It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say, closer than my friends had been or ever would be. With “shattering prose,” the New York Times–bestselling author of From Here to Eternity captures the intense combat in the battle of Guadalcanal (San Francisco . Terrence Malick's cinematic version of James Jones's The Thin Red Line was Thin Red Line presents an unrelentingly bleak vision of the world, and when all.
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The Thin Red Line. Context/Production. Great changes in M's absence and success of Jaws (!) and Star Wars (): blockbusters, sequels, high concept. THIITRED LINE The Thin Red Line is neither the distortion of Jones's novel nor the historical aberration that some have claimed it to be. In fact, Malick's film not. 'Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Homeric Epic. Spectacle, Simile, Scene and Situation.' In *War as Spectacle: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the.
Nature also possesses here an avenging 7 power, when a plague of locusts descend on the elds and Sam Shepherd sets re to an entire wheat cropnature is indeed cruel. Although it is difcult not to grant that nature is playing a symbolic role for Malick, his is not an animistic conception of nature, of the kind that one nds lamented in Coleridges Dejection: An Ode: Oh Lady! Rather, in my opinion, natures indifference to human purposes follows on from a broadly naturalistic conception of nature.
Things are not enchanted in Malicks universe, they simply are, and we are things too. They are remote from us and continue on regardless of our strivings. This is what is suggested by the Wallace Stevens poem cited in the epigraph to this essay.
A soldier falls in battle, but his death does not invite pomp or transient glory. Rather, death has an absolute character, which Stevens likens to a moment in autumn when the wind stops. What is central to Malick, I think, is this neverthelessness of nature, of the fact that human death is absorbed into the relentlessness of nature, the eternal war in nature into which the death of a soldier is indifferently ingested.
That is where Witts spark lies. There is a calm at the heart of Malicks art, a calmness to his cinematic eye, a calmness that is also communicated by his lms, that becomes the mood of his audience: As Charlie company leave Guadalcanal and are taken back to their ship on a landing craft, we hear the nal voiceover from Witt, this time from beyond the grave: Oh my soul, let me be in you now.
Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you made, all things shining. In each of his movies, one has the sense of things simply being looked at, just being what they aretrees, water, birds, dogs, crocodiles or whatever. Things simply are, and are not molded to a human purpose. We watch things shining calmly, being as they are, in all the intricate evasions of as.
The camera can be pointed at those things to try to capture some grain or afuence of their reality. The closing shot of The Thin Red Line presents the viewer with a coconut fallen onto the beach, against which a little water laps and out of which has sprouted a long green shoot, connoting life, one imagines.
The coconut simply is, it merely lies there remote from us and our intentions. This suggests to me Stevenss nal poem, The Palm at the End of the Mind, the palm that simply persists regardless of the makings of human meaning.
Stevens concludes: The palm stands on the edge of space. The wind moves slowly in its branches. In my fancy at least, I see Malick concurring with this sentiment. It was revised for inclusion in my Very sadly, I have come to the view that the less said about the latter the better. He only 3 hoped that he would meet it with the same magnicent indifference with 4 which she who had been his mother met it.
Because it was there, he felt, 5 that the immortality he had not seen was hidden. This passage was brought to my attention by Cain Fata Morgana.
Malick, Evanston, IL: Krell ed. Basic 9 Writings, London and New York: Hodder and Stoughton. Winch, Oxford: Pears and B. McGuiness, 4 London and New York: Our essay will analyze the journey of some 1 of the soldiers from C-Company as they trudge across the battleeld of 2 Guadalcanala world that threatens to bring itself to an end. Before we 3 begin this analysis, however, we must dene what we mean by world 4 collapse and how it is manifest in the context of war.
Their arguments turn on the idea that the lm 7 is a philosophical investigation into the nature of death and how each 8 individual has to face his own end. Although we consider this to be true, 9 we differ from previous authors in the way we view how death is treated in the lm. The main focus of previous work on the subject is solely on 1 the role of death as a terminal biological or ontic phenomenon, what 2 Heidegger terms demise. For Heidegger, terminal death is something 3 distinctively impending Heidegger But ontological death as Heidegger understands 5 it is a way to be ibid.: It is a way of living that takes account of 6 our constant vulnerability to the collapse of our way of life.
Most of the 7 deaths in the lm are not cases of demise but of the loss of what gives meaning to ones world. The ways of dying we are interested in are the sort that can befall individual human beings in cases of world collapse such as identity failure, and that can befall a culture or a cultural epoch in cases such as being taken over by a culture with an alien cultural style for a striking example, see Lear We are interested in two important differences between demise and all existential ontological ways of dying.
First, unlike demise, an existential breakdown is lived through.
One can only experience world collapse if one remains alive. In other words the individual or culture that undergoes the experience must continue to exist for such a death to occur; what remains after an existential collapse of a human life, which Heidegger calls being-in-the-world, is more than just a corpse. Second, an individual or culture need not experience any form of existential breakdown during their existence, that is to say an individual need not experience the loss of his or her identity, and the members of a community need not experience the collapse of their way of life in their lifetime.
Cultural collapse The Thin Red Line depicts the battle of Guadalcanal as a collision of different cultural worlds on a single battleeld. A vulnerability to cultural collapse is depicted throughout the lm through the experiences of war that the Japanese, Americans, and Melanesians endure. The sequence of events that result from the assault on the Japanese camp, for instance, exemplies the sort of cultural death that threatens the Japanese soldiers.
When the soldiers from C-Company storm into the camp, the Japanese, outnumbered and surrounded, respond to the attack in a suicidal manner. While some confront the American soldiers head on and meet with a brutal death, others kneel down and commit hara-kiri, and others medi- tate amidst the bloodshed.
Although death takes the form of violent physical demise in the attack, the nal image we see after the carnage is not that of a soldier dying in agony but that of a Buddha being slowly consumed by re. Although the whole of Japanese culture was not annihilated in this encounter, it was threatened, or better yet the war was a constant threat to the Japanese way of life throughout the wars duration and beyond.
In Witts second 5 encounter with the Melanesians we realize how truly fragile they are. Are you afraid of me? Cos you look. You look as an army! I look army? It is through their fear of Witt 3 that we realize that their paradise, just as our world, is not exempt both 4 from physical destruction and from cultural devastation. The transformation of the battleeld into a groundless world is 1 witnessed by several of the soldiers amidst the chaos.
I got em! I got 2 em. I killed a man, nobody can touch me for it, yells Private Doll 3 after shooting a Japanese soldier coming over a ridge. At the moment of 4 the soldiers death Doll realizes he has murdered more than just one man; 5 the normative structure of the world as he knows it has ceased to exist.
Tall says: Now, I know youre a goddamn lawyer! This is not a court of law. This is a war. Its a goddamn battle! At a worlds end, the starry sky above and the moral law within vanish into thin air, giving way to groundlessness. The members of C-Company ght in this lawless and groundless world that Tall and Doll describe, and each, in his own way, copes with it. We will proceed by analyzing two ways in which soldiers confront the phenomenon of world collapse: Identity failure In cases of complete existential ontological breakdown an individuals world fully collapses; the light that shed meaning on his or her life suddenly becomes dim and madness lurks in its place.
Such a collapse of an individuals world occurs when a person can no longer cope with things in the way one would normally cope with them. Heidegger equates this sort of breakdown with an anxiety attack in which human beings lose their ability to act at all. There are several cases of this sort of ontological breakdown. The most striking is the case of Sgt McCron, who has just lost all the men in his unit. Surrounded by the men of C-Company before the taking of Hill , he grabs a handful of dirt and tells them this is what we are.
He looks at the dirt in his hand thought- fully and lets it drift away into the blades of grass that imprison the men. The men trot into battle. McCron remains pensive.
Further along in the lm, we meet up with McCron a second time and see him walking alone at the top of a hill at sundown screaming his heart out at the senseless space that once was a world: Look at me!
I stand right up here and not one bullet. Not one shot! I can stand right here, I can stand right up and nothing happens to me! In this case of world collapse, madness makes McCron at least temporarily invulnerable even to demise. Captain Staros has a familial commitment to the men he leads, 2 and Private Bell has a passionate commitment of love for his beautiful 3 young wife. For both soldiers, holding on to their unconditional 4 commitment is what ultimately determines their fate on the battleground.
Now, attack, Staros! Thats a direct order! Sir, I must tell you that I refuse to obey your order. Now, I want that frontal attack. I repeat my order. Colonel, I refuse to take my men up there in a frontal 3 attack. Its suicide, sir.
Ive lived with these men for two 4 years, and I will not order them all to their deaths. His prayer, Let me not betray 8 you. Let me not betray my men, is answered. But once they return to 9 the camp after Hill is taken, Lt Col Tall immediately relieves Staros 20 of his command on the grounds that he is too soft-hearted. Before 1 Staros is put on a plane to return home his soldiers pay him a visit. They 2 thank him for refusing to obey Talls order, for watching out for them, 3 keeping them together.
His soldiers feel he got a rotten deal, they 4 offer to le a complaint. But Staros refuses their help, and says that 5 6 although he is leaving, they will always be a part of him: Youve been 7 like my sons, you are my sons, my dear sons, you live inside me now, 8 Ill carry you wherever I go.
Staros has experienced world collapse but 9 has avoided despair by converting his dening commitment to his men into an idealized memory that no longer relates to the real world. Flow together like water. Till I cant tell you from me. I drink 3 you. More importantly they show how committed he is to 5 surviving the war, and returning changeless to her arms: My dear 6 wife, you get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, 7 lth, and noise.
I want to stay changeless for you. I want to come back to you the man I was before. Bell is not only seeking physical survival but existential survival as well; he seeks to remain whole in order not to lose the love that denes who he is and what is essential in his world. Faced with the groundlessness of war, with the immediate threat of world collapse, Bell nds his salvation in a love he believes nothing can destroy: Where does it come from? Who lit this ame in us?
No war can put it out, conquer it. His entire life as a man and as soldier is conditioned by his com- mitment to his wife, the love he feels for her gives him the courage and grounding he needs to survive the war at every level: Why should I be afraid to die?
I belong to you. Although his unconditional commitment to his wife helps him survive the war, as soon as he reaches the camp he must face the destruction of his dening commitment. His wife writes: Dear Jack, Ive met an Air Force captain. Ive fallen in love with him. I want a divorce to marry him. Forgive me. Oh, my friend of all those shining years. Help me leave you! We next see Jack Bell laughing nervously with his wifes letter in hand, his mind spinning in a void of meaninglessness, a greater suffering than demise.
We last see him sitting alone, looking completely devastated. Cynical invulnerability For a materialist, there is no world but this one, and this world consists of a set of facts that, although innite in number, are all potentially discoverable via the wonders of science and reason. There is no place for a spiritual perspective on the world. The world is in essence a collection of spiritless things that humanity attempts to understand rationally and control. First, Sergeant Welsh resists the perils of war by clinging to a cynical materialist perspective on the world.
He says to Witt: Were living in a world thats blown 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. To Welsh the world is populated with rocks, dying birds, islands, property, and lies. He lives in a world where if you die, its gonna be for nothing because theres not some other world out there where everythings gonna be okay.
Theres just this world. Just this rock. Welshs invulnerability is his most precious possession, an island he has made for himself, which he is not prepared to give up for anything or anyone. Welshs senseless world is built on the rock-solid foundations 4 of nihilism, and unlike all the previous cases we have looked at, Welsh 5 is ontologically invulnerable to world collapse because he has no meaningful world that can collapse.
He is vulnerable only to demise. Yet, 10 despite Welshs proclaimed self-centeredness and his continual nihilistic 1 remarks, he does not always do as he preaches, that is to say his actions 2 are at times at odds with his words. In the heat of battle, Sergeant Welsh 3 runs across a bullet-ridden eld to get morphine to a dying soldier. Staros 4 approaches him, and says: I saw the whole thing. Im gonna recom- 5 mend you for the Silver Star. Its the most courageous thing. But 6 before Staros can even nish his sentence Welsh cuts him off: Captain, if you say one more thing to thank me, Im going to knock you right in 8 the teeth.
If you mention me in your fucking orders, Ill resign my rating 9 so fast and leave you here to run this busted-up outt all by yourself. Does 1 he actually only care about himself? Although his actions seem to be in 2 contradiction with his words, there is nothing contradictory about the 3 way in which Welsh responds to the situation; in fact, it goes hand in 4 hand with his invulnerability to world collapse.
He is free to act not 5 because the meaning of his world is secure, but because he has no world 6 that can collapse but only a rock. In rejecting Staross recommendation 7 for the Silver Star, Welsh is not denying what he did, rather he is rejecting 8 any sort of worldly recognition from the anyone that fuels the war 9 he is trapped in.
The action is consistent with his worldview. By rejecting Staross recommendation, Welsh is rejecting the lie he is ghting in, 1 and therefore not acting in contradiction to what he believes. The act of 2 risking his life to ease the soldiers pain shows he has nothing to lose.
Welsh is secure in the connes of cynicism, not even 4 demise itself can destroy him. Even if Welsh had been mortally wounded 5 as he ran across the menacing blades of Kunai grass he would have 6 suffered demise without ever dying. Consider the moment after Hill has been taken. Staring at a dying soldier, Private Storm says, I look at that boy dying, I dont feel nothing.
I dont care about nothing anymore. Welsh replies with absolute honesty: Sounds like bliss. Like any other human being, Welsh must battle with the emotions that arise when he is confronted with the feelings and thoughts of individuals who have different and sometimes opposing worldviews. In an empty rooess house in the middle of nowhere, Witt asks Welsh: You care about me, dont you, Sarge, I always felt like you did.
Why do you always make yourself out like a rock? One day I can come up and talk to you and the next day its like we never even met. Welshs relationship with Private Witt is never all that clear; he seems to treat Witt with a strange sense of brotherly love, and sometimes admiration: You still believing in the beautiful light, are you? How do you do that?
Youre a magician to me, Welsh says to Witt in the rooess house. Taken at face value, Welshs dialogues with Witt suggest Welshs yearning for something more than he already has. They seem to cause in him a need to touch the glory, to see the light. Read from his materialist perspective, however, it all becomes nothing more than a series of cynical dialogues that attempt to mock Witts way of living. From this perspective, the phrase Wheres your spark now?
His world has not collapsed. Nothing has changed 4 for Welsh from how things were at the beginning of Guadalcanal. He 5 still holds that everything you hear or see remains a lie. They still want you dead or in their lie because you are in a box, a moving box. We rst hear Witt 2 talk about immortality while he reminisce, amid the beauty of an 3 earthly paradise, about his mothers death: I asked her if she was afraid, She shook her head no.
I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldnt nd nothing 8 beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I wondered what 9 itd be like when I died, to know that this was the last breath you 20 was ever going to draw. I just hoped I could meet it with the same 1 calm she did. Cause thats where its hidden. The immortality I hadnt 2 seen. On the one 5 hand, it tells us how, in being present at his mothers death, Witt was 6 able for the very rst time to come into contact with something beyond 7 demise.
His mothers death marks a point of departure in Witts journey 8 towards spiritual invulnerability. On the other hand, the soliloquy reveals 9 to us where Witt believes this immortality resides. He sees it in his mothers eyes when she meets death with calmness. Others have misread 1 the soliloquy by moving too swiftly to Heideggerian distinctions to 2 make sense of it.
The rst misreading lies in arguing that the calmness 3 Witt seeks is indistinguishable from or similar to Heideggers notion of 4 anxiety. According to Heidegger, one is authentic in so far as one lives in constant anxiety Heidegger In other words, being- towards-death authentically implies that, if an individuals current world or identity collapses, the individual will accept the collapse and show steadfastness as well as exibility by accepting the anomalies in his or her current experience as the basis of a new identity.
Such authentic individuals are open to the possibility of world collapse, and thereby the possibility of taking up a new identity and making a new beginning. This anxious authentic mode of existence differs totally from the sort of invulnerability to world collapse that Witt exhibits. Witt is invulnerable to world collapse because he is open to an indestructible world.
What Witt comes to experience is spiritual immortality, not authentic death. By being in touch with another world, Witt, as we will argue, like Welsh, is invulnerable to world collapse because, like Welsh, he doesnt have a world in Kierkegaards and Heideggers sense. He doesnt form dening commitments or expect to nd meaning, and so does not live in a vulnerable world.
Not only is the calmness in the face of demise Witt achieves categorically distinct from the anxiety of the authentic indi- vidual in the face of possible world collapse, but the spiritual illumination he achieves opens him to a world that can never collapse.
Throughout the lm Witt comforts dying soldiers. He was afraid to touch his dying mother, but as he walks side by side with death in a lead-drenched battleeld he stares at a dying bird in wonder, and meets his own demise with absolute calmness. Witts destiny seems to be somehow linked with the dying.
Im sending you to a disciplinary outt. Youll be a stretcher-bearer. Youll be taking care of the wounded. Ultimately Witt is not sent to the disciplinary outt to care for the wounded. Rather, when he is reintegrated into C-Company as they take on Hill , Witt decides to take on the duty of comforting the dying soldiers left behind.
When, by a freak accident, Sergeant Keck blows off part of his lower body with a grenade and panics, the soldiers nearby are in a state of shock, yelling out empty promises. Youre gonna be alright. Even if you die. You didnt let your 2 brother down, Witt says to Keck before he dies.
Is the calmness Witt 3 radiates the sort he saw in his dying mothers eyes? Is Witt no longer 4 afraid of demise? By touching the dying soldier, does Witt show that he 5 has attained spiritual immortality?
He does not yet attain spiritual immortality. The calmness with which he handles the dying, how- 9 ever, does show us that he is no longer afraid to leave this world, to 10 take the last breath he spoke of when remembering his mothers death. Witts con- 3 cern for the dying, and the courage he displays in the face of death, 4 are symmetrically opposed to Welshs cynical invulnerability: At the worlds end, the invulnerable comfort the vulnerable, or so Malick seems to believe.
Not unlike Welsh, Witts 1 concern for comforting the vulnerable leads him to perform courageous 2 actions on several occasions, actions that, although they are not patriotic- 3 ally heroic in essence but rather disconcerting and almost foolish, reveal 4 a sacricial and seless attitude. Towards the end of the lm, after the 5 taking of Hill , Captain Band desperately looks for volunteers to nd 6 out where the line is being cut by the Japanese soldiers approaching 7 the camp.
Band orders Coombs and Fife to go. Witt, against all rational 8 judgment, gladly volunteers to go with them. Ill go, he says, I want 9 you to know I think the whole things a bad idea, though. If they come down here in any strength, Lieutenant, theyll knock our position to hell.
Witts sense 3 of his invulnerability makes him prone to take courses of action that risk 4 his life because nothing can endanger his world. But he does so only to 5 help those who are more vulnerable than he is, those whose world can 6 easily collapse in the light of demise.
As we have already claimed, at this point in Witts journey, he has already come in contact with and attained a fragile form of invulnerability by having seen another world, as he says to Welsh. So if Witt senses he is invulnerable, why does he ee the war and his duty as a soldier? Perhaps, the answer is that he doesnt ee at all, but rather is simply attracted by the shining he can see in the Melanesian paradise. What allows us to say that Witt is in fact invulnerable upon his rst encounter with Welsh on the ship, and that he is not merely imagining what he saw and experienced, is what well call Witts early aesthetic understanding of immortality.
When Witt rst mentions to Welsh that hes seen another world after having been AWOL, Witt is referring both to the paradisiacal world where he swam with the Melanesian children as well as to his mothers calmness upon demise.
In other words, the world Witt is referring to is the aesthetic sphere of immortality. To have an aesthetic understanding of immortality is to have a perspective on the world that selectively categorizes things by aesthetic values. Previous to Guadalcanal, Witts aesthetic perspective draws him to things that radiate serenity and beauty, and repels him from things such as war, demise, and suffering.
In Witts aesthetic sphere of understanding, the shining, the glory, and the immortality that he seeks are manifest in all things whose beauty is self-evident, especially amidst a quasi- hedonistic distant paradise where humans live in harmony with nature, death, and one another.
This is light years away from the nightmare of war. In other words, the reason why he abandons the war and his duty as a soldier is that he does not yet have a full understanding of where invulnerability is to be found. Does our ruin benet the earth, aid the grass to grow, and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night? The battle of Guadalcanal, the night Witt passes through, marks the development of Witts under- standing of immortality from the aesthetic to the spiritual.
By embracing the darkness of the world he sees beyond aesthetic invulnerability and begins to grasp spiritual invulnerability. By comforting the dying, by acting courageously, by seeing worlds vanish, Witt does not learn any- thing about demise. Once Witt has 2 seen the encroaching darkness he questions whether his earlier experience 3 of the pure shining of Melanesian life was an illusion. He realizes that 4 what he took to be pure shining was, indeed, illusory.
When he returns 5 to the battleeld he begins to see the shining without denying the worlds collapsing all around him. He learns he has to accept darkness to see the 7 brightness. The war has shed a new light upon a world that can never collapse because in that world things shine in a way he has never seen 9 before. There is no moment 2 of conversion in Witts spiritual journey, no lightning bolt on the road 3 to Damascus, but a series of experiences that slowly shed new light over 4 his world.
Witt goes from seeing the shining only in the Melanesian 5 children and then seeing it threatened by darkness, to seeing the light 6 even in rocks such as Welsh, in the midst of a collapsing world. After Witt has been exposed to the brutalities of war, Welsh asks him if hes 8 still believing in the beautiful light. Witt looks Welsh in the eyes, into 9 the invulnerable stone who believes he is in a moving box and says to 20 him, I still see a spark in you.
One man looks at a dying bird and thinks theres 4 nothing but unanswered pain. That deaths got the nal word; its 5 laughing at him. The striking image of the bird allows us to see Witts point in all clarity. Though the image is of a newly hatched bird, what we see looks so gruesome and stark that Witts voiceover turns the image into both a bird in agony and a miracle of life. Thanks to Witt we see the bird from two perspectives, though never at the same time.
We see the unanswered pain laughing at us as well as a shining with- out end smiling into our eyes. For Witt, at this stage of his spiritual journey the shining and the darkness of the world reside together in all things, including the Melanesians who struggle with disease and inner conict, as Witt has seen in his second visit to their island. They, nonetheless, shine like a rosy-ngered dawn or a blue buttery ying across a battleeld, brought out by their contrast with the darkness of demise and of the destruction of worlds.
On the threshold of demise, Witt, unlike any of us and, as far as we know, any of the soldiers that fought at Guadalcanal, has managed to see the glory at all times, in all places, in all things. At gunpoint, in a eld, in a calmness that reminds us of his mothers, Witt meets his demise without ever dying as he joins the shining he has learned to experience.
We hear his voice still, saying: Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining. Witts immortal voice reaches out to us as the lm ends. We see him swimming again with a group of sunbathed Melanesian children. Then, as we drift away from Guadalcanal, the last three images we see are of children in a boat, colorful birds on a tree, and a sprouting coconut growing in the sea, humans, animals, plants all shining.
That highest form of human being according to Kierkegaard lucidly accepts the vulnerability of an unconditional commitment and yet has the absurd faith that he will never lose it. People with this sort of faith accept their life and 3 world as a gift for which they feel gratitude and on the basis of which they feel secure.
But Malick, like later Heidegger, plays down any sense of guilt, 4 resignation, or latent anxiety which is essential to Kierkegaards Christian 5 account of Religiousness A, and instead emphasizes the glory and shining the pre-Socratic Greeks experienced as wonder in the face of the world. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, New York: Harper and Row. Penguin Books. Princeton University 5 Press. Harvard University Press. University of California Press.
Against a backdrop of sunlight shafting through 2 the high tops of trees, a voiceover asks, in a slow drawl: Whats this 3 war in the heart of nature?
Ostensibly a war movie based on James 4 Joness novel of the same name about the battle for Guadalcanal, Malicks 5 lm has infuriated or enthralled viewers since its release. A survey of the critical and philosophical literature reveals an astonishing diversity of readings, of which the following may serve as a representative sample.
Thomas Doherty reads the lm as a post-Vietnam war movie, in the tradition of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, which explores the darkness in the American soul. This is perhaps the most straightforward kind of reading, but is difcult to reconcile with the narrative structure of the lm, the role accorded to images of nature, and the overtly phil- osophical or religious dimension to the voiceovers that punctuate the narrative.
Similar difculties beset readings of the lm as an attempt to undermine our generic expectations of the war movie in pursuit of a more realistic portrayal of the subject see, for example, Flanagan ; McGettigan These difculties have led a number of critics to claim that the narrative operates at the level of myth rather than history.
Ron Mottram interprets the lm in broadly Christian terms, as an engagement with myths, central to the American consciousness, concerning a state of paradise lost, the possibility of redemption, and the origins of evil.
At the core of Malicks cinema as a whole, and of The Thin Red Line in particular, is the expression of an Edenic yearning to recapture a lost wholeness of being, an idyllic state of integration with the natural and the good both within and without ourselves In a similar voice, Robert Silberman speaks of Malicks Edenic mythologizing Some nd a different kind of transcendence in Malicks narrative, aligning him not with Christian mythology but with American Trans- cendentalism of the sort expounded by Emerson Power and Thoreau Mottram The idea here is that Nature and Soul are the elements making up the universe, and that the individual can attain a kind of unity with the world-soul through communing with nature.
Simon Critchley this volume , while warning against any easy identication of a philosophical message in the lm, 7 argues that it should be seen as a meditation on mortality. The key idea, represented both in his words and in his actions by Witt, is that one 9 should strive to face death, and the vicissitudes of life, with a certain 10 calm akin to that comprised by the Heideggerian conception of Angst 1 that attends Daseins confrontation with its own being-towards-death.
It is the latter, and our ways of relating to it, rather than 6 the former that is the real subject of the lm, on this reading. Malick, they claim, is both 20 expressing, in the content of his lm, Heideggers ontological critique 1 of technology, and also realizing, in the working of the lm on the 2 audience, the role that Heidegger ascribes to the poet in destitute 3 times by revealing, through the medium of cinema, the presencing of 4 Being through language.
Witts voiceovers, they maintain, raise the 5 question of Being in a philosophical manner. Robert Clewis also 6 offers a Heideggerian reading of The Thin Red Line, taking its subject, again 7 most clearly articulated through Witt, to be ontic wonder. For Critchley, Malicks cinema expresses 1 a broadly naturalistic conception of nature.
Nature, non-enchanted, is a 2 warring force that frames the human drama of war but is utterly 3 indifferent to human purposes and intentions. Human death is one more 4 manifestation of the relentlessness of nature, in the face of which 5 calmness is the only valid human response.
In Mottrams reading of the 6 lm as Edenic myth, on the other hand, nature is a powerful sign 7 of a higher good Similarly, for the Transcendentalists, Malick presents nature as the spiritual realm, with which communion enables us to transcend the individual strivings expressed in war. Finally, for Silberman, the central theme of the lm, manifested through the images of human and non- human nature, is the impenetrability of nature itselfis it cruel or kind, beautiful or ugly?
It is in the visuals of the landscape. Of course, Malicks lms are among the most celebrated examples of contemporary cinematic art, and it is to be expected that great works of art will support a plurality of interpretations.
But the range and diversity of readings of The Thin Red Line surely calls for some explanation. A number of factors may help us to understand why this lm has been read in such widely different ways:. There is, rst, a war narrative of a not completely unfamiliar type comprising a series of episodes in the battle for Guadalcanal.
We follow the fates of individual soldiers, see the tensions between members of the military hierarchy and experience the camaraderie between members of the ranks. Moral dilemmas are posed and individuals act in morally assessable wayssome exhibit bravery or compassion, others cowardice or cruelty, and so on. While the lm departs signicantly from our generic expectations for the war movie see Introduction, this volume , it nonetheless contains an intelligible combat narrative that the viewer is expected to grasp, even if it isnt the thematic center of the lm.
Second, as already noted, there are voiceovers mainly in the voice of Witt raising philosophical or theological questions about good and evil, the nature and origin of war in a number of senses, and how one should conduct oneself in the face of what life presents. Third, there are stunning visual representations of nature, especially shots of light ltered through high dense trees, water, long grass shaped by wind, the play of the sun on the landscape, and exotic fauna and ora.
Finally, there is a musical soundtrack 4 replete with leitmotifs and culturally resonant elementsfor example, 5 quotations from Charles Ives The Unanswered Question and the development, in Hans Zimmers haunting score, of melodic ideas from the missionary 7 song that features early in the diegesis and in the closing credits of the lm. The viewer trying to grasp the lms thematic meanings must 9 seek to establish how these elements interact.
For example, does the 10 narrative exemplify, or call into question, the ideas expressed in the voice- 1 overs, or do these ideas contribute in some other way to the workings 2 of the lm? Do the representations of nature frame, or comment on, or 3 expressively embellish, the narrative and interrogatory threads? The narrative of the lm is adapted from James Joness book 8 of the same name, but Malick has changed the ending, the narrative focus, 9 the attention to bodily violation and sexuality in war see Power , 20 and the names and identities of many characters.
Furthermore, Malicks 1 second draft screenplay, which dates from fairly late in the making of 2 the lm, differs in many crucial respects from the nal cut.
In particular, 3 the voiceovers, in which most of the apparent philosophical content of 4 the lm is contained, are neither in the novel nor in that screenplay, and 5 were presumably added in post-production, when the lm was cut down 6 from around seven hours to close to three hours.
His undergraduate work with Cavell, his graduate work on Heidegger, and his translation of the latters Von Wesen des Grundes, 1 have suggested to some critics that it is in the writings of Heidegger that 2 one can nd the key to unlocking the obscurity of Malicks lms.
We have, as interpretive resources, only a couple of interviews following the release of Badlands, some biographies of, or interviews with, cinematographers and actors who have worked with Malick, and a DVDwith no direct contribution by Malickon the making of The New World. In the case of The Thin Red Line, the most informative source is an extended interview with John Toll, the cinematographer who worked with Malick on this lm Pizzello But Tolls acquaintance with the lm stretches no further than the end of the shooting, and therefore does not illuminate the transformations that the lm underwent in post-production which were responsible for the elements in the lm that present the most difcult interpretive challenges.
Vision, touch, and embodiment in The Thin Red Line My aim in this chapter is to point to something that I think has been either missed altogether or only partly grasped by the critical responses of which I am aware, and that may help us to t these readings together and see what is right and what is wrong in each of them. I shall identify what I take to be a central theme in the lm through which it not only engages without answering the philosophical questions posed in the dialogic and monologic content, but does so in a uniquely cinematic way, thereby exemplifying the philosophical possibilities of cinema.
What commentators have missed or misunderstood is the centrality, in the cinematic presentation of the narrative and in some of the voiceovers, of the visual and the tactile, as inections of our cognitive engagement with the world in which we act and are acted upon, and of the ways in which these inections can be integrated with or divorced from one another.
It is tempting, in fact, to distinguish two distinct modes of cognitive engagementvisual and tactilethat are associated in the lm with conict, struggle, cruelty, and instrumentalization, on the one hand, and with reconciliation, love, mercy, and understanding, on the other. But this would be a fatal oversimplication, since the lm itself, both thematically and cinematically, overcomes this opposition and serves as a model of what might be termed tactile vision, as a mode of embodied seeing and embodied agency.
Let me rst identify a number of ways in which the visible and the tangible are thematized in The Thin Red Line, and then suggest how we might bring these threads together into some kind of coherent pattern. Staros Elias Koteas , who is at the front, with failing to understand what is going on. The distanced visual 7 and technologically enhanced mis apprehension of events by Tall is contrasted with the apprehension of those events by those who, like 9 Staros, are caught up in the tactile, acoustic, olfactory, and visual sensory 10 bombardment of battle, as conveyed by Malicks images.
And, in a metaphorical presentation 4 of the same identication of technologically enhanced vision and 5 instrumentalization, we are shown the Japanese machinegun post that is 6 mowing down the American troops assaulting Hill only through the eyes of the slit in the bunker on the hill. We see this initially in his 1 interactions with the children in the village on the Melanesian island 2 where the lm opens, and in the ashback to his mothers death, where 3 we presume that it is Witts hand that is grasping hers Figure 1.
We 4 5 see this later in his reaching out to touch the dying Sgt Keck Woody 6 Harrelson and, after the taking of Hill , in his extending his hand 7 to a terried Japanese prisoner. The clearest example, however, occurs 8 in an extended shot during the leave period after the assault on Hill 9 , when we follow Witt through the camp where other members of the company are engaged in various forms of relaxation. He reaches out 1 to touch and acknowledge each person he passes, and then the camera 2 cuts away to a pair of clasped hands, presumably of one of the local 3 guides.
As the camera cuts back to Witts face, his eyes clearly repre- 4 sented as looking at the hands, we see tears forming in his eyes as he 5 turns away.
Finally, both in the opening sequences on the Melanesian 6 island and in the shots that follow his death, we see him swimming 7 underwater with the local boys, through the tactile resistance of the aqueous medium. The theme of Witts seeing is announced very early in the lm when, in his interview with Sgt Welsh Sean Penn after being returned to the ship after his period AWOL, he responds to Welshs remark that there aint no world but this one by insisting that he has seen another world an insistence of which much is made by those offering Christian and Transcendentalist readings of the lm.
The theme is reiterated in a voiceover much later in the lm when, to images of Welsh walking through the camp while the campres are being extinguished, the voice- over probably Witt, although there is some uncertainty about this talks of how two men can see the same dying bird, yet, while one sees only pain and death, the other sees the glory.
Critchley this volume remarks, of this passage, that Welsh and Witt are presented as seeing different things in the same situation. Furthermore, as a number of commentators not otherwise conspicuous for their concord have noted, the lm often seems to be showing things through Witts eyes.
Consider, for example, Martin Flanagans com- ments on the way in which Malick presents the assault on Hill Characteristic Malickian grace notes occur in the midst of the con- fusion, with shafts of light piercing through the long grass such moments are usually relayed to a reverse shot of Witt, establish- ing the different register with which he seems to perceive events; although a peripheral gure in the action of the attack, Witts viewpoint is frequently adopted.
Power makes a similar point, stating that Malick frames the images in the way Witt would see themquiet, calm, and untainted The most extended treatment of this idea, however, is to be found in Bersani and Dutoits book Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity. They take the key to the lm to be what they term Witts look, which simply connects to the world through what might seem like a distancing from it: Bersani and Dutoit are right, I think, to resist the Transcendentalist reading of such talk of another world: They are wrong, however, to identify 1 Witts look as one of ontological passivity, the look of a subject 2 divested of subjectivity Rather, the key to Witts seeing 3 differently lies in the way in which his seeing is integrated with his 4 embodied engagement with his world.
It is because Witts seeing of the 5 world is so fully integrated into his embodied engagement with things 6 that he quite literally sees another world, and his actionsthe calm of which a number of critics speakare the direct consequence of 8 the world he sees. Witts seeing of things as sensible and sentient sur- 9 faces, his, in this sense, seeing feelingly in the words of the blinded 20 Gloucester in King Lear, is to be contrasted with the disembodied and 1 instrumentalizing vision of Tall.
In particular, one needs to correctly apprehend the 6 signicance and place in the lm of Welshs haunting nal voiceover, as 7 we see the emotionally and spiritually ravaged faces of the remaining 8 members of Charlie company making their way to the troop ships for 9 disembarkation.
After reiterating his earlier observations about the property based nature of the war and rehearsing his personal credo 1 for surviving in such circumstancesthat the only thing a man can do 2 is to nd something thats his and turn himself into an islandhis nal 3 words in the lm are as follows: If I never meet you in this world, let 4 me feel the lack.
One look from your eyes and my life will be yours. Clewis also endorses such a reading, taking it to be a key piece of evidence for his claim that, by the end of the lm, Welsh has undergone a profound transformation due to the inuence of Witt, a transformation which, for Clewis, is one of the most existentially signicant elements in the lm Clewis But this reading of Welshs closing words makes no sense in light of the remarks that immediately precede them.
The lack that Welsh wishes to feel is not the painful absence of others with whom he wishes to be in community, but the welcome absence of the demands of others that will imperil his defensive strategy. It is because, as is apparent in his relationship to Witt and his confession to not yet feeling numb, he recognizes that the looks of others make demands upon him that he cannot resist.
As Bersani and Dutoit rightly point out, the look of others, the way they are visually engaged by the worlds they see, is the way in which they present themselves to us, as embodied experiencers of the world to whose self-presentations we respond through our own embodied existence. This brings me to another crucial feature of the lm, and of Malicks cinema more generally, that has, I think, been misinterpreted by com- mentators.
It is often remarked that Malicks lms prescind from what is normally a central concern for narrative cinema, namely, the presenta- tion of characters who are psychologically thick in that the motivations for their actions are made clear, usually through the dialogue in the diegesis.
Indeed, if we compare Malicks lms with their screenplays, it is clear that much of the motivational detail contained in dialogue in the screenplay has been deliberately excised from the lm, so that the visual takes over from the verbal, and that this excision was in accordance with Malicks explicit instructions to the actors see Morrison and Schur Some of Malicks critics have even suggested that this is the reason why the voiceovers are needed, to make up for the unintelligibility of the lm in the absence of some alternative way of communicating the psychological states of the characters.
On this widely accepted model in cognitive science, our 2 capacity to make sense of the actions of others requires either the applica- 3 tion of a theory of mind that trafcs in such intentional ascriptions or 4 the running, in a mental simulator, of the intentional prole attributed 5 to the other. Malicks characters, however, seem to respond to one another and to the world they encounter in a less deliberatively mediated 7 way.
They respond to the world that they see, as embodied agents, and perceive the actions of others as expressions of their human projects. They 9 experience the world as calling on them to act in certain ways, and they 10 respond to this call without prior reasoning of the sort required by the 1 instrumental model.
Malick's approach to representing the enemy, thus, neither vilifies American soldiers, as many Vietnam films have done, nor promotes both sides of a moral or political argument, as one finds in Beach Red and Clint Eastwood's two films on Iwo Jima.
Malick dazes his viewers by suspending the argument altogether and sinking them in a more personal response to carnage and death. The Thin Red Line follows Charlie Company almost all the time, and through various characters we see the tremendous emotional turmoil and unpredictable behaviour of individual men in these uniquely horrible conditions.
Doll says in voiceover after his first kill, "I killed a man Worst thing you can do. Worse than rape There's plenty of valour in the actions of Malick's Charlie Company - Witt's courage and sacrifice, Welsh's mad rush to aid the dying Telia, Doll's charge for the Japanese stronghold. Bell's recce up the hill - but little nobility in the end. Weingartner, 'Trophies of War' Poisons the soul.
Doubt, anxiety, madness, and post- traumatic stress belong in Vietnam, not amongst the brave fighting men of World War II. But Malick is actually in line with Jones, who often treated macho representations of combat satirically. At one point in the novel.
Bell converses with his absent wife in interior monologue: You want to make life. You dont [sic] understand men" As Steven R. Carter has written, "The Thin Red Line devastatingly comments on the 'toughness' of men in combat who fail to acknowledge the wholeness of the masculine and the feminine Transcending Genre In its departures from the combat-movie genre. The Thin Red Line questions the myths of national unity and character that have grown out of World War II, and the film subverts the mythic qualities of those narratives that have come to represent World War II, just as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon have, in a reverse tone, come to represent the war in Vietnam.
The Thin Red Line questions the untroubled return to the values of the Greatest Generation by reminding the viewer of the intervening trauma of Vietnam and, more important, by reminding the viewer of the trauma of conflict for everyone involved.
The questions posed by the film in voiceover are muttered doubts about the spiritual cleansing of the national character through most World War II revival films.
Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk Spring Malick's film suggests, instead, that the negative myths of Vietnam and the positive myths of World War II are inseparable stitches in the same seam that runs back to the origins of America's conception of itself. Against offering evidence for the necessity of winning WWII, no matter the cost. The Thin Red Line maneuvers the details of the war to the margins, details that would form the narrative crux of other combat films.
It also refuses to affirm the importance of the war film as an educational or commemorative text, a way of teaching those who weren't there what it was really like. While Malick stages several ground-shaking battle sequences and spares the viewer little in depicting the physical annihilation of war, he refuses to make these a central locus for meaning.
Subtly but forcefully, the film challenges the ethos of the genre and the culture of the combat film, where imagery and narrative structure combine to set the epic reach of the war film—in its grand depictions of the wastefulness of war, the capricious termination of young lives, the class battles between those who give and those who take orders—within the scope of individual experience.
In The Thin Red Line's closing shots, America's newly affirmed nationhood, yearning to rise from the epic tales of toughened young fighting men and their conquests of strange shores, is dissolved into the idiosyncratic images of a life lived wholly outside the mythologizing discourses of war. Works Cited Anderegg, Michael, ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War Film and Television.
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Young, Marilyn. Filmography Attack! However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. Related Papers. By Carl Plantinga. By Martin Flanagan. The migrant archetype in the cinema of Terrence Malick English Version.
By Pablo Alzola Cerero. Challenging the border as barrier: Liminality in Terrence Malick's the thin red line. Vernacular Metaphysics: By Robert Pippin.