What’s it really about? “The Thin Red Line” Directed by Terrence Malick

According to the short synopsis at imdb.com, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones, focuses on the conflict at the Guadalcanal during the second world war. While it is true that this event is the setting for a most of the duration of the film, this conflict is not in itself the central problem of the film. The film asks some very large questions about life and existence itself. Allowing characters in the middle of a war to explore these questions, provides a very interesting contrast between actions and intentions, good vs. evil. This will be a short exploration of the central questions of the film, and of the methods used to portray these ambiguities in morale. (All quotes are from the final cut of the film.)

“Maybe all men got one big soul who everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man. One big self.”

One central idea explored in the film, is the idea that all men belong to the same soul. There are no purely evil or purely good sides in “The Thin Red Line” and the film does not favor either the Japanese or the Americans in terms of morale. Being good means to be connected to this universal soul. Being evil or being in the wrong, means being disconnected from that soul. In the film, Malick also poses a lot of questions about life, death, birth and rebirth. These questions are answered by the same theory about the one shared soul. If everything comes from nature, everything will return to nature. Death is juxtaposed with life and visions of bodies in water, remnant of a fetus in a womb, connecting the phases of death and rebirth.

We are told that infinity is in the calm, that all good and all evil comes from and returns to the same source – to nature. There is only one world, there is only this one rock, but it is in constant change, growth, reincarnation, and the moments we are given, the moments we experience, are infinite. Infinity exists in the moments, and infinity belongs to us. Although the progression of the attacks and the cause and effect structure within the circumstance of war and approach is intact within the structure of the plot, the voice overs, controlling sound and volume, and emphasizing certain things that are not important for the narrative of the war, directs the main focus of the film to the characters’ spiritual state and the condition of their collective soul. We are made to see all the men, the Japanese and the Americans alike, as victims, and the story therefore does not become one of good versus evil, with clean cut, opposing parties.

The film follows the Americans attacking the Japanese, with the Americans clearly favored in screen time. However, the film is not about the Americans versus the Japanese, or even about the war. The film is about man versus himself, and man versus the universal. The one character that has been given the most ambiguous or unfavorable traits is the one character who seems completely out of touch with the community and the unity, even among his own men. Lt. Col. Gordon Tall does not care that his men are passing out or dying of lack of water. He does not care that approaching the Japanese in an open field is a suicide mission. He has become conceited and obsessed with titles, and as the film goes on he is offered little redemption. Tall has completely removed himself from the shared soul of men, and is no longer connected to his fellow men, the connection that would have been his redemption. This disconnect is what makes him a bad person, rather than whose flag he bears or how many people he has killed. In complete opposition, Staros is good because he is connected to the collective soul. His primary concern, what his men wanted to thank him for in the end, was that he looked out for the others, kept them together and kept them alive. “You are my sons. My dear sons. You live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.” Their souls are merged and they are part of the same source, making them connected, concerned, aware and ultimately, despite their actions, they are good by simply being and feeling conflicted.

By the framing of shots and by the usage of subjective points of views, Malick is able to redeem the time spent with the Americans. Scared Japanese soldiers plea straight into the camera, and aggravated, crazed Americans aim straight for the lens. Malick does not shy away from portraying the evil in all of his characters, and though most of them are permitted some form of redemption by the end, the audience is not presented with the false notions of predictable, stereotypical characterizations of pure evil or pure good. The characters’ struggles with what is righteous and what is immoral are part of their redemption. They do things we would think of as evil, and the only reason we don’t label the characters wicked is that we know of their confliction and their pain.

Are you righteous? Are you 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 loved goodness? Truth?” 

Because not only the characters’ actions but also their thoughts and feelings, the condition of their inner lives, are laid bare, we can and do sympathize and empathize with them. Their clear internal struggles with doing what is right and struggling to find out who they are and how to feel, redeems their morally ambiguous actions. Because they are still connected to the soul shared by all men, by Americans and Japanese alike, they won’t be seen as purely evil and they will warrant sympathy and empathy despite the dreary context of the film.

Malick opens the film with a crocodile disappearing under the surface of the water, and it becomes clear that the inserts of animal imagery play a large thematic role throughout the film. The crocodile disappears into the water and becomes indistinguishable from it. The crocodile symbolizes the characters in the film. They wear identical uniforms, carry the same flags, tags and weapons. Although they do possess some individual character traits, they become difficult to tell apart. Witt serves as a red line throughout the film, however, much of the film doesn’t involve him or revolve around him. There is no clear single lead protagonist, which reinforces the sense of unity and community. “In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.” Each character is nothing more than a part of the whole. Drowned by the environment, covered by the thick air and submerged into this strange but familiar territory where each is merely one part of a whole. When Sgt. Storm confesses that he doesn’t feel anything anymore, even when he’s looking at a dying boy, Malick again inserts a shot of the crocodile. This time it is numb, bound, unmoving, on land – a foreign territory. The crocodile reflects back to the numbness of the Sergeant. The animal reflects back on the human – they are all part of the same source; nature.

Malick uses the juxtaposition of images of dying soldiers with the images of living animals to underscore the theme. The notion is also put into words by the voice over of Private Witt when he subconsciously wonders; “Who are you to live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all? You too are the source of all that’s gonna be born. Your glory, mercy, peace, truth. You give calm a spirit. Understanding. Courage. The contended heart.” Private Witt’s voiceover serves as a reminder of this unity of the soul. The content and the context of the voiceover are like something a dying man might reflect on his deathbed after having seen all these evils and all these beauties of the world. They are words that sound like unspoken feelings, and their message is something any character could have felt. Although the words are uttered in the voice of Witt, they could just as well have been read by any one of the characters in the film that are still connected to the shared soul of men. Terrence Malik shows in words and in images that men and animals are all part of nature. Nature holds the source of everything that will ever be born. So when a solider dies and we cut to a bird crawling out of its broken eggshell for the first time, we know that the cycle of life goes on and that the soul of man still lives. Understanding that nature holds the roots of everything that will ever be born is also vital in understanding the film’s definition of evil.

This great evil. Where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, 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 and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?

If men and evil both come from nature, evil did not come from men, rather, evil happened to men. As long as we can see all of the soldiers as victims, we can sympathize with them despite their actions, because we know that the evil they are part of were first implemented on them.

In one of his earliest monologues in the film, Witt talks about his dying mother. He tells us that infinity is in the calm, communicating Malick’s intention. This film is going to display infinity, and now we know where we are going to find it. By turning down the volume of the non-diegetic as well as the diegetic soundtrack, by lingering in slow moving shots and silent moments in the center of the line, by staying in the calm and quiet moment, the audience is made to feel a sense of this infinity. The underwater shots reflect back on the moment in the mother’s womb when the baby is protected and untouched by the world. The positioning of these shots – the beginning of the film and the immediate moment after Witt’s death, signifies the relationship between death, life, rebirth and the in-between – the moment in the womb, where the individual exists but is not yet part of life.

The film opens on a small, private universe where the children don’t fight, everybody is participating in everything and no man is left to himself. The underwater womb-like sequences illustrates the essence of this universe. The characters are untouched by the rest of the world and they live in the moment only. And because the moment has been experienced and lived, it will go on forever for as long as it is remembered. We return to this peaceful universe after Witt is dead, reaffirming the idea that these moments do last forever, and exist still even though Witt is gone. The first act establishes a world quite different from the rest of the film, where there are no children, no women and all the men are armed. By establishing such a different world before thrusting the characters and the audience into the war, Malick introduces a stark contrast and a natural environment for the philosophical wandering of the characters. If we hadn’t been given any perspective of what the characters’ lives were like before the war, the war would have seemed like all there was, and deep existential questions would seem more far-fetched. This contrast provides the ideal condition for questions like those raised in the voice overs, and allows the audience to believe in the credibility and origin of the questions. The characters’ struggles are authentic, and so is the audiences’ empathy for the characters. A film which could have easily been a flat, action packed war film, ascends to the level of existentially questioning moral ambiguity. Good and evil are redefined as community and connectivity versus apathy and disconnect.

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