Two men are sitting in a dimly lit room aboard a troopship. One of the men is 1st Sergeant Edward Welsh. Welsh eyes tell the story of a man with the experience of combat that extends far beyond any battlefield with rifles and grenades. They tell the story of a man that has been pushed to his mental and emotional limits. Sitting across from him is Private Robert Witt, who is being detained for going AWOL. His eyes are that of a certain euphoric melancholy; a look of the same earnestness as Welsh’s; an old soul within a young man’s body.
Welsh looks at Witt with a mixture of mild hostility and noticeable intrigue. “In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one,” says Welsh as he leans forward with assertive certainty. Witt with look of haunted innocence, accompanied by unquestionable conviction, replies back with, “You’re wrong there, Top. I’ve seen another world.” Such a scene may easily sum up Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a film released in 1998 by the enigmatic director after 20 years of self-imposed exile from Hollywood. This scene is here to illustrate the eternal battle of man. The fierce moral competition of the spiritual side of humanity and its natural side. Both of these components strike at the heart of the film’s questions about man and his environment, and where humanity stands in this world and in the greater universe.
Malick began using unconventional techniques to drive a narrative starting in 1973 with Badlands. He contained to break conventions of cinema with Days Of Heaven in 1978. His fusion of interior monologue with beautiful images of nature was a cemented trademark that he maintains in The Thin Red Line. Such subversive techniques that he first teased audiences with in Badlands was further utilized in Days Of Heaven, and by the time The Thin Red Line was made, Malick had managed to subvert a tired and archaic genre: the war film. In traditional Hollywood war films—especially those centered World War II—the battles draw a clear distinction between who is good and who is evil. In the fictionalized world that is created by Tinsel Town, caricatures replace character in the role of the soldier; patriotic fervor takes the place of the greater moral questions; and loud explosions eclipse the idea of questioning how man is driven to violence.
Since this is a war film, there is the obvious subject of how the film deals with its battle sequences. In order to discuss this, I will compare and contrast the battle scenes in this film with another war film that came out the same year: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I would make the argument that the battle scenes and horror of war are captured far more intensely in The Thin Red Line than in Saving Private Ryan. In Ryan, the film’s look already sets up what is to be expected in a war film. The desaturated colors, along with a shaky camera almost give an almost open invitation to violence. In The Thin Red Line, however, the scenes are shot on a Steadicam and the scenic beauty of palm trees and animals takes over the frame before the battle begins. When the fighting starts, the serine beauty is ravaged and destroyed by the willingness of man to destroy not just himself, but the world around him. Malick does not use the shaky cam achieve the gritty and raw feel of war; rather, he chooses to allow the camera to glide through the explosions and the gunfire to allow us as the viewers to serve, with omnipotent presence, humanity ripping itself apart.
In Ryan, one of the scenes that always bothered me was a quick cut to a soldier on Omaha beach. The soldier is on the ground holding his disemboweled organs screaming for his Mother. I found this to be a cheap ploy to sharply manipulate the audience with a lesson in the overwhelming barbarism that is seen on the battlefield. Malick does manage to show the repugnant terror by not so much turning into a bloodbath, but, instead, chooses to hold back on the graphic nature of wounds and torn body parts. One of the most extraordinary and profound pieces of the film is during the battles, Malick cuts away to wounded birds and bugs crawling away. Its purpose is to illustrate that while man destroys itself through war, nature continues on.
One of the other aspects of this film that makes it so special is the use of interior monologues. During his downtime after a battle, a soldier thinks about getting back home to his wife. In a voice over, he says, “I wanna stay changeless for you. I wanna come back to you the man I was before.” He talks to her as if she is a fleeting memory that he is trying desperately to hold onto. There are images ofhis wife sleeping in a fetal position with a gentle blue light shining on her as if she is the embodiment of an angel; shots of her walking up to a beach and looking at the ocean, and an amazing shot of her on a swing in slow motion as if she is the personification of innocence; she serves as an amazing juxtaposition to the barracks getting bombed and destroyed. “Who lit this flame in us?” the soldier asks, “No war can put it out. Conquer it. Where does it come from?” He asks this question as a poet would of their inner turmoil that causes them to write about the world. That is what Malick set out to do with this film. He did not direct a film that is meant to give you answers, but, rather, questions. Questions that cannot be easily solved by preachers, scholars, politicians, or generals.
In the end, one may ask the question: Did Terrence Malick make a film that gears more towards optimism or cynicism? If I may, I would like to indulge myself with an answer to such a question. To me, Malick is showing us the brutality of war and how it destroys the natural world and one may view that as a cynical view. However, Malick manages to show the audience the beauty of the world and of human nature even during bits of its most violent forms. His last shot of the film is that of a small plant that is growing out of the sea. The purpose of this shot is to show the viewer that there is hope in the world; there is the chance of growing beyond barbarism and taking part in the formation of a better world.
By Matt Sheridan (Matt is on Facebook.)