It’s Christmas in July! My favorite film of all time–yep, it has been for over 12 years now–is being released by the Criterion Collection this September.
I’m so excited. Extras on the DVD include everything I would have wanted (except for a Terrence Malick commentary… but that would never happen).
I love this film. I watch it at least once a year, or whenever I need a catharsis. It’s an utterly transcendent, pure, soul-enhancing masterpiece.
In honor of the momentous milestone of its long overdue Criterion release, I’ve posted the text of an essay I wrote about the film last year. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t read it–contains spoilers!
THE THIN RED LINE
After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.
If The Thin Red Line is anything it is certainly a catharsis. The line between the holy and human is never as blurry within the Malick corpus as it is here. Even the form of the film, with its indistinguishable voiceovers and exchangeable characters, echoes this uncertain harmony. From the opening line of the film (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), the dualistic balancing act in nature takes center stage. While the protagonists of Malick’s two earlier films (Martin Sheen’s Kit and Richard Gere’s Bill) both encounter this “war” in nature, neither recognizes the simultaneous horror and rapture of existence for what it is. Only Line’s Witt (Jim Caviezel) sees, though the sharpened eye of war, the transcendental “light” amid the darkness all around him. Where others in that film succumb to desperation or nihilistic ambivalence, Witt sees sparks of a heavenly glory. He recognizes the seemingly paradoxical notion that “even—no, especially—in the throes of self-annihilation, man can apprehend the sublime,” as Gavin Smith wrote in his Film Comment analysis of the film.
The film’s World War II backdrop underscores the message of conflict as an elemental part of life, something running much deeper than just guns and bombers. It is a very Heideggerian notion—that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. As Heidegger puts it, the world (humanity) and earth (physical nature) are in a constant and essential striving, opponents that “raise each other into the self assertion of their natures” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”). Malick turns the philosophical concept into artistic exposition by showing us how conflicts between war and peace, darkness and light, love and strife drive our existence. It’s a film that is more interested in the fact that the world is governed by conflicts, and less in the question of which side is right and which is wrong.
At the heart of the film is the notion that this warring tension is evidence of something other—some oneness and perfection that life can’t fulfill. It is perhaps what Chesterton deemed “divine discontent”—the happiness that comes from both loving and disdaining the world around us. If pure happiness is possible for man in this life, Chesterton says that it “will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.” Happiness in life comes from the deepest longing for the other—for the filling of “the lack.” We see through the inhumanity of battle in Line that beyond the divisions of people and nations lays a common humanity that longs for that oneness and reconciliation that nature—in its beautiful brokenness—reflects.
In Line, as in his other films, Malick uses raw and unmediated nature as a chief expository tool. Much more than just a setting (the jungles of Guadalcanal) or a pretty background, the imagery in Line forms the heart of the film. Nature is at once cruel (creeping, suffocating vines) and beautiful (light filtering through the canopy), though in either case indifferent to human affairs. Like the final shot of an improbable palm sprout on the shores of a battle-weary beach, nature pushes on despite our best (or worst) intentions. The war in nature is eternal (at least as long as this world exists), and our own inner battles are indifferently digested in its “neverthelessness.” As such, there is a cleansing, redemptive power in nature. Our transitory place within the realm of the physical brings us into a close, almost spiritual bond with it. Water imagery in Line shows this, as does light. The baptismal quality of the former appears throughout—when Witt swims with the natives, when the soldiers swim during their leave, when the G.I. huddles in the cold, drenching rain, longing for purification. The divine illumination of the latter also offers redemption—lighting our dark hearts, warming our cold souls, and keeping the “spark” alive.
If nature is the heart of this film, then the character of Witt is its soul. Not that the two are, in the end, distinguishable. Witt sees the spark in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves (as in Sean Penn’s character). Witt looks into the eyes of the dying, and where others might see depravity and waste, Witt sees the glory. What Witt sees in his comrades and enemies is less the ‘heart of darkness’ than the ‘heart of the ordinary’—ordinary men bound by the thin red line which encircles them as they walk the threshold between life and death, meaning and meaninglessness. The line is thinnest at the point of death, and this is where pure transcendence occurs.
Witt approaches death with startling metaphysical calm. He begins the movie skeptically, musing about his mother’s death: “I was afraid to touch the death that I see in her. I couldn’t find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t never seen it.” In the course of the film, however, Witt comes to realize that mortality and immortality are symbiotic rivals, at war and peace with each other like most else in nature. Glimpses of immortality are seen all over life (the holy) as are pictures of death (the human), but to be completely either is to be completely both, and that happens when one crosses the thin red line.
At the beginning of the film Witt explains his longing to meet death in the same way as his mother (“with the same calm”), because “that’s where it’s hidden—the immortality that I hadn’t seen.” When death comes knocking, Witt faces it with similar peace, looking upwards at the light as it ushers him out of time. Heidegger calls it “Angst”—a peaceful state in the face of one’s physical extinction and the only real place of immortality. Witt knows death is a just punishment—if not for anything specific he has done, then at least for his fallen nature. It is death that is at once the cruelest act of nature and the most merciful. It is the punishment for sin and the only resolution for it—a terrible moment of rapture and grace where the two sides of everything make peace and return to the oneness that was torn asunder.