Prayers in Wartime
This is the seventh post in my Blindspot review series. I will continue to publish one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
Most conventional war movies focus on the inhumanity of man as a consequence of blood shed on the battlefield. The Thin Red Line, helmed by director-philosopher Terrence Malick after a 20-year directorial hiatus, has loftier aims, framing war itself as symptomatic of a greater tension within nature, at least as perceived by our insular, earthbound species. The film, which tracks a platoon of American soldiers as they attempt to usurp Japanese control of a plot of strategically valuable land, is superficially about the usual wartime concerns as depicted in the movies: PTSD, the fraternal bond between brothers in arms, War is Hell. But notice how Malick intercuts carnage with gorgeous shots of sunlight streaming through treetops, human death with images of flourishing plant and animal life, bedraggled soldiers with the calming sight of wind rustling through a field of grass. In these contrasts, we see humanity’s troubled relationship with the death and suffering that taint a natural world of otherwise extraordinary beauty. The opening voiceover asks the thematic question that will be articulated again and again in the film’s dialectical images: “What is this war in the heart of nature?”
All this is familiar territory previously covered not only in cinema but in religious and philosophical conversations dating back millennia. In terms of its ideas, The Thin Red Line offers little new insight, but the experience of watching these ideas expressed through sound, image, and narrative is compelling. The film’s most obvious forte is its virtuoso filmmaking; put another way, the beauty is truly beautiful, the horror genuinely horrific. On the beauty end of things, Malick lets the forest canopies, chirping birds, and sapphire waters speak for themselves, and if critics level accusations of artistic pretension in his direction, let them be reminded that, without discounting the importance of cinematography, an image of a sunset is beautiful only secondarily because of the way the shot is framed – the height of the image’s splendor lies in the sunset itself. When the natural world is the camera’s subject, there can only be so much artifice. Whatever intentions Malick and DP John Toll may have had for their film to appear picturesque, their achievement in capturing the breathtaking vistas in The Thin Red Line is genuine.
Counterbalancing these scenes are grueling ones of combat and emotional pandemonium, some of which feel trite but more often than not transmit a visceral power. Swooping crane shots capture violence in large swaths, weaving several expansive tapestries of brutality. We see running soldiers shredded by mortar and bullets, and in the film’s aesthetic zenith, American troops storm a Japanese camp while giving and receiving heavy fire. Interspersed between these tableaus of large-scale devastation are smaller-scale torments, as that pathetic, painful moment when a soldier accidentally kills himself by grabbing a grenade by the pin, or when another receives a letter from his beloved telling him that she’s leaving him for another man. On paper, this latter scene suggests the maudlin quality of a tear-jerking genre picture, but Malick handles it well by first providing us tender flashbacks of the couple in the throes of love then blindsiding us with the sound of her voice, full of sadness but somehow crueler for it, pronouncing an end to their marriage.
And so stand beauty and violence, diametrically opposed yet inextricably entwined. Faced with the awesome perplexities of this existence, the characters appear to spend most of their time in a state of rumination, not speaking all that much. Such contemplative reticence is characteristic of at least two of Malick’s other films, Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life (I have yet to see The New World or To the Wonder). In place of chatter, we often hear people’s thoughts: floating voices from various hearts drift heavenward, inquiring, beseeching, praying. This is an inspired touch, given the usual hypermasculine, action-oriented posturing that so pervades the war-movie milieu. The alpha male dimension is granted requisite presence in Nick Nolte’s character, but even this instance is tempered by Nolte’s voiceover, which is as hushed and soft as anyone else’s, perhaps suggesting Malick’s intent on revealing vulnerability and soul beneath even the most hardened of exteriors.
Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz once described Malick as an architect of cathedrals, and indeed, there is something about The Thin Red Line’s abundant quietude, the visual splendor of its diegetic spaces, and the chorus of its characters’ prayers that evoke the atmosphere of a congregation lying prostrate before their Lord. Furthermore, there are echoes of Biblical language throughout the film – mentions of both “mercy” and “glory” make appearances, and the movie’s pensive coda involves a soldier imploring to an unidentified listener, “Look out at the things you made,” an obvious reference to the creation narrative. It could also be argued that the film’s cinematographic and aural perspective evokes the eyes and ears of a God-like presence: the camera, which seems to focus as much on the human players as the natural environment they pass through, has an all-seeing quality, and the film accesses the headspace of multiple characters in the likeness of an omniscient being.
I point all this out to illuminate one way in which The Thin Red Line may be presenting a response to the question of why nature is the way it is. The characters never receive a clear answer over the course of the story, and yet the film’s final moments can only be described as tranquil, if not lacking in sadness. This feeling of peace doesn’t make sense narratively – many soldiers have fallen, and their surviving comrades have more war ahead of them, facts typically calling forth emotions closer to grief or despair. And yet the film’s final words describe all of creation as “shining,” and the closing shots depict a paradisaical place where wildlife and the elements seem to be in perfect harmony. This puzzling denouement begins with one of the characters, gazing upon the receding shore of the island that housed so much pain and death. He is, like many characters before him, deep in thought and prayer. Through voiceover, he articulates once more the question that has been haunting the film, haunting us: “Darkness and light, strife and love, are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”
Without being given any audible reply, he shifts into a register of what can only be described as surrender – “Oh my soul, let me be in you now” – and praise. Christian viewers will relate to the idea that, despite the sufferings of war and, if the battlefield is read allegorically, life itself, there exists the reassurance that every trial is part of a divine plan. For viewers skeptical of religious faith, the film’s close offers a gentle invitation to wonder. Humanity may not know the answers to the cosmic Whys, but maybe, just maybe, someone else does.