Editors’ Note: Last week, Ross Andersen told me he had an essay on filmmaker Terrence Malick that was “perfect for Snarkmarket.” At first, I thought he wanted me to link to it, but I quickly realized he meant it would be perfect to guest-post here, like our earlier Netflix sci-fi catalog post by the Snarkmatrix’s Matt Penniman. I happily agreed. And now, I’ve got TWO Malick movies I’m motivated to see as soon as I can.
— Tim Carmody
This is a tough week for the Terrence Malick fan. On Friday, The Tree of Life is due to hit theaters stateside, having premiered and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this month. Already the web is crackling with reactions to the film, flustering those of us too prole to have hopped a Gulfstream to the international debut. After watching the trailer to the point of emotional exhaustion, it occurred to me that a look back at Malick’s oeuvre might be in order, if nothing else as a more productive pre-release time killer. I was especially keen to revisit The Thin Red Line, the finest war film in a generation and the one that made Malick’s legend with those of us too young to have seen Badlands on the big screen.
When we say that a work of art is ahead of its time, often we intend only to convey its excellence, but there is another meaning. In the last weeks of 1998, The Thin Red Line lit up the silver screens of an America that had settled into a lasting peace. These were heady days; the abrupt end of the Cold War had given rise to ideas like ‘the end of history’, the notion that war itself had been vanquished, and that the peaceful spread of democracy was imminent. And while there may have been no bending of swords into ploughshares, the Internet, a brainchild of the Pentagon, had begun to turn a mighty harvest. It was as though the fog of war had suddenly lifted, burnt away forever by the hot shining stars on the American flag.
Thus, moviegoers can be forgiven for skipping out on Malick’s opus, which arrived alongside reviews keen to warn of its three-hour running time. In the San Francisco Examiner, Edvins Beitiks called the film “a long exercise in pseudo-philosophy… visually stunning but empty at its core.” Charles Taylor, writing for Salon, quipped that it was a “mixture of distanced estheticism and woozy imponderables” made by “a tin-pot Kurtz”, the latter a reference to the director’s various eccentricities. The film grossed a mere thirty-six million dollars at the box office; less than a sixth of the total hauled in by Armageddon, an entertainment more in keeping with the national mood. Of course history didn’t let us alone for long. No thief in the night, it roared right back into the American consciousness with a singularly traumatic spectacle: the smoky, shrieking collapse of the World Trade Center. All at once the fog of war returned, thick like the ash hovering just above the streets of lower Manhattan. The decade that followed is not easily summarized, nor has it altogether concluded, but one thing is certain: the war film is newly resonant in its wake.
Whatever its cultural import, as an exercise in pure cinema, The Thin Red Line is a visionary work. Like its source material, a novel by James Jones, the film’s narrative is a sprawling anthill of small stories dug into and around a battle on the island of Guadalcanal. Over the years the Second World War has proved a fertile subject for America’s filmmakers, many of them dull propagandists. It’s a credit to Malick that his film owes none of its considerable gravitas to “greatest generation” nostalgia, or “good war” moralizing. Instead, despite rich period detail, its historical particulars fade into the periphery, so that the war here is an abstraction, a canvas. In the early going Malick wrings a sublime sequence from the troops’ slow march into the island’s interior. The camera creeps through the slithering, violent jungle, awash in a quiet strangeness like you find in the very best science fiction. It’s a miracle that these scenes can feel so fresh to an audience steeped in the mythology of Vietnam; this is not the first time we’ve followed The American Soldier into an alien rainforest. Still, the film’s lush palette is of a marked contrast with the sepia tones of Iraq or Afghanistan, a reminder that no matter how timeless the trappings, we are firmly in the realm of history.
The second act tracks the slow, grinding assault of a hill in the center of Guadalcanal. A growling Nick Nolte dominates here as a careerist colonel, a lifer bent on bullying his men to their deaths if it means an extra star may adorn his shoulder. One unforgettable scene has Nolte stomping through a trench to reprimand an insubordinate, pausing only to ask a shirtless private the whereabouts of his “blouse”. As a ruddy ideal of martial machismo, Nolte makes Robert Duvall’s napalm huffing surfer in Apocalypse Now look effete by comparison.
When the attack begins, Malick sends the camera weaving low through the tall green grass, past orange explosions and streaming columns of helmeted GIs. Occasionally the combat scenes dissolve into flashbacks; moments from childhood, afternoons with a lover, each lit as though stilled in the amber of memory. These transitions should be more jarring, but instead through some movie magic we pass effortlessly from the adrenal warfare of the battlefield into the internal life of its combatants. As the campaign wears on, it exacts a gruesome toll; the brilliant green slope becomes, at once, a graveyard and an asylum. The second act closes with a delirious charge into enemy camp. The troops, rendered ecstatic by survival, amass like fire ants into a sprinting riot of cruelty. The saturnalia that ensues invites our horror, but also our empathy. We share in the troops’ release, and yet feel complicit in their excesses, much as we did while clicking through the lurid slideshows of Abu Ghraib.
Still, The Thin Red Line isn’t perfect. At times the script pays tribute to some unfortunate tropes, like when one soldier wonders aloud why the indigenous children never seem to fight. Or when Sean Penn (perhaps improvising) refuses a medal recommendation by muttering that “the whole thing’s about property.” These are the easy slogans of a lesser film, but thankfully they’re rare. The third act meanders a bit, but pleasurably, as though we’ve joined the troops for a boozy stretch of R&R. Along the way, Malick fills the margins with an extraordinary range of images: the swiveling eyes of an owl taking in the bloodshed; sea-soaked hermit crabs in the hands of a small boy; sunlight pouring slow like smoke through the spring canopy. Critics have dismissed these digressions as virtuosic preening, but in doing so they miss the larger point; that the wretchedness of war, itself of a piece with nature’s own fury, plays out in an illuminated context.
And indeed for all the attention he pays to trees and rivers, Malick’s ultimate subjects are flesh and blood. Our most ancient questions fill the mouths and minds of these soldiers, and yet we never stop seeing them in the totality of their condition. Yes, some are destroyed by sadism, and some shatter into hysterics when death hovers close, but others pour cool water on the heads of the wounded, and survive to float joyously in the shallow green surf. In this way the war is like a prism used by Malick to splinter the human character into its many brilliant and tragic forms.
In the film’s very first scene, an alligator sinks ominously into a murky stream while sunlight-hunting vines strangle a nearby tree trunk. A voice asks, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” When the first humans appear, they are seraphic by comparison: children playing simple games with small stones, then swimming amidst a reef, silhouetted against the sea surface, like figures on stained glass. Critics like Charles Taylor have accused Malick of pursuing a false dualism in his work, of sending in a crude human archetype, boorish and unseemly, to “despoil the uncorrupted beauty of nature.” But Malick’s nature is not Milton’s; here it is the garden that is fallen. Oddly, in this, our most profound modern fable of war, humanity is a transfiguring force: the first of nature’s forms to buck its amino acid programming, to strain tragically at something beyond Hobbesian survival. In the end, The Thin Red Line is a work of humanism, not nature worship; a reminder that even if history and war should extinguish the first flickers of truth and beauty, they will linger on in human memory, as hints of a possible transcendence.
— Ross Andersen
PPS: Anything short of Criterion Blu-ray is blasphemous. — RA