The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick | 2hr 50min

Violent imagery does not always go hand in hand with the stream-of-consciousness editing and lyrical, whispered voiceovers we associate with Terrence Malick, but it is exactly upon this jarring contrast which The Thin Red Line hinges its condemnation of war as an ugly stain on the natural world. To call it an aberration wouldn’t quite be correct though. This brutality is just as much in humans as it is in the wild plants and creatures of the South Pacific islands where Private Witt and his Infantry Division have been stationed. When his superior, Captain Staros, is relieved from duty following a refusal of orders to lead men into a suicide mission, the gruff Lieutenant Commander Tall reprimands him, comparing his own unforgiving ideology to their lush, untamed environment.

“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”

But this is no Werner Herzog film, cowering beneath the monstrous overgrowth of rainforests and gazing with terror at churning, brown rapids. Malick’s reverent adoration of nature is the driving power behind his extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, and it is consistently evident that his style of shooting is far from perfectionistic. His camera remains largely improvisational as he captures natural light softly diffused across oceans and rolling, grassy fields, letting the beauty of his locations emerge organically and capturing those special moments whenever they choose to arise.

It goes without saying that any of Malick’s finest films are landmarks of natural lighting, but it is worth pointing out here just how beautifully it diffuses across oceans and hillsides.

With an abundance of coverage to draw from and a script that relies heavily on voiceover, Malick grants himself the freedom to play with the rhythms of his editing, stringing together images through long dissolves, montages, and cutaways that provoke a deep sensitivity to the film’s poetic musings. The nourishing beauty of the natural scenery gracefully arises in a small trickle of water in a stream, a breeze rippling through a cluster of leaves, and owls, bats, and lizards passing glances at our characters marching by, but Malick also spares the time for a baby bird crawling from its egg, badly wounded from the war unfolding around it. It is one thing to shoot the desolate destruction of an entire village, with the verdant greens of the landscape being washed out by the grey smoke hanging in the air, but his eyes rarely wander from the tiny devastations of the environment for too long, echoing the trauma of humanity’s ruthless conquest across macro and micro representations of life. In the thick of battle, Malick’s editing moves far more briskly, following in the school of Sergei Eisenstein with some shots last a mere couple of frames, and yet the way his camera glides also imbues the visual style with an elegance that can never quite be wiped out by even the most ruthless displays of cruelty.

Desolation wreaked across these villages, smoke filling the air in these heartbreaking images.
Malick employs cutaways with symbolic care, referring to these tiny creatures as representations of innocent witnesses and victims.

Most significantly, it is the recurring low angle regarding the light filtering through the dark imprints of forest canopies which sets up a stunning symbolic conflict between nature, signified by trees, and grace, as represented by the gentle sunrays. This motif reverberates all through the film, as even when days come to an end, Malick still emphasises the presence of a moon shining down upon the soldiers like a constant blessing. Immediately after the death of one young man, we cut away to three large, decaying leaves hanging from a branch, perforated with tiny holes through which the sunlight strains, framed as if we are glimpsing the heavens to which his soul is heading. With such incredibly impressionistic imagery opening us up to Malick’s contemplations, the film develops into a delicate meditation, drifting between sincere sentiments led by his own transcendental wonder.

Jaw-dropping photography also becomes a robust formal motif here, weaving these shots of sunlight and trees all through the film.

These affecting expressions of spirituality are similarly integral to the narrative’s grounding in Christian archetypes, threaded through the depiction of Guadalcanal, the island Witt has run away to, as an Eden-like paradise. In this small, idyllic corner of the Pacific untouched by war, there is no pain or suffering to be found, and Malick’s camera relishes diving beneath the ocean waves to watch the children play and the sunlight refracting through its surface. The next time Witt returns to this island, the dynamic has shifted drastically. With the introduction of human conflict, there is little peace to be found in the day-to-day interactions between locals, who now turn against each other and eye off Witt like an unwelcome stranger. Sin has crept into this paradise, and with this seal broken, there is no turning back.

War represented here quite literally as a stain on the environment, with half the hillside drained of its colour.

Malick’s allegory is built out further in the reflective voiceovers of his ensemble, passing through characters like a shared prayer for answers, wrestling with their own purpose and conflicted ideals. If war is a process of spiritual corruption, then there must be some source through which it infects the minds of the innocent, and from there it is only a short leap to draw parallels to the Christian concept of original sin.

“This great evil, where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What sees, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

Almost as if in direct response to Witt’s ruminations, Malick cuts to Private Dale taking sadistic pleasure in the slow torture and murder of a Japanese soldier.

“I’m going to sink my teeth into your liver.”

Meanwhile, Private Bell dreams of his wife back home, and just as Witt ponders the origins of sin, so too does he carry similar introspections.

“Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.”

None of these deliberations have straightforward answers, but it is very much evident that there is something inherent in humans giving birth to both the best and worst of everything they face. If the earth is nature and the heavens are grace, then to Malick, we are caught in between, presented with a moral struggle. The justification felt by the men of The Thin Red Line in taking the lives of others amounts to little in the face of this divine reckoning, as in one almost surreal sequence that sees Witt discover the half-buried face of a fallen Japanese soldier, a new voiceover is born, belonging to the deceased.

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you lived goodness? Truth?”

Deeply spiritual yet melancholy imagery, as Malick gives voice to the deceased speaking from the other side.

As Witt wanders a burning village of Japanese men and women being rounded up and dehumanised, the sound design fades away to be replaced by the horns of Hans Zimmer’s swelling, sombre score, ringing through the air like a mournful eulogy for the countless lives lost at the hands of fellow humans. For some, like Sergeant Welsh, it is simple enough to reason one’s involvement in this carnage. The shrewd pessimism that Sean Penn carries as the voice of despair is set up well against Jim Caviezel’s gentle, softspoken Witt, whose blue eyes do not so much pierce the camera as they inspire a sense of wonder, constantly looking just past the lens is if awed by something we cannot see or comprehend.

A strong performance from Sean Penn, setting his character up as the voice of despair whose heart may be swayed.

In Witt’s early recollections of his mother’s peaceful manner in her final days of life, he likens her graceful exit to a form of immortality he longs to discover, and it is this which motivates him all through The Thin Red Line to uncover whatever secret provides this key to this “calm”. Whether it is through the connection he feels to the natural world, or his selfless sacrifice which lets others live on in his place, we can see in the last few seconds that awed expression once again pass over his face, not unlike the mystical lights caught in Marie Falconetti’s eyes in The Passion of Joan of Arc. That calm has arrived, and along with it comes the motif of heavenly sunlight through trees, as well as a fleeting return to Guadalcanal where Witt now swims in the water with the children.

Jim Caviezel’s awed gaze – simply haunting.
Malick’s camera is organic and intuitive, letting his actors play in the waves while he sits just below and watches them in these stunning shots.

Immortality manifests metaphorically in this imagery, but it is also present in his legacy, as we see something change in Welsh upon the sacrifice of his comrade. Having witnessed true selflessness, the constraints, malice, and lies of the military are more apparent to him now. With a single sacrifice changing the hearts and minds of the living, Malick frames Witt as Christ-like figure, and he conclusively reveals the primary advantage that spiritual grace holds over the ruthless carnage of the natural world. Just as the sunlight will persist long after the forest trees have rotted away, there is an eternality to humanity’s selfless compassion and sacrifice within The Thin Red Line, persisting long after our violent quests for total domination have faded into the depths of history.

Few people shoot natural scenery like Malick, whether his camera is up close focusing on tiny details, or basking in these picturesque establishing shots.

The Thin Red Line is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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