The Society for the Appreciation of the Post-Dialogic Novel


The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick, Writer & Director.

John 4:4: "And he must needs walk through Samaria." (From a tattoo on a soldier’s arm)

There’s an irony to be presumed in the short-listing of The Thin Red Line for this year’s Academy awards–namely that the enduring appeal of director Terrence Malick’s first two movies was partially a result of a slow build-up in reputation over years, whereas the success of his latest (after a two-decade hiatus) owes a lot simply to Fox’s promotional muscle. But anyone for whom that makes a difference is a lot like the high school friend who refused to like groups once their music became popular.

Because the release of TRL is very much an event to be celebrated: a commercial movie that examines the varying ways an human act can be called heroic and do so in a way that’s neither art-house-pretentious nor hallmark-sentimental for the LCD. It is a profoundly spiritual movie in an era when popular art seems to have lost the ability even ask shallow questions about the relationship between humans and their God.

In the 1970s Badlands and Days of Heaven seemed the work of a novelist rather than a filmmaker; the subtleties were of an order reserved for the slow contemplation of an intricate fictional world–to be gained in film only by repeated viewings. And the density that sustains those viewings is imbued in the work only by the director’s implacable patience in the editing phase (known to last over a year in the case of Badlands .) Not to say that Malick’s training in philosophy and literature doesn’t contribute to the sophistication his original material has, but that every shot is placed like a finely wrought paragraph or line.

At the same time, like most great movies, it can be followed on several levels. It’s a war story–(film likely being the medium best suited for war, re: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket)–based upon James Jones’s novel and the rube element is quite ably served with the Saving Private Ryan intensity many of the moments carry.

But the charge that has been most unfair is that Malick relies too heavily upon irony by the relentless juxtaposition of war’s brutality and nature’s beauty, as seen on the island of Guadalcanal during the battles of WW II. What he is exploring, rather, is the phenomenon that man’s eyes can only be opened to beauty in moments of extreme intensity. Like Binx Bolling, who in The Moviegoer realizes the beauty of the dung beetle while flat on the ground under fire during the Korean War, the soldiers on Guadalcanal find themselves at the emotional peak of their lives; for a while, they can see in a way they never will again. Malick’s artistry with the camera mimics the journey the characters go through. A small instance is the shot of the sun washing across the grass upon the deaths at the initial assault upon the hill; the viewer is seduced first by the beauty of the shot, then subtly realizes via an emotional chime that he is being taken back to a place that he must have been before–beauty in films rarely coming from being shown what you haven’t seen before. Malick effectively creates memory with imagery in a way that words upon a page have to do indirectly. (A lesson to be learned from Werner Herzog here; a tribute can be found in the Aquirre-like shot of the men scaling the hill, from life-size in the foreground to miniatures on the horizon, one long unbroken line.)

The script juxtaposes larger questions with the complete believability of human folly. When Officer Tall relieves the captain from his position unfairly, only to unfairly give him a cushy job back stateside, the narrative reaches the point where bureaucratic decisions cross with destiny itself; to punish a soldier for cowardice by removing him from harm and replace him with another who might otherwise escape danger is to interfere fundamentally with how the dice roll. Godlike powers in the hands of mortals is a scary side effect of war, TRL shows us.

The ensemble of characters has lead to some confusion–too many parts, too many trails–but Malick’s deftest stroke is in Witt, who stands out after repeated viewings. From his beginning as the AWOL in paradise he grows emotionally by holding dying men (unafraid to see the light in their eyes suddenly extinguish) and moves to the front lines of fire, where he insists "If there’s trouble, I want to be there." His affability and eerily spiritual demeanor demonstrate that essence of heroism lies in its degree of personal sacrifice. Malick manages to evoke the Christian metaphor without sentimentality or simplicity.

One critic has called it an anti-anti-war movie. Well, maybe so, but that’s not the same as a pro-war movie. Properly perceived, The Thin Red Line can, with novel-like sophistication, deepen the question of how we think about heroism and mortality.


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