To celebrate the debut of Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning film, The Tree of Life, Cinémezzo, with the help of some guest contributors, is taking a look back at his four features Badlands; Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; and The New World, all of which contain in their sounds and images the ebb and flow of life and time.
Of all the great many qualities offered by the cinema, one that I hold in the highest regard is consolation. Cinema is inherently consoling; in most any film we can recognize something that offers us some sort of affirmation, even in the most modest of ways. Some films excel in this particular area, and I would apply that acclamation to each of the films by Terrence Malick. Most fervently, I would apply this to The Thin Red Line, which, in the most profound of contexts offered by Malick films, reconciles life with death. The context is the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal between Allied forces and Japan. Perhaps, most strikingly, The Thin Red Line is not necessarily an anti-war film, or at least not in a traditional sense. Many American war films naively set out to be “anti-war”, but any film that somehow wears victory on its’ sleeve is anything but. Saving Private Ryan, which acts as case and point for this (as well as for the argument that Steven Spielberg does not have the necessary moral capacity to handle material with so much at stake). Showing the “horrors of war” does very little in conjunction with the not-so-subtle glorification of striving against the “other” (Spielberg himself deserves credit for subverting this in War of the Worlds, a film far superior to SPR). Malick’s masterpiece has a different ambition, and one far less obvious and simple. The Thin Red Line uses war as a forum in which to discuss the very nature of life and death, and the inherent beauty and cruelty in nature itself.
Famously, The Thin Red Line was Malick’s first film in over 20 years after creating a film as close to perfect as is allowed in the art form, Days of Heaven. One can forgive such a gap between films, when each is a monumental achievement of the medium. The scenarios differ between these, and each of his films, but the same broad philosophical themes underlie each image. Picking favourites is a little arbitrary, but for me the most significant catharsis lies in The Thin Red Line, which through myriad subjective perspectives creates a complex tapestry of ideas and outlooks, which are contrasted with the omniscient presence of Malick’s images, creating a beautiful synthesis, through which we are able, without sacrificing investment in the individual, to perceive a larger picture. A perspective in which the thin line between life and death becomes so blurred that like Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), we may be able to smile at the passing of a life, recognizing the “glory” of living that is behind it. Malick recognizes that beauty is interrupted but constant. In a startlingly wonderful image, we see dying leaves, with the sun shining through their many holes: life and death reconciled with the same beauty.
The Thin Red Line is not so much a war film as it is an allegory about nature, something which war is very much a part of, and as Malick shows us, is something that simply occurs, in spite of the moral component of humanity. Much of the film is devoted to exploring the struggle between this natural evilness and moral human consciousness. There are soldiers who seem less burdened by the existential merit of what they are a part of, like one man who steals from the dead, and asks “What are you to me?” Later, however, he is seen in emotional turmoil, discarding the stolen goods. Morality is just as difficult to shake off as violence, both essential to the spectrum of humanness. But perhaps where there is beauty, there can be naught else. Malick frequently juxtaposes the horrors of war with images of natural beauty that surround it. As the soldiers violently ascend a hill, a sequence that acts as the centerpiece to the film, a beautiful blanket of sunshine spreads over the grass. This struggle manifests itself everywhere in the film.
Even if Malick sees this struggle as inherent, beauty needing cruelty just like life needs death, it does not mean he refuses to pick sides. If such beauty exists than life should be lived in accordance to it, rather than the opposite. He expresses this through the relationship between Pvt. Witt and Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) who philosophically find themselves on opposite sides. Witt is able to recognize a beauty to which Welsh is blind. He can understand his smallness amidst something larger, and can therefore be at peace with the passing of life around him, which is simply a part of a greater whole. While there is a spiritual component to Witt’s character, the film itself does not simply argue for the existence of God in order to justify suffering. Malick may sometimes be somewhat synchronized with one of his characters, but there is always a divide between them. This allows Malick to never simply enforce one perspective on the viewer (even when Malick only has one narrator, they still only offer a small portion of the film’s overall perspective, like with Linda in Days of Heaven), part of what makes the film so effective. The viewer always has a level of intellectual and emotional interactivity with the film. Malick does not express philosophical thought in the ways one would associate with literature, but through a transcendental form, in which one is free to explore, with thought bound to feeling.
The experience of the film allows us to elliptically drift from point of view to point of view, rather than continuing along a single thread, something that wouldn’t be possible with a proper narrative. Much has been said about the hours of footage that Malick shot, and the supposed existence of a 5-hour cut of the film, which apparently focuses more deeply on characters who only have abbreviated presences within the final cut, and characters that were axed from it altogether. This has lead to accusations of messiness in the film, and there are many out there who still dream of seeing the longer version. However, this is precisely the technique on which the power of the film is founded. Malick, who wrote a beastly script based on James Jones’ novel, deletes the narrative elements from the film, placing all emphasis on the visceral experience and the poetry of sound and image.
Without this style we would be without one of the high moments in movies, when Pvt. Witt comes face to face with his fate, and accepts it. The viewer needs to be free from the confines of a narrative in order to engage solely on an ecstatic level. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, Witt contemplates, and then draws his weapon, knowing he will be shot and killed. Immediately, Malick cuts to a shot of plants and trees in the forest and then to Witt swimming in the ocean. It is in this sequence that I find a profound cathartic power. Death is not an ending, but a moment amidst living, which will always persist.
The conflict of the film is metaphorically conveyed in a sequence not long after the soldiers land on Guadalcanal. The soldiers hike past the shore, a forest, hills, eventually coming across a field of tall grass that encompasses them. Here they find a dismembered soldier. This is the film: man journeys deep into nature and must confront what he truly is and what he is a part of. The Thin Red Line shares with us different ways individuals react to this confrontation. Some may only see horror and death amidst the tall grass, but Terrence Malick asks us to look closer.