The Thin Red Line (1998) – 2

Terrence Malick

Mystery, Life, Meaning

The Thin Red Line (1998).  Written and directed Terrence Malick.  Starring James Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Elias Koteas.  170 mins; rated R.  Metacritic: 78%; Rotten Tomatoes: 79%.

The main character here is Witt (James Caviezel), a seasoned WWII foot soldier who finds himself on the island of Guadalcanal amid “clean up” operations after the savage battle for control of the island and its prized landing strips.  Except now, at the film’s very beginning, Witt and a buddy have gone AWOL and found refuge among native villagers on a nameless nearby island.  The second sequence in the film features long wordless ”looks” at Witt paddling a dugout, swimming with village boys, and simply treading water as he gazes back at the island.  And in medium close-up, his face shows a kind of smiling delight and deep contentment.  Moreover, the entire sequence is overlaid by the supernal “In Paradisum” section of Fauré’s Requiem.


The first words in the film follow with Witt’s confession to his buddy that he found nothing hopeful or heavenly in the process of his mother’s death, in which he saw only decay and meaninglessness, an understandably grim assessment by a combat soldier whose daily regimen consists of fear, butchery, pain, and death.  That pained declaration, however, is then, surprise, followed by an alternative wordless day-dream of her dying, a new and radically different scenario or re-take, that counters the pessimism of his previous appraisal.  Here Witt envisions his mother in the last moments of her dying rising from her death bed to the embrace of a young girl who lays her head upon the old woman’s chest bosom.

And as this happens, the heartbeats that sustain his mother’s life slow and stop.  That sequence is, needless to say, eerie and strange, and it has mystified many a film scholar, most of whom are a secular sort, in efforts to understand what Malick is up to in this admittedly baffling sequence.  Regardless, this wordless–but by no means silent–refiguring of his mother’s exit from life to death features warm, loving embrace by some beyond something (there are no hymns in the background to signal exactly who or what proffers this welcome).


The full consequence of this reappraisal of dying comes clear in the next scene.  Witt and his buddy have been located and arrested for going AWOL, and the pair now sit in a troop ship brig.  Witt’s superior, First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), a stalwart but tender-hearted nihilist, lectures Witt on what is necessary to survive in war, namely that he above all care only about himself, though that is something Welsh himself is lousy at, instead caring deeply about his troops and their suffering (near the end of this long film Welsh confesses that he has still not achieved the desired state of indifference, in spite of consuming huge quantities of booze).  With Witt, he’s more than direct: “In this world, a man, himself, ain’t nothing, and there ain’t no world but this one…We live in world that’s blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it.  In a situation like that all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him, look out for himself.”


Witt counters, simply but directly, and with the proper caveat tacked on: “You’re wrong there…I’ve seen another world.  Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.”  Exactly what he means here is not altogether clear at the time, but viewers perhaps get the drift.


To Witt, Welsh replies, “Well, then you see things I never will.”

And so begins the metaphysical wrestle at the heart of the film, one that transpires always within the ultimate crucible, an all-too-real world of peril, death, and wild hope for survival (Malick is one of the few filmmakers ever to attend equally to battle’s selfless heroics and its psycho-emotional terror and physical destruction).

Perhaps the most revelatory comes in Witt’s experience of death both pre-mortem and post-mortem, an event that Malick depicts from the outside and the inside, and it is a stunning sequence.  The interior experience of death recalls his beatific experience on the island, one full of wonder and gratitude.  And that apparently has re-shaped Witt’s estimate of what finally runs “this world,” as Welsh calls it.  Witt’s death is self-sacrificial, a gesture that culminates his slow inward transformation of self into a deeply kind and thoughtful soul.  His quiet compassion elicits the devotion of his fellow soldiers, so much so that a few critics have suggested that Witt slowly morphs into a sort-of Christ figure, though one must be amply cautious in bestowing that term on anyone, actual or fictional.

And there we have it, the inward heart of Malick’s towering war film, one that attends not only to physical travail and valor and who wins what how but to the ultimate inmost questions of meaning and love, personal and metaphysical, namely to who or what runs the universe.  In sum, the topography here is as much about the terrain of the soul as about the landscape of Guadalcanal.  It is ever so much worth the visit, though be forewarned, more than a few casual visitors have been hooked on repeated journeys to Malick world.