(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1998)
“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world?”
The world can be an ugly place. History, through account and through art, is full of stories of humankind’s misdeeds, wars upon the earth that have ravaged human, beast, and nature. In the face of such evil, many turn to faith, many to science, and still many lose any semblance of hope. Cinema through the years has found storytellers both bitter and hopeful grappling with the failings of religious, scientific, intellectual, or humanistic institutions, but most seem to turn a blind eye to one or the other. Many films are fun or entertaining, but make no room for the realities of pain and suffering. Many films are grim or cynical, but ignore the pockets of beauty to be found in the darkest corners of this life. Not so with the films of Terrence Malick. I can think of no other filmmaker who sees the world as Malick does. At once his films capture the senselessness of violence and widespread evil and the ethereal beauty bubbling under the surface of such seeming hopelessness. It’s a wondrously humane feature of all his works, but it’s perhaps on its fullest display in the director’s The Thin Red Line, his much-anticipated first film since Days of Heaven following a twenty-year hiatus.
If there was any disappointment following the release of Malick’s film (despite its several Oscar nominations), it stemmed from its eschewal of war film tropes epitomized in Spielberg’s (unjustly, yet unsurprisingly) far more welcomed Saving Private Ryan released the same year. The critical and movie-going communities saddled Spielberg’s film with the burden of being the war film to end all war films, leading the charge on a resuscitated genre into the new century, and The Thin Red Line became its loftier, less interesting companion piece. And, while a reappraisal of both films has since seen critics (finally) regard Malick’s as the superior film, this distinction is crucial in understanding what we’re watching with the filmmaker’s third feature. For though it is a war film in matters of genre, the typical action of war takes a backseat to the philosophical wanderings of its narrative voiceovers and its beautiful meditation on life and death. Each of Malick’s films touches on humankind’s propensity to violence (both Badlands and Days of Heaven chronicle the consequences of an aggressive male protagonist too quick to kill) but perhaps none more so than here. With its WWII-set backdrop, Red Line follows the exploits of one army company as they’re tasked with taking the island of Guadalcanal, a part of the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific, from the Japanese. Most of the action revolves around the specific mission of securing a strategic ridge for the U.S., and the sequence isn’t short on grisly, violent exchanges, but the bulk and heart of the film lies elsewhere.
The voiceover narration provided by the young, naïve characters in Badlands and Days of Heaven was a key feature of both films, but the multiple voiceover perspective of Red Line adds a whole new layer to Malick’s craft. As viewers, we’re fully immersed in the chaos and uncertainty plaguing the Charlie Company as we sporadically hear from several individuals as high ranking as colonel and as low as private. This window into the thoughts of these men torn by the ravages of war, but bound together as a makeshift family gives the film an affecting intimacy not seen in much of cinema. In these private, unspoken ruminations, Malick unearths the atrocities of war in a remarkably personal manner. Thus, when he opts for visualizing violence, it’s all the more tragic for we know the fears and silent terrors within each of these men. Malick holds nothing back in showing how war affects the body and mind. One sergeant (John Savage) nearly loses his own mind after watching each of his men picked off but he alone is spared, another officer (Matt Doran) verbally disparages a captured Japanese soldier as he tears out the deceased’s teeth only to later shutter at his own inhumanity, a soft-spoken captain (Elias Koteas) must choose between defying orders or sending his men to certain death, and another private (Ben Chaplin) fondly remembers his wife at home only to receive an unexpected and shattering Dear John letter near the end of his deployment. All the while, the Company’s 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) watches on in disbelief as the world tears itself apart. He has no more faith in humanity. No hope for the world.
“Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of; all faces are the same man.”
Then, amidst all this great personal tragedy Malick documents, there is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) at the film’s center. In juxtaposition to most of the other characters’ despair, Witt sees the world through different eyes. The film introduces us to him first – a soldier gone AWOL, evading his Company, and living amongst the Melanesian people on a remote island. There he seems to live in peace with this people group, untouched by the war, and he’s moved by the simplicity and placidity of their lifestyle. Malick shoots these early sequences with grace and thankfully without any condescension. There is no romanticism about the Melanesian way of life, only the promise of an existence devoid of widespread carnage. This paradise is lost too soon as Witt’s Company’s ship nears the island and brings him back on board. He’s lectured by the cynical Welsh and demoted to stretcher-bearer, but Witt takes with him that glistening wonder in his eye even as Malick forces him and us to the front lines.
Private Witt wears on his face an expression dissimilar to that of his fellow soldiers. We hear his thoughts frequently through his voiceover, and yet there’s a pleasant ambiguity surrounding his worldview. He too is troubled by the suffering wrought by this war, but he’ll just as soon gun down a Japanese soldier if a “brother” of his might be in harm’s way. And yet, he may be one of the fair few of his Company who sees the other as humans. After the troops take the ridge from the Japanese, Witt’s companions take turns harassing and berating the surrendered enemy, but Witt simply looks on with a calm understanding. He sees, but he also sees through. At one point he wonders whether all men share one soul, each an extension of another. This oneness is essential to Red Line’s philosophy – the age-old “if I hurt another, I only hurt myself” radiates from not only this film but also each of Malick’s works. Given the director’s Christian background, a vague pantheistic worldview is unlikely, but if Witt suggests an alternate version of Christianity, then it’s a refreshing, anti-fundamentalist strain that encompasses the whole earth.
For not only do Witt’s wonderings speak to a universal human spirit, but also to humankind’s relation to nature. Christianity never allows that human and nature are one and the same, nor do I think Malick’s work suggests as much (even at his most in touch with the environment in The New World). Instead, Red Line paints a beautiful portrait of what potential symbiosis could look like. From Badlands to To the Wonder, his camera has been unmistakably attuned to the world around him, and Red Line pushes the point even further. The very first shot of the film is of a crocodile slowly sliding into the water as Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score urgently swells. Later, during one of the film’s bloodiest scenes, Malick cuts to a sickly looking bird falling to its death. And then, in one of the film’s greatest sequences, the soldiers crawl through the tall grass as the camera snakes its way around them until the line between man and nature is nearly indistinct. The gorgeous camerawork by John Toll only serves to amplify the effect. Perhaps all this suggests that humans waging war upon other humans not only leads to the destruction of their own kind, but to the whole earth as well. Traditional, Middle Ages-influenced Christianity has taught us that we needn’t despair at the state of the world for one day Jesus Christ will come again to rescue us out of it. And yet, this escapist theology (that incidentally doesn’t actually square with Christian scripture) doesn’t provide the salvation for our troubled troops that we might expect. Instead, yet again, Malick reveals something profoundly different in the character of Private Witt.
“I’ve seen another world.”
Early on in Red Line, Sgt. Welsh confronts Witt after the private has just been discovered and apprehended by his Company. An exacerbated Welsh delivers his spiel on what will become his token pessimistic take on the fate of this world. Witt’s indifference to his superior’s doom-and-gloom and his own pervasive optimism annoy Welsh, and he seeks to procure a reason for this seemingly misplaced faith in goodness. Witt simply replies that he’s seen another world. Without much context this early in the film, we might share in Welsh’s casual dismal of this subordinate, “seeing” other imaginary worlds as a result of the effects of war. But, as the film moves along, it becomes clear that other world Witt sees is still our own. But, instead of seeing enemies, he sees brothers; instead of inhabitable wilderness, home; instead of only brokenness, the potential for good; instead of only suffering, the promise of healing; instead of ugliness, beauty. Yes, in this other world that Witt sees within our own, that Malick and Toll miraculously capture, is one of sheer beauty. He’s never blind to the pain, the injustice, but he never allows it to snuff out the light. Even as Witt loses his own life to the cruelty war, there’s a heart-wrenching promise of new life in the film’s final shot as a sole sprout springs from a fallen coconut on a deserted beach. Life always finds a way. This, then, is the greatest triumph of The Thin Red Line. It’s a profoundly spiritual film and also one of great humanist depth – a film that never shies away from depicting the destruction that humankind has wrought on this earth, and yet uncovers the hidden, radiant beauty that lies waiting everywhere for those who seek it.