Photo by Merie W. Wallace
The Thin Red Line opens with the image of a crocodile slithering into the water and closes with a still life of a newly sprouted coconut tree on an otherwise empty beach — two images of the primeval connected by a slender narrative thread on which writer-director Terrence Malick dangles his lofty, maddeningly innocent ideas about life and death and man’s gift for self-destruction. There’s a war movie in between these images too, with a sprawling cast of the famous and soon-to-be-famous and a multiple-voiced narration that hangs over the film like a shroud. Some of the voices are bracingly tough, honest, the voices of real men in horrifyingly real circumstances; most of the voices, though, sound like the aerated musings of a man who talks through characters whose heads are filled with sawdust rather than ideas. Most, in other words, sound just like Terrence Malick.
After 20 years of making like J.D. Salinger — now you worship him, now you don’t — Malick has returned to film with a cosmic war movie. Based, though just barely, on James Jones’ monumental blood-and-guts novel about the American assault on Guadalcanal during World War II, The Thin Red Line has arrived with all the weight, solemnity and great expectations of a modern masterpiece. It’s a wretched burden for anyone to assume, but it’s especially wretched for Malick, who has chosen to unburden himself in a year that has also seen the release of Steven Spielberg’s putative war-movie masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line is the more interesting movie — it’s better acted, better photographed and vastly more complex in its storytelling — but in comparison to Spielberg’s, it seems like a mess.
One of Spielberg’s great gifts is for reducing big ideas into packages so little they fit into your hand like a bag of popcorn; he has a genius for oversimplification. Malick has a thing for overkill. In his first film, Badlands (1973), a murderous-kids-on-the-run story inspired by Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend, that overkill made sense. The fugitive lovers are so emotionally flat, emptied out, that in every scene the very air around them seems to grow thicker with significance (and horror); it’s as if the physical world itself were reacting to them, asserting its grandeur, and gravity, in the face of quotidian evil. There’s a gap between the world and the killers, just as there is a gap between the beauty of the film and the ugliness of its story. That’s part of what makes Badlands such a knockout: On his very first try, Malick had learned how to tell a story as much through his visual imagery as through his words.
What also made the movie exciting — makes it exciting still — is the filmmaker’s chilling prescience about two kids whose moral consciousness was supplanted by an inarticulate self-consciousness about their own pop mythological standing. Five years later, untethered to anything beyond its own rhythms, that inarticulate self-consciousness would grow quickly tiresome. Ponderously beautiful, and laminated with a faux-naive voice-over, Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven (1978), is an epic without point or purpose. The story is artful and artless: At the turn of the century, three workers arrive at a Texas farm, latch on to its prosperous owner and destroy him. The three are at once poor and ignorant of their own poverty, conditions Malick very nearly likens to a state of grace (rarely has fieldwork looked this enobling). When their biblical fall from this heaven does come, it isn’t because the farmer is exploiting the workers, but because one of the workers has grown tired of his lot in life: He doesn’t want to be poor anymore. So he plots against the farmer and ruins everything — the farm, the farmer, his family, himself.
If Malick hadn’t stopped making films after Days of Heaven, it’s unlikely that his films would have become so fetishized. But like James Dean, or Salinger, his reputation has been assured (and embalmed) by the brevity of his work, and by the simple fact that by not making a movie for 20 years he avoided the deadfalls suffered by his contemporaries: Unlike Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, Malick didn’t crash, because he never again attempted to fly. His legacy endured, most obviously in the hyper-aestheticized, virtuosic luster of Days of Heaven, in which every blade of grass seems lit from within, every cumulus scuds across the sky as if on cue and the creatures of the Earth look like National Geographic pinups. It’s a look that has become a Hollywood cliché, recognizable in films such as Legends of the Fall and The Horse Whisperer (in fact, Malick’s cinematographer on The Thin Red Line is John Toll, who shot Legends of the Fall for Ed Zwick). What no one seemed to notice is that by the time he’d made his second film, Malick had lost interest in the human factor. The characters in Days of Heaven aren’t people, they’re abstractions whose individuality is subordinated to how ravishing they look when silhouetted against a halcyon field. They are stuck in the film’s honeyed light like bugs in amber; for Malick, everything human — the goods times, the bad, the backbreaking work as well as the play — is as natural and immutable as the sun itself.
The Thin Red Line may be the most beautiful American war movie ever made; certainly, it’s the most picturesque. The film begins with an edenic prologue set in a Melanesian village on the Solomon Islands, a 900-mile chain east of New Guinea. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), along with another private, has gone native, and is spending his AWOL time swimming, canoeing and waxing meditative, recalling the death of his mother and wondering why it is that the Melanesian children never seem to fight. There’s a radiant purity both to Witt and to these scenes; neither the character nor the director reveals the slightest bit of postmodern self-consciousness about the hazards of using the islanders as a metaphor for innocence (rather than, say, acknowledging their individuality), a lack of awareness that is finally more touching than offensive, because Malick can’t help but turn each one of his characters into a metaphor, beginning with the Christ-like Witt.
The story proper starts after Witt and his buddy are snatched up by a patrol boat. On board, Witt is interrogated by his nemesis, Welsh (Sean Penn), the first sergeant who runs C-for-Charlie company, the outfit Witt has fled yet continues to love. The two men talk, though what they say has nothing to do with the interrogation and everything to do with the argument at the heart of the film. “In this world,” says Welsh, “a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.” To which Witt replies, “You’re wrong. I’ve seen another world.” For Witt, that other world is glimpsed in his flashback of a boy in overalls (perhaps the private as a child) laughing in the sun. It’s seen in the Melanesian village, and in the countless images of the natural world woven through the film — dazzling birds, mysterious reptiles, sad-eyed marsupials, exotic trees. It is revealed as well in the image of a young girl in an antique lace dress who hugs Witt’s dying mother, a young girl who may be the dying woman herself, or even death. There are other worlds, too, the most important of which belongs to Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), a C-for-Charlie grunt haunted by shimmering visions of the wife he left back home.
These are Witt’s worlds, and Bell’s, and, no doubt, Malick’s. The world that Welsh recognizes is the here and now, which in The Thin Red Line translates as the trenches, the bombed-out fields, the lunatic army hierarchy, the blood and the mud. This is the world James Jones wrote about in his great, dry-eyed and startlingly earthy book, and it’s one that Malick can barely stand to look at. When he does — as in a brilliantly choreographed, starkly terrifying battle scene in which the Americans rout a Japanese base camp — he keeps his gaze as focused on the edges of battle as on the white heat of its violence. What jumps out at you in this extraordinary scene is the way a Japanese soldier pathetically brandishes a bayonet blade to protect an injured friend, or the way a soldier’s feet relax into a posture of death. Malick can do action (it’s almost a shock), and there’s a stunning blink-of-an-eye moment in which an American soldier is shot by a Japanese soldier who is in turn felled by another American. But Malick, unlike most directors (and some of Jones’ characters), doesn’t get turned on by violence. The central event in the film is the taking of a hill held by the Japanese, an offensive that in the director’s logic is as fundamentally hopeless and sorrowful as the war and the men who wage it.
Jones was a cynic who earned the right to that attitude by surviving World War II, including a stint on Guadalcanal. (In the book he’s Corporal Fife, a forward-echelon clerk he paints as both unlikable and a coward; in the film, in a part that has been all but cut, he’s played by the ferrety Adrian Brody.) Jones’ dedication to The Thin Red Line is worth repeating, capital letters and all, because it succinctly gets at the fury and humor of his novel: “This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.”
Malick isn’t cynical about war and warfare; he’s too in thrall to his own romanticism to see that far or that deep into the world. The first words in the film — “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” — are the tip-off. Malick wants to make love, not war, which is easy when you believe war somehow “natural” and you don’t believe in enemies, just some terrible, mysterious negative force. At the end of the film, when one of the soldiers speaks in voice-over, he encapsulates a notion of love as, to quote Shelley, “the sanction which connects not only man with man but with everything that exists.” Malick’s worldview adds the romantic’s contempt for reason to a sense of the transcendental to create a metaphysical pastiche in which, crudely put, love triumphs over hate, good triumphs over evil, and life and death are, ultimately, one and the same. It doesn’t have much to do with guts hanging out of a soldier’s belly. Nor does it have anything to do with World War II, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, National Socialism, Mussolini, bodies in ovens, bayonets through babies, or mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Malick is entitled to his mourning and melancholy and, finally, his pacifism, but it would go down far easier if he were more honest in the first place about why wars — and in particular this one — happen.
The Thin Red Line has been called the anti–Saving Private Ryan, as well as an anti-war movie, but it’s neither, because it isn’t against — much less for — anything. The film is devoid of politics; the only time the story references the real, material world is a scene in which Welsh quickly tosses the idea that the war is all “about property.” And just as there are no politics in the film, neither are there any bad guys. In Malick’s universe, the Japanese soldiers, an American private who pries gold teeth from his victims, the monomaniacal Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte, all sputter and agitated neck cords), even the enraged American soldier who kills two Japanese prisoners in cold blood — are all the same. They’re men who are not bad themselves, but are forced to do bad things, men who invariably weep and keen over their horrendous actions. (Even the Japanese soldiers, whose words are left untranslated, seem overwhelmed by some unspeakable sorrow, and not because they’ve failed to plunge swords into their bellies.) Jones might agree, except he’d say the men are all the same because they’re meat. For Malick, they’re the same because they are part of an unbroken universe in which a blue butterfly flutters through the black haze of battle, a pink orchid is swallowed up in a fireball as a bamboo wind chime peals one last time. In this world, in which love conquers all and war is a sad but totally natural ocurrence, no one is to blame, no one is guilty, no one is responsible. Of all the remarkable things about The Thin Red Line, a film at once beautiful and utterly repulsive, the most remarkable is that Terrence Malick has made an amoral movie about one of the most deeply moral moments in modern history.