by Lindsey Routledge – University of Calgary
Terrence Malick presents to his audiences existential dualities, which confront each other through juxtaposition of images and sound. Voiceover is implemented strategically, in areas that otherwise would risk being more superficial, in order to emphasize the overall thematics of the film. His characters ask questions throughout the film pertaining to the opposition between nature and grace, as is defined in The Tree of Life (2011). These oppositions demonstrate internal struggles regarding how an individual is meant to exist. Though the closing sequence of The Tree of Life provides explicit closure as to which path provides content inner peace, denoting the path of grace as the one of fulfillment, Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) addresses many of the questions which lead up to that closure. However, the questions are answered less explicitly, as no character appears to reach any sort of inner peace. In this adaptation of the novel by James Jones, Malick presents information in such a way that the relations between sound and image provide intense contemplation regarding the origin of good and evil, and how one is meant to live through chaos, such as war. Through images of external struggle between societies, as well as between man and nature, the inner turmoil experienced by individuals is represented. The pre-determined nature of the narrative, being that someone other than Malick conceived the novel, allows the film to truly speak to Malick’s unique film style. Rather than picking out narrative elements that may be recurring, the viewer is forced to examine cinematic elements in greater depth, allowing the Malickian aesthetic of oppositions, and of duality, to become more distinguishable.
Addressing the issue of Malick’s film style in The Thin Red Line has unique complications as the film is an adaptation of a novel; the characters are not figments of Malick’s imagination and the events do not occur the way they might have if the narrative have been conceived in Malick’s mind. However, it is precisely this external source of material that provides the opportunity to isolate Malick’s signature in the film. A novel provides a narrative, whereas a film implements more dimensions of story telling, and this allows a director’s aesthetic to triumph over the constraints of a story they did not create. What can be identified in cases such as The Thin Red Line is what Andrew Sarris calls “interior meaning”, as described in Barry Grant’s “Introduction” from Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Sarris is quoted as having explained interior meaning to be “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (Grant, 5). Grant elaborates on this concept, stating that, “although [Sarris] fails to explain what this means, it may be understood […] as the way a director mobilizes, inflects, or deploys the elements of genre he was obliged to use” (Grant, 5). This interior meaning – namely the oppositions such as life and death, good and evil, and nature and grace in Malick’s films – can be drawn out of The Thin Red Line most strongly through Malick’s imposition of voiceover upon images which create meaning through contrast with each other.
Despite a pre-determined narrative, Malick’s signature is evident immediately from the exposition of The Thin Red Line. A medium shot of a crocodile crawling slowly into algae-covered water opens the film, followed by more stunning images of nature while the voiceover begins. The image of the crocodile is striking in several respects. First, the crocodile camouflages itself the way the soldiers attempt to blend into the war-stricken landscape that attempts to swallow them at every opportunity. This leads to the idea that Malick is comparing man to animal. In the seventeenth century, at a time when the possibility for a person to be defined as an individual apart from society was a relatively new concept, Rene Descartes argued that the difference between man and animal is the human ability to use reason, as oppose to animalistic instinct. However, Malick blurs the lines that separate man from animal in the film. The concept of war itself is based upon a failure to settle issues with reason or intellect, and, as presented in the film, this unrest is present at the core of nature, of society, and the individual.
Following the shot of the crocodile, a Malickian voiceover enters the film, asking, “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” This question outlines the inner turmoil of a unified being as represented externally throughout The Thin Red Line. The crocodile slithers into the water as though it is tracking a predator, just as the American and Japanese soldiers hunt and are hunted by one another. Segments of the film saturated with voiceover of various soldiers’ existential contemplations all pertain to this question of war. They attempt to locate the source of this unrest in the world that manifests itself in the depths of individuals. Malick provides numerous images all demonstrating battles within nature, complimenting the scenes of battle between the Americans and the Japanese, which are essentially battles within an entity that is supposed to be unified. Later in the film, Malick addresses the idea that every human is of the same origin with the same desires, once again through voiceover: “Maybe all man got one big soul, who everyone’s a part of…all faces of the same man…one big self. Everyone lookin’ for salvation by themself, each like a coal drawn from the fire.” Here, Private Witt considers the similarities between men and how they are connected in nature, rather than the conflicts that occur due to differences. He is shown observing the destruction man has inflicted upon himself, as well as the connection between individuals as the soldiers care for one another. This demonstrates that despite their individuality and differences, they are still part of a larger whole. This sequence ironically provides juxtaposition within the film, as it speaks of unity in a film that is about internal conflict of two sides, and the way it manifests itself externally. The idea of being part of a bigger picture resonates in this sequence through yet another image: Private Witt is shown pouring water over the head of an injured soldier with as much care as though he were performing a baptism. Being a symbol of becoming part of an eternal force, the similarity to baptism in this scene reflects Witt’s faith in the “one big soul” of man, despite existing in a world where men do not act in unison.
A helpful concept in further understanding the conflict between unity and disunity in Malick’s film style is the analytical minimalism of Antonioni, as discussed and defined by András Kovács. He identifies analytical minimalism as “the split Antonioni makes between different dimensions of the form: the background and the characters on the one hand, the plot and the viewer’s time experience on the other” (Kovács, 149). In other words, it divides time and space, as they are experienced by the viewer as well as by the characters. Applying this concept to The Thin Red Line involves identifying the relationships between these elements. Kovács continues to explain the “dramatic tension between the characters and the environment” in that “the characters are in a way disconnected from this background,” being one of “emptiness and desolation” in many Antonioni films. In The Thin Red Line, however, the characters are connected to their surrounding environment in that they become swallowed by it, the grass and the jungle, in the same way that they are consumed by war, struggles occurring both externally between men (though internally within nature), as well as within each individual soldier who grapples with his purpose in the overwhelming immensity of war, and of life itself. Kovács introduces the term ‘metonymy’, which “suggests that the characters are organic parts of the landscape they move around in,” meaning that the environment reflects “the same emotional meanings as the character’s behavior” (Kovács, 150). He argues that in the case of Antonioni’s films, such as L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960, Italy/France), “there is a strong contrast between the characters’ desolate psychic state and the diversity and beauty of the world around them” (Kovács, 150), rather than ‘metonymy.’ However, the integration of Malick’s characters into the landscape of The Thin Red Line is unmistakably present. Most obviously, both American and Japanese soldiers are dressed in military camouflage, attempting to blend in to the grass and trees that hide them at the same time as inhibiting their ability to see oncoming threats. Slightly less evident is the sublime power of nature being exercised upon itself, as it challenges the humans it produced. Just as the vines wrap around the trees, nature wraps itself around humanity, reflecting man’s incessant inner-turmoil in his search for purpose. Extreme long shots of the landscape portray an eerie calmness in the film, yet when the camera moves in closer, true chaos and uncertainty are betrayed. This reflects the fear residing within each individual, and the way the war prods at this fear until it gets the best of the soldiers.
Returning to the concept of unity being demonstrated through Private Witt, throughout the film, Witt’s gaze is one of understanding, and in numerous instances, the camera returns his gaze comfortably head on. He is frequently shown observing his surroundings thoughtfully, as the camera observes him. The sequence of shots preceding the final attack on the Japanese camp before they take the hill, beginning with a low angle of Private Witt looking toward the ground that cuts to the face of the dead Japanese man protruding from the ground visually enforces Kovács’ concept of metonymy in Malick’s film, as the face blends with the soil. When combined with the voiceover of an unknown soldier, it also raises the idea that man is part of the “one big soul” of nature. The voiceover confronts the audience, as well as Witt, asking, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too.” Malick’s use of voiceover in this instance demonstrates Witt’s feeling of connection with the world around him and develops the idea that in nature humans are all the same. Men are all subjected to the same forces of good and evil, both externally and internally, regardless of race. In this particular shot, it is as though Witt can hear the dead man’s soul speaking to him, through the “one big soul,” of which he feels that he is a part.
One of the most strongly symbolic sequences introducing the oppositions within nature is in the opening sequence, where images of vines wrapped around trees are shown. When first presented, these images appear graceful and beautiful, despite the voiceover addressing the war within nature. However, when addressed later in the film, new connotations are given. Lieutenant Colonel Tall tells Staros to observe the vines, “the way they wrap around the trees, swallowing everything.” An image originally seen as a phenomenon of nature now represents nature’s cruelty, speaking to the duality of good and evil. Both the trees and the vines are part of nature, and are similar in that they are both plants. However, because they are different plants they are in competition, just as the Americans are in competition with the Japanese for survival. Further enforcing the idea of conflict within something that is supposed to be unified is the return of voiceover following the sequence of the attack on the Japanese camp. The fact that the source of the voice remains ambiguous plays on the idea that humanity is derived from one source within nature. It is a voice, as well as a thought, that could belong to any one of the men in the film. This voice addresses these forces that smother mankind and questions their origin: “This great evil…where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What sea, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin us? Robbin’ us of life and light?” This contemplation is ironic in several senses. First, the idea that the “great evil” stole its way into the world is matched with the images of the American soldiers infiltrating the Japanese camp in a similar manner. They are supposed to be fighting to rid the world of evil, but are destroying humanity in the process. In this case, who is evil and who is good? Whose place is it to determine right from wrong? Second, humanity is killing itself. Cultures threaten to wipe each other out in war, however humanity as a whole is diminished when such a tragedy occurs. When the voiceover asks, “who’s killing us,” the answer is internal. The individual is eaten away by inner-conflict between right and wrong, and civilization as a whole disintegrates as a result of conflicts of interests.
Further assisting discussion of the source of evil in nature is the article, “The Thin Red Line: Dying Without Demise, Demise Without Dying” by Hubert Dreyfus and Camilo Salazar Prince. The concept of a breakdown of an individual or culture within Malick’s film is addressed, as Dreyfus and Prince discuss demise in contrast with ontological death, the first involving a removal from existence, the second consisting of a lived experience. Philosopher Martin Heidegger is quoted in this article, describing ontological death as “a way to be, […] it is a way of living that takes account of our constant vulnerability to the collapse of our way of life” (Dreyfus & Prince, 29). Sean Penn’s character, Sergeant Welsh, lives in this slightly pessimistic feeling of a lack of truth or purpose in the world, which is exactly the kind of ontological death described by Dreyfus and Prince: “the loss of what gives meaning to one’s world” (Dreyfus & Prince, 29). This ontological death is best represented in one of the final sequences, once again by voiceover imposed over images of otherwise singular dimension. Throughout the film, Welsh questioned Witt’s unwavering faith in the “light.” Following Witt’s death, Welsh appears to have lost his connection to any source of hope, asking the rhetorical question, “where’s your spark now?” The voiceover then continues over shots of George Clooney’s character giving the soldiers a talk about how they are to function as a family, with himself at the head. Sean Penn’s voice acknowledges once more his disgust with the war:
Everything a lie, everything you hear, everything you see, so much to spew out… They just keep coming, one after another. You’re in a box, a moving box they want you dead or in their lie. Only one thing a man can do, find something that’s his, make an island for himself.
This voiceover accuses the institution of the military, and the foundations of society, of being built upon lies for their own gain. Each man is stripped of his individuality, as represented by the military uniform that blends each soldier into his surroundings, and is assimilated into a machine that, according to Welsh, is simply in search of property. Welsh has no faith in the soul of the world, whose existence is pondered on numerous occasions throughout the film, and believes solely in the harsh reality in which he exists during the war. He is aware that he has been stripped of his individuality, and that he is a tool to his superiors in their rampage toward selfish glory. Ontological death is experienced by Welsh throughout the film, as he fails to connect himself with the “one big soul” of which Witt speaks. Right from the beginning of the film, Welsh tells Witt, “We’re living in a world that’s blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it…all a man can do is shut his eyes…and look out for himself.” He is aware of the cultural collapse, as well as the world collapse, that Dreyfus and Prince speak of, and clearly resorts to cynical invulnerability to deal with these collapses.
Malick’s camera behavior furthers the effect of world and cultural collapse in The Thin Red Line. Throughout the progression of the film, the camera shows various elements as though from the point of view of different characters. Other times, however, it does not succeed in attaching itself to any individual, but is rather overwhelmed by the chaos, unable to follow any specific train of thought. One particular instance where the camera is unmotivated by any individual character is when the Americans attack the Japanese camp, finally taking Hill 210. The camera pans and tilts from soldier to soldier, frantically looking about amidst the chaos of the attack. It takes on the role of the “wandering camera,” defined by Kenneth Johnson, as “those moments when the camera as a narrating entity wanders on its own, detached from supporting the story through a character’s point of view” (Johnson, 49). This sequence communicates to the audience the sense of fear felt by some soldiers, as well as the unbridled thirst for the kill that has developed among others. In this sense, the camera enhances a sense of disunity, as each man reacts differently in battle. Even the Japanese soldiers vary from psychotic breakdown to collected meditation during the attack. Still, Malick doesn’t allow the camera to construct any cohesive point of view. As defined by Kenneth Johnson, the wandering camera also “causes a momentary conflict in tense experience” (Johnson, 50). Malick’s camera presents the events as they happen, no longer as part of a constructed product, but rather “the story in the process of being created” (Johnson, 50). The camera is unaware of where the most important action to explain the narrative will take place, and resorts to frantically attempting to take in as much information as it can at once.
Malick also plays with temporality through his use of sound. This occurs specifically in the sequence following the shot of the dead man’s face staring at the camera through the dirt, the rest of his body swallowed by the earth. The sound of a clock ticking is heard as the soldiers disperse through the foggy jungle, unable to see much of their surroundings, but fully aware of the Japanese soldiers lurking around every corner. This implementation of non-diegetic sound makes the audience painfully aware of several thematic elements. The undetermined length of the war is one of these elements, as well as each man’s mortality. Also, in that moment, the soldiers are pressing forward through the jungle unsure of when they will encounter their enemy and be forced to fight for their lives once again. Malick creates suspense for his audience, as they are confronted with the concept of limited time for each individual life within an infinite existence of time in nature.
Despite being an adaptation from a novel by a different author, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line provides multitudes of examples of the Malickian aesthetic showing through a pre-constructed narrative. Malick implements unique methods of story telling, involving creation of contrasting relationships between images and voiceover, as well as between sequences within the film. Even his characters are developed through these images and sounds in such a way that they provide internal and external oppositions, typical of Malick’s films. Oppositions between man and nature, between nature and grace, and between good and evil are portrayed through image relations which compare man to animal, acting based on animalistic, fight or flight instinct rather than by intellectual reason. Voiceover is used to contemplate conflicts within nature, as well as within individuals. The use of Kovács’ analytical minimalism uses imagery to further enhance the effect of how man interacts with his surrounds, and how his surroundings reflect his internal state. Johnson’s “wandering camera” creates a unique viewing experience, showing events from a point of view that lacks connection to any identifiable individual while belonging to all the soldiers at once. All of these filmic elements allow the audience to extrapolate interior meaning from the relationships between images and sound, as identified by Barry Grant in his discussion of Andrew Sarris’ ideas regarding auteurism. Throughout Malick’s films, the same existential considerations are apparent. Characters continue to ask rhetorical questions through voiceover regarding the origin of good and evil and how they are meant to exist amidst the uncertainty of the world. The Thin Red Line thoroughly demonstrates this questioning through the juxtaposition of images and sound, allowing the audience to consider the way in which Malick chose to portray the narrative in his own way, as oppose to the way the narrative itself was constructed by the author of the original novel.
The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, USA, 2011)
The Thin Red Line (dir. Terrence Malick, USA, 1998)
L’Avventura (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960, Italy/France)
Grant, Barry K. “Introduction.” Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2008), pp. 1-6.
Kovacs, András Bálint. “Styles of Modernism.” Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema. 1950-1980, pp. 140-156.
Dreyfus, Hubert & Prince, Camilo Salazar. “The Thin Red Line: Dying Without Demise, Demise Without Dying.” pp. 30-43.
Johnson, Kenneth. “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera.” Cinema Journal, Volume 32, Number 2 (Winter 1993), pp. 49-56.