Photo by Merie W. WallaceFew films have been awaited with greater intensity than The Thin Red Line, and few have ever been greeted with ruder disappointment. To my mind, Terrence Malick's first film in 20 years is the finest he's made, as mature and ample a product of his sustained inspiration as one could hope for — and I'm dumbfounded to hear it damned with such faint praise, denounced with such incomprehension or dismissed as metaphysical hooey by certain critics who at least comprehend that something metaphysical was being attempted. Even the favorable reviews tend to be vague, tossing around words like philosophical without quite saying what philosophy is being advanced. The film's wittier attackers (Stuart Klawans in The Nation, Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) attend to Malick's intentions but retreat from his operatic directness in spiritual matters, judging all those ghostly voice-overs and God-like landscape views to be little more than a giant ego trip.

I've seen the film three times. The audiences I've observed have been held fast in their seats by the spell the film casts. Sounds and images are exquisitely mated. A mighty theme — one treating the very nature of courage — is steadily enlarged from the first scene to the last. Malick plainly forges a strong bond with his audience at an unconscious level, and yet a lot of what you can overhear in the conversational flow to the exits after it's all done echoes the film's sharpest critics: “There's no structure.” “Malick never saw a leaf he didn't like.” “They could've cut an hour.” Three times running I've listened to these and other comments with a sinking heart. The only complaint that makes sense to me is that too many of the soldiers look alike, that there are too many guys with pale skin, black hair and hard blue eyes — including the hero — to the point where it becomes damn near impossible to tell who's speaking, who's dying and who's married to that cute blond in the flashbacks. As one friend put it, “I was watching hundreds of men die, and I didn't care about any of them.” For me, the point is that you're supposed to care about every death; individuality doesn't matter in the divine union Malick conjures between his people and the all-devouring universe of jungle and stars towering over them.

This, if anything, is the artistic justification for the layered similarities between faces and voices. The confusion is deliberate, a form of narrative cubism in which individual spirits blend into one another, disembodied by violence and death's proximity. We seem to see these lives from the slippery viewpoint of God, the afterlife or those already dead. Cathedral-like shots of tree-top canopies, sunlight shafting through from the literal heavens beyond, are one thing — the film abounds in those — but there is a God-like, disembodied presence in even the most down-to-earth moments. The camera prowls ahead of the soldiers when they crawl; when one soldier prays by candlelight, we are so close, and tilted at such an angle, that we are both in- and outside him. Who's watching at these moments? The question outlives the movie.

Sean Penn's character, Welsh, is a diehard nonbeliever, a matter that requires some high dedication on his part. “There's no other world out there,” he murmurs to himself time and again. “Just one, this rock.” The only person to whom he can share these thoughts is Witt (Jim Caviezel), a buck private with a Christ-like thousand-yard stare. Their confrontations and conversations form the spine of the movie, in concert with those of Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), two officers who differ over the use and value of a suicide mission.

In an interesting paradox, the enlisted men speak of giant abstractions — God, no God — while the officers deal with life and death in chillingly practical terms. These are characters who seem to have stepped out of a Russian novel — they face each other with uncommon directness and speak, without mincing words, the truth of their souls. The proximity of so much death understandably erodes all mediation. There's no time to waste in lying, unless it's to yourself. There may even be an angelic use in lying (at least to yourself) if the object is to send men to their deaths in a maneuver of absolute necessity. The funniest and most terrifying scenes in The Thin Red Line are Colonel Tall's apoplectic arias of self-justification when he's forcing his men to push ahead despite their exhaustion. As Nolte creates him, Tall is a gorgeous monster of deranged pride. He keeps reading the inscrutable face of his listener, Gaff (John Cusack), not sure if he's getting across or not, pathetically shifting his tack when his psychological bat-radar fails to bring back those little blips of approval he so madly craves.

The deeper mysteries are witnessed, and borne, by Witt alone — he's the first man we see in the story, and his is the last voice we hear. When we first meet him, he has deserted his outfit and is loafing in a South Pacific paradise — and this is a sore point for some. One friend of mine, a man who survived being strafed by Nazi warplanes as he and his parents fled France in 1940, recoiled, “Why should I like this guy, or care what happens to him? That was no war to be AWOL in. He comes off a coward.” But to label Witt a coward or, as another friend suggested, a pacifist, misses a larger point: Witt is preparing to die. He remembers his mother's death (images that luminously catch the fugitive power of such a memory) and wonders if he'll face his own end with the same calm.

He's not running from anything at the film's beginning — he embraces the brief Eden he's found with a tragic awareness, etched wonderfully in Caviezel's eyes, that such stolen moments (like the gust of straw-filled wind he remembers from his childhood, twining around himself and his father) are the only peace he'll ever know even if he lives to be a hundred. His overarching objective (for all you students of structure out there who think this film has none) is to die with courage — and every scene between the first and the last maps the obstacles in his path, a gauntlet of war's archetypal horrors. That Witt finds such a loyal nemesis in Welsh, and that his quest is so dazzlingly mirrored in that of every man around him (particularly Bell, whose obsession with his wife back home makes him bold in battle but deludes him into believing that he can return from this war “a man unchanged”), makes The Thin Red Line a deeply moral movie.

Facing death with courage is never less than a moral enterprise, and, undertaken in groups, it can define a moral moment in history. Morality — as Witt comprehends it, the capacity to promote the lives of others at the expense of your own if need be — is, like war, like the languages that name beauty, a recent event in nature. Animals, even trees, vie for light and space, but only human beings have the imagination to be rapacious, to seize more than they can personally use. “This war is all about property,” Welsh snarls, and the word is exact, one deliberately opposed to the animal innocence of “territory.” When Witt, under arrest for going AWOL, tells Welsh, “I'm twice the man you are,” it's not just macho defiance — he's speaking to the same theme, but from a transcendent place of one who has seen two worlds and inhabits two territories. Penn's sly, silent smile in reply is particularly beautiful: Welsh knows exactly what Witt means, even if he doesn't believe what Witt sees. That generous duality is at the heart of Malick's moral argument, a living definition of what it means to be human.

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