Retrospective: The Thin Red Line

Among the many auteurs that have come and gone over a century of cinema, one that stands out is the elusive Terrence Malick. Though Badlands and Days of Heaven were the only films he directed in the 1970s, Malick instantly drew praise from his peers and critics alike for his unique ability to implement a camera the way an artist uses a brush. However, twenty years transpired before his reemergence in 1998 with an unparalleled war film, an adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Although adjectives like visionary are tossed around without much thought, on rare occasion the praise is earned. Few directors ascend to create works of genuine visual poetry, and with The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick undoubtedly confirms his status as a poet of American cinema.

First and foremost, in order to understand Malick’s intentions as a filmmaker, it is imperative that The Thin Red Line should not be seen as a narrative piece. Granted, a narrative exists, which revolves around the securing of Guadalcanal during the height of the Pacific front in World War II, and that narrative provides a skeletal structure of sorts. However, the strength of the film derives from the flesh, muscles and organs that envelop that skeleton. The Thin Red Line is an unmistakably visual film, and relies on its visuals to convey its themes and ideas. Ultimately, Malick’s unforgettable images and the relationships of those images through editing create an effect akin to poetry as opposed to prose. On the surface, the basic narrative structure of The Thin Red Line could have easily produced another pedestrian war film, but in the careful hands of Malick, it becomes a transcendental experience. Three important themes permeate throughThe Thin Red Line: Man’s destruction of himself, man’s destruction of nature, and a transcendent understanding or feeling. Few filmmakers have ever bordered on themes as profound and multifaceted as these, let alone all three in one film. However, Malick’s musings on the nature of the universe and man are effortlessly expressed with all of the cinematic tools at his dispense. The genius of Malick’s film is that it provides no certainties about its philosophical explorations.

Unlike many films that glorify the American side in World War II, The Thin Red Line does not favor one side over another, even though it presents the battle through the eyes of American soldiers. Nevertheless, almost no dialogue exists praising the American position, and if any dialogue fuels hate towards the Japanese, the film casts in an unfavorable light. Private Witt, played by an ethereal Jim Caviezel, is the film’s central conscience and the most evident vessel of Malick’s voice. As the nightmare surrounding him grows darker, Witt ponders, “War don’t ennoble men. It turns them into dogs…poisons the soul.” The most evident climax of man’s self-destruction occurs when the American soldiers raid and destroy a nearby Japanese village on Guadalcanal. As cinematographer John Toll’s camera follows the American soldiers ravaging everything in sight, it equally depicts the anguish of the Japanese prisoners. Magnifying this is Hans Zimmer’s score, which builds to a majestic crescendo, suggesting not American triumph, but rather mankind’s failure to coexist. This theme of self-destruction strongly connects with the saying that there are no victors in war, only victims.

Following a portending opening shot of a crocodile submerging into a lagoon, Malick begins his film in paradise. Private Witt has gone AWOL, and now lives with the peaceful habitants of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. It is an Eden of sorts, and the harmonious prologue serves to portray not only nature’s innate peacefulness, but also to serve as a sharp contrast to the horrors that follow. Because of his experiences as a soldier, Witt recognizes that man’s actions in war are not only adverse to himself, but also to nature, and concludes that the continuation of this violence will only allow paradise to slip away from man’s fingers. Again, Malick expresses man’s destruction of nature not only through interior monologue, but also through his breathtaking visuals, the most poignant of which depicts a leaf that has several holes chewed through by caterpillars. It has a perfect symbolic meaning, as if the holes originated not from caterpillars, but from bullets. Though the shot is only in the film for a few seconds, its context is intercut as a young soldier lies dying in another’s arms. The further man destroys nature, the more he distances himself from it.

Though Witt’s heaven is visually evident in the context of the secluded island, his true paradise exists metaphysically. No matter where he looks, Witt finds the grace, beauty, and glory in all things, even death. For instance, there is a moving scene where a soldier dies shamefully, having accidentally pulled the pin to his own grenade. As he helplessly fades away, Witt watches with calm, even reverence. In Witt’s eyes, death is not an end, but rather a state of transcendence. Countless films have attempted to visually embody the idea of life beyond death, yet none have reached a completely effective depiction. The genius of Malick’s interpretation is that he only alludes to the unknowable, never explicitly revealing anything, nor turning to religion for answers, and in the process creates a sensation of peace. Just like all humans, Witt cannot be sure of what lies beyond, or even if anything exists. Early in the film, he wonders why his mother welcomed death with open arms. “I wondered how it’d be like when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality I hadn’t seen.” When the time comes, death should not be feared; it should be embraced.

Tying all of these themes together is the film’s final image: a germinated coconut, alone in the surrounding monochromatic atoll. Despite the chaos and horrors that came before, Malick finds hope in mankind, perseverance in nature, and transcendence in life and death. Cinematic poetry if ever it existed.


~ by romancinema on March 31, 2011.

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