Malick: The Thin Red Line (1998)
Along with Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line marked a return to WWII after Vietnam had dominated war cinema for the past two decades. It also marked Malick’s return after twenty years of silence, ushering in the steady escalation of releases that forms the second period in his body of work. His script is an adaptation of James Jones’ novel of the same name, which focuses on a group of American soldiers involved in the Battle of Mount Austen, as part of the Gaudalcanal campaign in the Pacific theatre. However, Malick quickly abstracts his film beyond this historically specific moment, using Jones’ characters and set pieces as the platform for more brooding ruminations on the nature of time, love and the opacity of God.
We see this more meditative streak immediately, in the opening shot of an alligator raising its eyes just above the surface of a stream. With this image, Malick paves the way for a film that is continually trying to see things from the perspective of the natural world, in order to discern a divine plan behind the carnage and bloodshed of war. Accordingly, the film also opens with a series of probing questions that draw on the more existential moments of the Old Testament, especially Ecclesiastes: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea?” Right from the outset, war is a cosmic encounter, a way of accessing the divine (or the void), meaning that all of these questions are, ultimately, aimed at God, whoever he may be: “Who are you that takes so many forms?”
This philosophical yearning is paired with a freewheeling Steadicam approach that ushers in Malick’s second period style, which he formulates by way of a brief prologue that introduces Robert E. Lee (Jim Cavaziel), an American soldier who has gone AWOL and is now living happily amongst the Melanesian peoples of an island somewhere in the vicinity of Guadalcanal. In these scenes, Malick identifies his camera with the cosmic curve of the earth, which he anchors in sweeping shots of the ocean surface from below. From there, we move to smoke drifting, wind blowing and Lee imagining his last breath, until Malick seems to be seeking out the breath of God, the breath of the universe, so that his camera can inhale and exhale it too.
That all makes for a remarkably tactile apprehension of the cosmos, and of the ocean in particular, that contrasts starkly with the start of the film proper. In stark contrast to this gossamer-like liquidity, Malick cuts to an American transport ship as it carves a geometric line through the water, which it reduces to just another antagonist on the way to the Japanese front. This contrast is all the more noticeable in that this ship has also picked up Lee, who is disciplined for absconding, and has to rein himself in to a more Americanised vision of nature – a vision that is directly opposed to the Melaniesian ambience with which the movie begins.
At this point, the action expands out to encompass all the other soldiers on the boat, as they make their way towards Guadalcanal, although it’s an unusual kind of expansion. While Malick introduces an enormous ensemble cast that only grows further throughout the film, each man is bound up in their own singular struggle, buried deep in their own masculine drama of self-reckoning. The war is inextricably bound up with the most irreducible parts of their subjectivities, meaning they retreat further into themselves, and in some sense become more themselves, as the landing approaches. This landing, and the battle to follow, becomes a sublime horizon here, a figure for a cosmic imbalance that cannot be resolved by mere camaraderie, shared ideology or collective intelligence. Instead, the men simply have to wait for the island to meet them, greeting it with a prayer as they make the last few miles to shore.
Once they arrive, they’re presented with a single imperative – make their way across the beach, through the forest, and up the tallest mountain, where the Japanese have mounted a series of sniper stations. For most of the approach, then, there’s no discrete enemy, just an escalating immersion in a landscape. We traverse the entire spectrum of the island without encountering any real conflict, meaning the island feels totally continuous with the ocean, and even intensifies the ocean, becoming more liquid as we move through it. Malick shifts from circumambient shots of forest trees, which seem to have settled at the bottom of a great ocean, to blue-green grasslands that quiver with the sensitivity of a second sea. Both of these landscapes split the difference between terrestrial and aquatic, plunging the soldiers into a similarly mercurial state of mind that fuses the war with their own psychological projections.
To that end, Malick eschews almost all dialogue apart from formal military communication, much of which occurs by gestures and sign language anyhow, or else takes place remotely, through the long telephone cables that the men lay down as they climb the mountain. Most of the screenplay is driven by spiritual monologues that shift the questions of the opening scenes into an even more existential register: “This great evil, where’d it come from? How’d it steal into the world?” Each of the characters sinks deeper into their own private struggle, and yet none of them ever feels quite discrete as characters either. Instead, they present as parts of a single mind, a single plan, caught in the sublime inscrutability of a cosmic will that they can feel but not fathom. Malick yearns for a rhythm, a flow, a cosmic harmony that can’t be achieved in just body, which explains why so many bodies here are reduced to part objects – people exchanging gazes and gestures, reaching their hands out inchoately to one another.
These hands are the defining image of the film, reflecting the dexterity with which Malick himself tries to capture the cosmic texture of the universe. Yet they never quite signify a capacity for direct individual or cultural unity. Instead, they occur when the soldiers glimpse they’re all part of a single pattern, however distantly it may unify them. Rather than reaching out to each other, or to the indigenous Melanesian peoples, the soldiers tend to reach through each other, grasping for a cosmic metonymy that resonates most with strangers, at moments of maximal interpersonal difference. In place of conventional camaraderie, Malick thus presents a haptic collectivity that suffuses, but is not specific to, the attack on Guadalcanal. While there is a vast ensemble of famous actors here, it’s spread very thin, with most only making the briefest of appearances. Well-known actors emerge and recede, flit in and out of the grass, like figments of each others’ imaginations, star images as ghostly echo.
In one way or another, all the soldiers treat their movement from beach to forest to hills as an extension of this hand-reaching, a way of clambering their way up through the cosmos. Much of this trajectory is spent on hands and knees, reiterating how rare it is for a war film to also be an ascent narrative. The palette is also unusual for the genre, consisting largely of green, thousands of shades of green, evoking an endless fecundity that never succumbs to the conflict playing out around it. Even on the cusp of the Japanese snipers, there is no immediate sense of horror, just a sea of idyllic greenery that encourages the soldiers to strike proportionate poses, reclining upon grasses and ferns as the oceanic winds flow across them.
When the soldiers do encounter Japanese fire for the first time, it’s in the midst of a vast grassland that absorbs the violence as quickly as it occurs, while also sequestering each man in their own private theatre of war. The vegetation swallows the wounded immediately, flecks of blood are subsumed back into the green palette, and Malick offsets the conflict with snakes, birds and insects continuing life as usual. Rather than rupturing the landscape, the brief battle intensifies the mountain as a single liquid trajectory, not unlike that of Apocalypse Now, except that the Nung River has now been abstracted into the totality of nature. Likewise, Malick’s prologue, and spiritual monologues, draw so heavily on Kurtz’s existential interiority that they seem to be providing us with the conclusion that Coppola couldn’t quite conceptualise. In part, that’s because they displace any climactic or cathartic conclusion, dissolving the mountain into a standing wave that the soldiers have to chase before it crests.
The only time they encounter a recognisable war terrain, a few clicks up the mountain, their sergeant holds them back, waiting for the cosmic field to resolve itself, which it finally does, five minutes later, when the same greenery emerges from a sea of smoke. Upon continuing, they reach the purest and greenest peak so far, collapsing the terrain into another tier of liquidity, signalled by a flashback to one of the soldiers dancing with his wife in arabesque combinations until she wraps herself with a wet shawl and folds herself into the surface of the ocean. When Malick cuts back to the mountain, the soldiers have entered the deepest emerald forest so far, as if each new stage in their ascent also immerses them further in the ocean they have left behind, fusing solid and liquid in a transcendental singularity of nature.
Within that cosmic flux, the Japanese soldiers are neither demonised nor humanised, since we hardly see them outside of their sniper bunkers. Even when Malick cuts to these bunkers, he doesn’t depict actual Japanese soldiers, but adopts their point of view from the gun windows, which become ciphers for divine omniscience, at once panoptic and opaque in their orchestration of the existential war unfolding below. Similarly, when the soldiers finally reach these bunkers, they don’t set themselves against the Japanese inside, but against the brute concrete fact of the bunkers themselves. Shot from below, amongst the barren trees of the surrounding slopes, and after such a vast sea of grass, these bunkers emerge as a modern Golgotha, and exude the mystic materiality of the cross, the concrete supernaturalism of relics housed in churches, turning the soldiers’ mission into a pilgrimage, a theodicy, a prayer.
In that sense, the bunkers play a similar role to the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, forming a horizon to what can be represented about a divine presence that includes warfare as part of its plan. They become one with all the stones, rocks and structures in the Bible that set human will against divine will, from the tablets of the Ten Commandments to the rock upon which Christ builds his church. Malick’s Christianity is thus a rock qua bunker, a concrete opacity that film can evoke, depict and even adumbrate, but never understand. Later in the film, Sergeant Edward Welsh, played by Sean Penn, insists that there’s only this world, “this rock,” while Lee disagrees, insisting there is another world beyond this one. In a way, the film adopts both perspectives, fixating on the divine presence within rocks, within the most concrete parts of our world, including film itself, which becomes another part of the pantheistic immanence that it evokes, until it’s enacting more than depicting Malick’s divine.
Only at the very peak of the mountain does the film start to shift into regular warfare but by this stage the existential interiority has robbed the action of any political significance. While Americans, Japanese and Melanesians clash, they quickly move away from any overt or direct conflict, as this climactic moment disperses into a more circumambient collectivity. Everyone is looking inwards and upwards, fighting their own private war with the divine but gazing aloft for revelation too. Americans fire impotently at palm fronds, Japanese embrace and deflate gunfire, and Melanesians look on and laugh like they’re privy to a great cosmic joke. All of these deflective gestures offset the frontal combat and redirect it into a centrigual flow of dust, wind and gunfire that takes all the fighters to the very apex of the mountain, where there is nowhere to look but up, and nothing left to do but await a precarious transcendence.
In this surreal sequence, all the men seem to manifest the divine at its most terrifying and transcendent, effectively exhausting the film as the tight trajectory of the ascent gives way to the more diffuse tone poem of the third act, which depicts the aftermath of the conflict. The propulsion of that ascent also exhausts the first period of Malick’s career, bringing the visions of Badlands and Days of Heaven to a close, and ushering in the late style that would bloom through The New World and The Tree of Life. To some extent, this is merely a matter of intensification, as Malick resorts to an even more dexterous liminal tactility to sustain this third act at the very cusp of the soldiers’ sensibilities, the proprioceptive thresholds where their sense of masculinity is most fragile and acute. But Malick also introduces a new focus on mid-century masculinity that will percolate through his later works, fusing the wind in the palms with the lip of drawing-room curtains back in America, where a soldier’s wife, played by Miranda Otto, swings upside down, seeming to encompass the whole world in her passage.
While I find some of Malick’s later films really hypnotic, I think this third act is the weakest part of The Thin Red Line. Since Malick hasn’t quite nailed his late period ambience, and still has the burden of a notional plotline, this last section feels incidental to the film as a whole, and more like a blueprint for the future. By the time Lee reaches his climax, he feels like an afterthought, a contrivance in a film that isn’t driven by the kind of individualism that would make a single death meaningful. At the same time, you start to see the limits of Malick’s worldview during this third act, as the spiritual monologues become more prominent and heavy-handed, and focus more obsessively on masculinity, fatherhood and patriarchy. We heat that “a family can only have one head and that’s the father,” that the head of a platoon is “the father – that makes you all the children in the family” and that “there’s only one thing a man can do – find something that’s his, make an island for himself.” Since many of the soldiers have Southern accents, and Cavaziel’s character is named after Robert E. Lee, you start to realise Malick’s freeform philosophising is grounded in a narrow version of what it means to be a man, indebted to Southern and mid-century conservatism in equal measure.
In other words, while The Thin Red Line is open philosophically, it’s narrow ideologically. It asks lots of questions, but at some level it is not prepared to question the world at all, adopting a pantheistic façade to conceal a profoundly insular worldview. For all Malick’s lyricism (or because of it), he grants more subjectivity to plants and animals than to non-American humans (or women), asking “universal” questions but from the mouthpieces of characters whose subjectivity and worldview are anything but universal. To some extent, the sheer beauty of his images stands apart, and yet the beauty is part of it too, since this is ultimately an exercise in reification – a sublime exercise, but an exercise nonetheless. Rather than engaging with American imperialism as a discrete historical factor here, Malick reifies it, turns it into a beautiful space outside capital, a mere part of the natural order, drowning any sense of military specificity in an everlasting cosmic conflict. In a very real way, the beauty is the conservatism, since for Malick, the American presence in the Pacific is nothing more than gorgeous shots of vines wrapping around trees, naturalised entirely from the opening scene.
Ravishing as it is, then, The Thin Red Line is often a close-minded film presenting itself as a questioning film, so self-serious that it would be silly were it not for the sheer brilliance of Malick’s craft. Time and again, I come back to his images, even though I feel they’re fruit of the poisoned tree, and even though to watch them is to participate in a worldview that’s profoundly antithetical to most of what I believe in and stand for. Yet that very tension makes The Thin Red Line, and Malick’s later body of work, more resonant for me than films I whole-heartedly align with or films I can easily reject – a dynamic experience, appropriate for a director whose dynamism infuses every frame, embodying the cosmos in continuous motion.
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