-million judgment and imposed a constructive trust on all proceeds from partnership projects, enjoining Geisler and Roberdeau from transferring, pledging or disposing any right to or interest in its projects or representing that they had an interest in them. They also were ordered to turn over all screenplays and documents from The White Hotel and other projects in development.
The defendants have been held in contempt of court for refusing to comply with the order in 2000 and in 2002. In 2001, Rubin learned that sums were “received, routed and transferred” to benefit Geisler and Roberdeau through the bank account of their attorney Paul Verner. Rubin then sued the two partners to satisfy the judgment against them and Verner for ignoring the constructive trust.
After dragging the litigation out for a dozen years, Verner sought summary judgment, claiming he was unaware of the constructive trust when the sums were transferred to Geisler and Roberdeau or that the money was loans or gifts not belonging to the partnership.
Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten rejected Verner’s request, finding issues of fact for trial as to whether Verner knew of Geisler and Roberdeau’s fiduciary breaches and the court orders. As well as “to whether or not Verner provided substantial assistance with Geisler and Roberdeau’s breaches.”
The Thin Red Line, a frank depiction of brutal events connected with the Battle of Mount Austen in the Pacific, notably saw the acting of many in its cast — Brody, Clooney, Cusack, Harrelson and Travolta — left on the cutting room floor. It received seven Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.