Criterion Files #536: Ruminations on Nature and Happenstance in ‘The Thin Red Line’

By  · Published on May 18th, 2011

In anticipation of Terrence Malick’s much-buzzed and much-argued-about Tree of Life, Adam and Landon are doing a two-part series on Malick’s films in the Criterion Collection. Part 1 – The Thin Red Line.

The Thin Red Line (1998) is a film that accomplished many things. Least of which is the fact that, as the film was released twenty years after his previous completed work Days of Heaven, it established Terrence Malick as still a working filmmaker. While Malick had developed and abandoned several projects in the two decades that straddled his second and third feature films, the notoriously private director temporarily retired to France and workshopped a variety of screenplays and stage plays that, for one reason or another, never manifested. Though Malick’s sparse filmography hardly grants him a persona of being a prolific artist, his twenty-year filmmaking “hiatus” was never a hiatus at all, but was instead brimming with activity for potential projects.

The Thin Red Line, then, should be thought of not as a decided return to filmmaking which assumes that the film is either a project twenty years in the making or the only thing he came across in twenty years worth making (as an academic who almost completed his doctorate and as a working journalist before becoming a filmmaker, part of the mystery surrounding the very private Malick is that filmmaking is simply one of several trades that define him – he’s like a far less public James Franco). The Thin Red Line may be more accurately considered the work that just so happened to realize completion, as the practice of making movies is dependent upon so many factors outside even the maddeningly selective auteur’s own attachment to a particular subject.

That The Thin Red Line made it to screen in 1998 is an act of artistic determination but should also be considered the plain-and-simple result of intersecting events (rather than, say, a brilliant artist’s holy return) – like any film, The Thin Red Line is more an act of happenstance than one of inevitability, and the circumstantial existence of The Thin Red Line echoes themes explored in the film itself.

“I want to stay changeless for you.”

In The Thin Red Line, characteristics of Malick’s authorial style are recognizably connected to his 1970s work, notably his unique use of voice-over narration. His 70s work made interesting use of the unreliable narrator: a naïve yet strangely perceptive teenage girl giving an “innocent” (maybe insanely so) take on the horrors she witnesses in Badlands (1971), and another young female narrator narrating Days of Heaven despite not being present for many of the film’s actual events.

The Thin Red Line works somewhat as an inverse of these previous works, with an ensemble narration performed only by men. The narration itself, however, is no less “unreliable,” for these differing perspectives are often displayed in direct opposition to the lustrous composition of images we see. The line reproduced below exemplifies, spoken either by Dash Mihok’s Pfc. Doll or Jim Caviezel’s Pvt. Witt (as voice-over in Malick’s films rarely have direct correspondence with the images of who we see , it’s often difficult to tell who from the ensemble is speaking), a plurality of perspectives always provide a variety of meanings, even in response to the same events.

“One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain…Another man looks at the same bird, feels the glory.”

Though the bodies and voices of men are what we primarily see and hear, Malick’s war is not one that only involves or concerns the lives of men. “Nature” is also a player, and one that man is hardly exclusive from. To speak of animals and nature, for Malick, is to include the lives of men. In a recent video essay, Matt Zoller Seitz states that The Thin Red Line is not a decidedly political “anti-war film,” but is, in terms of genre, an “anti war-film” in that it is the antithesis of what we have come to accept from cinema about war.

This difference was starkly realized in its same-year release and simultaneous competition for awards alongside the far more popular and more conventional Saving Private Ryan. Unlike Spielberg’s film, Malick’s war doesn’t frame the past through the convenience of the present, but puts us into the moment through a lyricism that connects these events poetically to nature (in contrast to Saving Private Ryan’s stylized realism). While The Thin Red Line is also an” anti-war-film” in the apolitical sense, it is also an environmentalist war film in a similarly apolitical sense.

“Look at this jungle. Look at the way the vines have twined around everything. Nature is cruel, Staros.”

In The Thin Red Line, the events of the war and the environment in which these events take place are one in the same. This is established in the film’s striking opening shot of an alligator submerging itself into a swamp. Throughout the Battle of Guadalcanal and the events which occur before and after, Malick and John Toll’s lens lends itself liberally to the men’s interaction with the natural: a dying hatchling bird, a snake roaming through the tall grass, an owl who surveys the events, vultures who circle the Japanese prisoners, etc. The natural, of course, is hardly exclusive to what we typically think of as living beings, for the landscape of this war is also occupied and determined by swaying grass, protruding rocks, palm trees, and rivers that can bring peace and treachery in equal measure. All the elements of the earth are a character in The Thin Red Line, but the humans are the only ones who speak a language we can understand. And even then, language accomplishes only a fraction of what these men are attempting to express.

“I guess we’ll never know the big picture…if there is such a thing.”

Everything is interconnected, but not in a way that implies destiny. Man and animal and soil interact and change one another, but in a way that implies any interaction and any change could have taken place. Malick’s war is neither one of chaos nor causality, but one of happenstance and circumstance. It is in this way that Malick’s films are spiritual, but not religious. The rays of light that constantly penetrate the trees imply a God who sees but not a God who controls. The film’s ensemble structure, then, gives audiences this interpretation of God as the ability to see everything, but only as an accumulation of details rather than an omnipresent whole.

The multiple narrators thus function as an interaction between subjectivities. Dreams and memories occupy the landscape of Malick’s war just as the physical presence of all nature’s elements do, and the switch between narrators manifests this interpretation of war as if the camera itself is moving in and out of the soldiers’ heads.

“Only one thing a man can do: find something that’s his, make an island for himself.”

Except the head is not what concerns Malick, but the immaterial connective thread between the elements of the earth that can only be crudely understood (through the inherent futility of language) as the “souls” of individuals. God is not an extraterrestrial being for Malick, but is in the interaction between souls on Earth. Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welsh is woefully mistaken when he asserts that man can and should be an island, for man is always interacting with, subject to, and defined by the surrounding elements through happenstance. There is no such thing as isolation, because the meeting of souls is inevitable. War, then, isn’t Hell, but a way to see Heaven on Earth.

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