Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line: Unanswerable Questions and the Myth of (the) Good War

thin-red-line field

As Terrence Malick does so often in his films, and indeed as Michael Chion does in his book-length study of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, let us begin with a question: What type of war film is The Thin Red Line?? What kind of combat film?? As is true of all five of Malick’s films, there is no clear answer to such a question, nor to the more existential and philosophical ones which his films verbally pose in interrogatory voice over and which they visually and enigmatically encourage audiences to ponder. As Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit put it, Malick’s cinema as a whole, and The Thin Red Line specifically, “foreclose the possibility of discursive solutions” or answers, leaving only “immense question[s]” (134). Chion too describes Malick’s films as “interrogatory works… [whose] role is to make questions resonate in the world” rather than to provide any concrete answer (7). Malick’s poetic cinema asks “unanswerable questions,” to borrow the title of Charles Ives’1906 composition, which composer Howard Zimmer poignantly enfolded into the score of The Thin Red Line. Ives constructed the piece to ask “the eternal question of existence,” drawing inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Sphinx,” from which the title comes (Chion 10; Leigh 11). The film begins with just such an unanswerable question about war and existence, already challenging the well-known conventions of the war genre; a puzzlingly disembodied voice over asks “What is this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?,” immediately posing the film’s (and Malick’s) central (unanswerable) question.
These questions already point to the type of war movie Malick is interested in making. Steve Neale writes that “for the most part, the category ‘war film’ is uncontentious: war films are films about the waging of war in the twentieth century; scenes of combat are a requisite ingredient and these scenes are dramatically central” (“War Films” 23). The definition of the subgenre of the combat film, makes Malick’s war movie seem even more idiosyncratic; Ian-Malcolm Rijsdjik defines it as “distinctly historical in its concern for representing the realities of combat, distinctly political in its affirmations (or criticism) of national identity, and distinctly mythic in its evocation of an ideal America” (27). Yet The Thin Red Line throws this, and so many other elements of human existence, into question, severely challenging the common assumptions of just what a war movie is, or can be, often completely ignoring many of these standard generic conventions. Given Malick’s project of asking the resonant questions which it is crucial we ask regardless of their inanswerability, I will examine The Thin Red Line in relation to the historical development of the war film genre, from the conventions of the World War II combat film to the antiwar Vietnam film to those reinforcing the myth of the Good War at the turn of the millennium, and its intersection with Malick’s own philosophical, poetic, and thematic concerns. Hopefully, we will get a little closer to answering the unanswerable.
The Historical Development of the War Genre
Though the history of the war film is as old as the history of cinema, the Second World War saw a new level of collusion between the Hollywood film industry and the U.S. government, which sought to harness the powerful communicative and representational capacity of cinema to encourage the war effort. While the ideological and historical implications of such “reel wars” continue through to today’s War on Terror, it was during World War II that the conventions of the combat film, which likewise stretch through to the current day, were formed and solidified. Jeanine Basinger has studied extensively the generic definitions of this World War II combat film, which she claims became established and codified around Tay Garnett’s 1943 Bataan. The main purpose of these films made during the war was largely propagandistic, according to Kathryn Kane who structurally studies the genre, and they were meant to “justify American involvement…and validate the purpose of the war” (13). Few films dealing directly with combat were produced while the war was still being waged; Steve Neale points to Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943) and Bataan as the only “pure combat films” before 1945, after which time World War II films flourished (27). 1949 saw the release of such popular war films as Sands of Iwo Jima, Home of the Brave, Task Force, Twelve O’clock High, and Battleground among others, and the popularity and the solidification of the genre endured through the end of the 1950s, at which point the influences of the Cold War and the Korean War began to complicate the genre and its representations (Doherty Projections, 272; Neale 27).
But despite such developments, the popularity of the mythos of the Second World War persisted largely unhindered until the Vietnam War, which drastically altered the structure and thematics of the war film just as it touched most cultural products and American perceptions. As had occurred during World War II, direct representations of combat were withheld during the years of the conflict in Vietnam, with Variety writing in 1965, the year in which U.S. troops began to be deployed to Southeast Asia, that “the war in Vietnam is too hot for Hollywood” (“Viet Tale”). And so, with the exception of John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), which was the only big-budget film to directly address combat in Vietnam during the war, it was not until the late 1970s that the Vietnam War film truly emerged (Doherty Projections, 284). Between 1978-9, four darkly-visioned, cynical Vietnam combat films were finally released: The Boys in Company C (Sidney J. Furie, 1978), Go Tell the Spartans (Ted Post, 1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), which won the Oscar for best picture and for director Michael Cimino, and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic journey into the heart of darkness, Apocalypse Now (1979).
A second wave of Vietnam War films emerged in the mid-1980s, a “cultural reevaluation” of those experiences, released at a time when America had taken a political turn to the right and U.S. militarism was on the rise; Oliver Stone’s Platoon came out in 1986 and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket followed it the next year (Slocum 7). In contrast to World War II films’ perpetuation of ideals of heroism and sacrifice and their clear moral tone, these Vietnam War films self-consciously explored “the dark side of the American soul,” as Thomas Doherty describes it (Projections, 285). These war films responded not only to the sense of betrayal and disappoint stemming from Watergate and other political scandals of the time, but also to the deflation of national self-esteem and the evaporation of moral clarity which followed America’s confused and destructive intervention into Southeast Asia. The withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 marked the first military defeat in U.S. history and punched a rather devastating hole in the country’s “victory culture” bubble, which had existed since World War II (Neale 28; Ryan and Kellner 240). Doherty explains this, writing that Vietnam War films “caught the cultural dislocation in the loss of a faith forged in 1941-5,” with the later cycle in particular setting out to “defac[e] the classical Hollywood picture” and its traditional glorification of men in combat, and of war itself; these films found no higher meaning in war, delivered no lessons of glory or sacrifice, and turned inside to face the true enemy, for as Platoon told audiences about the war in Vietnam, “we fought ourselves and the enemy was us.” (Projections, 285-6).
Despite the influence of such dark, bitter films, by the 1980s America was earnestly trying to forget the “bad war,” which often meant recalling or invoking a “good one.” Accompanied by the drastic turn to the New Right and the rise of a new culture of militarism under the Reagan administration, American film and culture marked a rehabilitation of traditional masculinity and of the U.S. military in the 1980s and 1990s (Neale 29; Ryan and Kellner 239). Explaining the conservative equation of military might with national self-esteem, Ryan and Kellner argue that this resurgence of a new militarism was an attempt to rejuvenate national confidence, which had been threatened so terribly in Vietnam. These efforts to put a “post” in front of the “post-Vietnam syndrome” invoked a “period of national revival [which involved] a triumph of the will, a purgation of doubt through action, and an interventionist military stance” (240, 243). In stark contrast to the questioned heroism and deep sense of loss and confusion which permeate such films as Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), films like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) revitalized the macho military hero and sent him back to Vietnam in a “fantasy” that allowed him (and the nation) to rescue lost countrymen and re-do the demoralizing fight (Slocum 7). Enforced by such efforts and attitudes, by 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and thus the ending of the Cold War, and the U.S. victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, President George Bush was proudly able to declare “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” (Doherty Projections, 293).
And yet, the victory in the Gulf conflict was not nearly as clear-cut as one would have hoped, especially after the confusing destruction of Vietnam; it was certainly less clear than World War II and left Saddam Hussein in power and ongoing struggles in the Balkans. The very few films made about Desert Storm, such as Courage Under Fire (Edward Zwick, 1996) and Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999), revealed the continued haunting presence of the Vietnam “syndrome” and found no clear cause for victory or moral celebration in the conflict (Auster 44-5; Young 315). As America approached a new millennium, the cultural impulse to “erase the last war” solidly aligned with the instinct to “replay the good war” and efforts were made to, as Doherty puts it, “resurrect the dormant myth felled by Vietnam” (Projections, 292-3).
And so, the war film returned to World War II. Largely initiated by the intense critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), released five months before Malick’s The Thin Red Line, this new cycle of films sought to make up for present lacks by returning to the triumphal, morally-clear World War II past, as Auster and others have argued. Including U-571 (Johnathan Mostow, 2000), Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001), and Windtalkers (John Woo, 2002), these films gallantly upheld the popular myth of World War II as the Good War and reasserted nostalgic values of sacrifice and brotherhood in battle while also fostering a no-man-left-behind ideal which came to dominate the war films of the new century, such as Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001) and We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002).
The Myth of the Good War and The Greatest Generation
In the late 1980s and 1990s, America observed the fiftieth anniversary of many of the battles and events of World War II along with the resounding cultural and filmic return to and nostalgia for the moral clarity associated with that decisively-won conflict. The myth of this war as The Good War “filled a need” as John Streamas explains; it provided a “moral reference point” that allowed Americans to believe that “the U.S. can serve the cause of protecting human dignity, that it can get a job done, and that it is possible at least sometimes to see clearly the difference between good and evil in the amoral domains of international relations,” an increasingly important need considering the diverse, confusing international conflicts of the second half of the 20th century (Streamas 142; Roeder 2-3). Accompanying these millennial anniversaries was an intense “glorification of the so-called “greatest generation,” those who had endured the Great Depression and heroically sacrificed to win” the Second World War (Auster 205). Tom Brokaw, NBC News anchor, published The Greatest Generation in 1998, admiringly telling the stories of the men and women who fought and sacrificed for their country, who embodied the supposedly long-lost values of “personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith” and who formed, as he put it, “the greatest generation any society has ever produced” (xxviii, xxxviii). Additionally, to commemorate the war’s fiftieth anniversary, historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose published his World War II book series, which included D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and The Victors. His Band of Brothers became a ten-part miniseries for HBO in 2001, produced by Steven Spielberg and his Saving Private Ryan star Tom Hanks. And finally, 2004 saw the completion of the first World War II memorial, the only memorial to be placed on the National Mall in Washington D.C. President George W. Bush dedicated it not just to the soldiers but to “an entire generation of Americans” who lived and died during World War II (Janofsky 22). The New York Times noted the stark contrast between the current division and confusion surrounding the War in Iraq and this past generation’s “enjoy[ment of] near-unanimous national support for their commitment, valor and sacrifices” (Janofsky 22). The national acknowledgement and mythologization of this generation and the values they were seen to embody was so pervasive that both Tom Hanks and Stephen Ambrose served as national spokespeople for the monument and were present at the dedication, as was Joseph Lesniewski, popularly recognized for being one of the “real” members of Easy Company whose World War II exploits had been immortalized in Ambrose’s book and the HBO miniseries (Janofsky 22).
But perhaps the paramount tribute to this “greatest generation” and the largest cultural monument to the myth of the Second World War as The Good War came with Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998. It is unsurprising that in discussing The Thin Red Line, most critics and scholars feel compelled to compare it to Spielberg’s film, for the directors themselves seem to represent two wholly different modes of filmmaking and their films, released within the same half-year, take drastically alternative thematic, narrative, and aesthetic approaches to this myth of the Good War, indeed to war in general.
Spielberg’s cinematic epic is iconically defined by and praised for its revolutionary gritty realism; the film opens with a harrowing 27 minute-long documentary-style sequence of the D-Day landings, viscerally initiating audiences into the bloody chaos of war. Following this grueling segment of newsreel-style realism, which veterans claimed had “captured the real war” as Ambrose attested to, the film reverts to a classical quest narrative as Captain Miller leads his band of soldiers through the country sides of war to find Private Ryan, the fourth and last-surviving son of his family whom army officials have ordered be returned home (Doherty Projections, 302, 306). Doherty describes the film as “a kind of sacramental rite, baby boomer sons kneeling before their World War II fathers in a final act of generational genuflection” (Projections 301). Such a description perfectly captures the incredible sense of awed respect being expressed for this “greatest generation” at this millennial moment, the mythic values of noble sacrifice and heroism being perpetuated and (re)invested in, and the earnest cultural yearning for a bygone era of presumably simpler morality, where good and evil were a black-and-white diametric and honor was something ordinary men were capable of. Doherty further explains that at this moment the film “flickered less as a motion picture than as a ceremonial flame before which Americans might look back at the linchpin event of a vanishing century and contemplate the cost paid by the men who had won the Good War” (Projections 301).
When Miller’s band finally finds their “needle in a stack of needles,” Ryan refuses to leave “the only brothers he has left” and so all the men join together in the film’s end-frame battle sequence, which contrasts the wholesale chaos of the opening Omaha Beach landings in becoming a more generically conventional, mythic Alamo-type last stand. Bookmarking this core World War II narrative are present-day scenes of an old man and his family at the American cemetery in Normandy, where pure white marble crosses mark the immaculately manicured lawn in perfect lines, imposing an honorary calm and order to this once-chaotic battle site. This frame sentimentally marks Spielberg’s dedication to all the men of the greatest generation and allows him to involve audiences in that same sense of honorary devotion. “Earn this” Miller whispers to Ryan as he lays dying on the bridge Ryan refused to leave, invoking both the sacrifice his group made to find him as well as his own. The presence of Old Ryan’s family with him at the cemetery cinematically confirms that he has “led a good life” since the war, and thus that he has “earned” the sacrifice made by Miller, and by extension the sacrifice made by all of the men and women of the greatest generation. And yet, Miller’s command was not meant only for Ryan, but for all of us as well. Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat honor their fathers’ greatest generation with this epic tale of brotherhood, duty, and sacrifice and simultaneously reach out to all the subsequent Generation X and Generation Y audiences who have presumably lost these mythic values, who too need to earn the sacrifices of the participants of World War II (see Auster 212 and Doherty Projections, 309). By so doing, the film utilizes World War II to escape the painful and damaging legacy of Vietnam, as Marilyn Young writes, as well as to “hold a mirror to our own corrupt times” (317). Georgio Mariani agrees about the cultural project Spielberg undertakes with Saving Private Ryan at this moment of intense idealization and mythologization of World War II as the Good War and of its participants as the Greatest Generation. Capturing the almost spiritual element involved in such investments, in the rehabilitation of the American psyche and pride through nostalgic memory and a glorifying ethos of war, Mariani writes that “the monument that Spielberg erects to his father’s generation ties past and present together in a seamless web, thereby absolving the nation not only from the sin of Vietnam but also from all the other ‘mistakes’ of the half century separating us from the end of World War II” (4).
Where Saving Private Ryan is “fast, furious, grim and graphic, The Thin Red Line is languid, meditative, serene and artful,” as Doherty writes, a distinction which also contrasts Malick with classical Hollywood filmmaking in general. So while Saving Private Ryan opens with nearly half an hour of non-stop action, a barrage of the “realism” of war in all the glory of digital effects, Malick begins his film with the enigmatic image of a crocodile, slinking eerily into the water, followed by an “edenic moment” of beautiful, grand jungle nature and a pre-lapsarian Melanesian village which belies any presence of war (Doherty Projections, 312). Then, he “simply [has] nothing happen;” the film’s main battle sequence does not begin for more than forty-five minutes (Doherty Projections, 313). It is often exceedingly trying, and usually rather pointless, to try to explain what a Terrence Malick movie “is about.” Suffice it to say that the film is based on James Jones’ novel of the same title, which was published in 1962 and realistically described the author’s own experiences as a soldier in the Guadalcanal campaign of the Pacific theater of the Second World War. Essentially, the film follows the American soldiers’ effort to take Hill 210 from the Japanese soldiers holding it. Ultimately, they are successful. C for Charlie Company leaves the island just as they arrived on it, in landing crafts which recall those iconically used in the D-Day landings. Of course, not everyone makes it, and not all those who survive are the same as when they first landed; war kills many, and it changes all. And yet, despite the horrifying explosiveness with which Malick films the combat scenes, this war movie is not really “about” this military mission, nor the historical significance of the battle. Unlike the narrative-driven cinema of classical Hollywood and the action-oriented war film, Malick’s film is more of a mediation, as Doherty describes it, a poetic query into the dark sides of human nature, the transcendental possibilities of human connectedness, and the idealized grandeur of the natural world. Where the genre has traditionally imparted clear messages and values and where Spielberg offered a “clear moral tone,” Malick proposes only ambiguity, beautiful words and images, and unanswered (unanswerable) questions.
The Anti-War Vietnam Film
Despite the long-lasting popularity of the World War II film and the repeated mining of the Second World War for cinematic subject matter, the Pacific theater has always been a much less popular arena for fiction films. Perhaps, as Marilyn Young points out, it visually recalls the jungles and the Asian enemy of Vietnam too closely for comfort, especially since representations of World War II have increasingly been used to offset and “un-do” the trauma of the Vietnam War (317). And yet, The Thin Red Line, as Doherty says, “in ideology no less than topography …evokes the Vietnam combat film” (Projections 314). It aligns with the cynical, morally-troubled, tone of Vietnam War films while also directly evoking the images of the “living room war” which so many Americans saw on their televisions and which films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon have solidified in the collective memory (Arlen). The waist- and shoulder-high seas of grass which Malick loves, along with his iconic trunk-to-sky shots of larger-than-life trees and jungle forests, here stand in for the beautiful yet sinister and wholly indifferent landscapes of Guadalcanal Island, while also pointedly recalling the dark hearts of Vietnamese jungles. Indeed, Neil Gabler labels The Thin Red Line, which is nominally about World War II, “the last of the Vietnam-era movies,” noting its visual style as well as its clear antiwar themes (4).
Vietnam is the “phantom that stalks the grass slopes of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line,” as Rijsdijk writes, not only in geography, but also in Malick’s anti-war treatment of the genre (30). Colin McCabe seems to have confused this film with Saving Private Ryan and its millennial fellows, for he obtusely describes Malick’s film as an just such an “effort to forget Vietnam” (14). But unlike those Good Myth-perpetuating films of late 1990s and early 2000s, 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” (Rijsdijk 42). Indeed, in light of the prevalence of the myth of the Good War at this time, Malick’s Vietnam-era anti-war sentiment and his rejection of the glory of combat struck many as anachronistic; Charles Taylor went so far as to call the film “a self-indulgent throwback to the 70s.”
By offering a “vision of World War II through a Vietnam mindset,” Malick’s war film clashes not only with Saving Private Ryan but also with We Were Soldiers, the “first straightforwardly pro-Vietnam film” since The Green Berets (Michaels 65; Slocum 7). Released four years after Spielberg’s epic as the U.S. was entering the War on Terror, We Were Soldiers utilized a similar glory-in-brotherhood ideal to rehabilitate the memory of the Vietnam War and thus boost national self-confidence and pride as well as faith in the U.S. military, while also combatting, in strongly patriotic and manicheanistic moral terms, the threat and the uncertainty caused by the attacks of 9/11. Though We Were Soldiers returns to Vietnam, it is not a Vietnam War film; rather, it borrows the conventions of the familial union of soldiers, bonded in brotherhood through combat, and the presentation of so-called “worthy enemies” from the World War II combat genre while also reversing several generic representations of the Vietnam War film, such as the resentment and distrust of authority. Thus, the “unabashedly Fordian” We Were Soldiers “makes Vietnam safe for the World War II combat film” (Doherty “New War,” 218).
In stark contrast to this, The Thin Red Line firmly rejects the “sentimental militarism” which has defined many such war films since the 1980s, including Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, where a faith is put in “benevolent male authority” and war is made “good again;” instead, like the movies about Vietnam, Malick’s film makes “war itself seem bestial” (Young 317; Canby 1). This is perhaps one of the most crucial distinctions between Malick and Spielberg and other such filmmakers of this time. Malick presents World War II, which was a mythic source of national and militaristic honor, moral certitude, and nostalgic pride for America at this time, in the visual and thematic guise of the Vietnam War. Thus he flatly debunks any mythic belief in World War II as the Good War while also resolutely denying the possibility of a Good War in any context. The utter destructiveness of war is clearly visible in Malick’s blisteringly explosive combat scenes, which stretch on and on in unending cycles and are shot with a horrifying immediacy that conveys the accuracy of death in the chaos of battle with no less realism than Spielberg, even if he chooses not to mute the colors of this jungle environment. Malick shows the universal destructiveness of war, the evil of its violence, firstly in its impact on nature: a charred baby bird struggles ineffectually through the dirt and beams of sunlight illuminate the holes which have been blasted through a lush green leaf. He further conveys it through its impact on the native Melanesian peoples who inhabited the island before both the Japanese and the Americans and who lived in what Malick shows to be a highly idealized, pre-lapsarian paradise before the arrival of battle ships and the soul-crushing obliteration of war.
Additionally, in further contrast to the propagandistic, morally black-and-white World War II films, Malick humanizes the Japanese enemy and shows that theirs is the same suffering as the Americans; regardless of nation or side, the dehumanizing, crippling effects of war are felt by all. As Rijsdijk writes, “Malick’s sympathy for the Japanese…is really sympathy for all men in war” (41). Malick even grants one of his signature voice overs to a dead Japanese soldier, whose face remains the only thing visible from within a mound of exploded earth, and true to form, it is initially hard to tell the difference between this voice and that of the Americans, which connotes a shared universalness to the human experience of war. “Are you righteous, kind?” he asks to the invading Americans and to us watching the film, “does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved justice, truth?” he concludes, in a devastating question which debunks the myth of noble intentions which characterizes many of the millennial war films and which problematizes the possibility of goodness in war, as flames of consume the jungle and smoke obliterates all.
But like the Vietnam films of which it is a direct descendant, The Thin Red Line’s ultimate anti-war message comes in the destructive psychological impact war is shown to have on the men who fight it. In voice over, Bell, dreaming of his home and his wife, declares that “war doesn’t ennoble men; it turns them into dogs, poisons the soul.” Playing across images of the soldiers on leave, after their violent taking of Hill 210 and the Japanese village beyond it, these words show that the poison of war is both slow-acting and deadly. Combat produces the immediacy of adrenaline-instinct; devastating reflection, thought, and emotional and physical scars come later, as they do with Bell’s tears of relief and sorrow after he survives his assault on the bunker of Japanese machine guns, and as these images of “rest away from the front” show: men brawl with each other, they drink heavily, they cruelly poke at a crocodile which has been tied up in the bed of a truck; bestial human nature exposed and exacerbated by the experiences and context of war. And the solider who seemed the most callous and cruel, who pried the teeth from his Japanese victims, now sits away from the group, out in the rain; he cries and sobs, hugging himself in a baptism which can never wash the poison of war from his soul.
As Michel Chion describes it, in Malick’s film war is presented as institutionalized murder, as murder which is legitimized by society within a “ritualized, demented context” (63). Films like Saving Private Ryan uphold the institution of war at large, and even the earliest Vietnam films, those like The Deer Hunter which were first to respond to the conflict, have been accused of being more anti-Vietnam than anti-war, of critiquing “war in relation to the ‘Good War’ as opposed to critiquing war in general” (Ryan and Kellner 239). But Private Doll attests to war’s horrific capacity, explaining that murder is “the worst thing you can do, worse than rape,” after he kills his first man. And yet, within this context of war, especially the mythically Good War, “no one can touch [him] for it.” Albert Auster writes that the opening combat scene of Saving Private Ryan, heralded for the bloody carnage of its realism, would be more appropriately described as “antideath than antiwar,” which indeed applies to Spielberg’s nobly sentimental film as a whole (207). Malick’s war film, on the other hand, by denying historical details and specificities, blending World War II and Vietnam conventions, and universalizing both its existential concerns and the soldiers at the heart of its inquisition, avoids the trap of such historically-specific criticism and enacts a larger, more devastating critique of war in general.
The World War II Combat Film and Terrence Malick’s War Film
If The Thin Red Line invokes and perpetuates the questioning, critical tone and aesthetic that became associated with the Vietnam War film and with that larger period of American history, it nonetheless remains a movie set during the Second World War. As such, Malick invokes well-known characteristics of the World War II combat genre while also denying, subverting, or expanding them to suit his universally antiwar message and to fully explore his queries into, above all else, the possibility of human connectedness, the Emersonian idea of union in “one big soul” as Witt calls it. The two main departures from World War II generic convention which will be discussed here are crucial to understanding Malick’s intentions with this war film and to placing it in proper perspective among its contemporaries.
Many of the canonical characteristics of the World War II combat film as outlined by Basinger and Kane have persisted through to the present day despite the evolution of the genre. One such element mentioned by Basinger is these films’ invocation and inclusion of universally-recognized signifiers of American popular culture, such as listening to baseball games on the radio and ogling pin-up images of Betty Grable, which offered easily-accepted answers of Home for the often-unasked question of Why We Fight? In Saving Private Ryan, as Auster points out, American “home” culture is shown to be so universally recognizable that even a captured Nazi can plead common ground with the American soldiers by invoking Betty Grable’s “nice gams!” and voicing the ultimate Americanism, in his German accent, “fuck Hitler” (210). Spielberg’s effort to create a “monument” to the sacrifices of the greatest generation extends so far that he invokes not only such iconic pop culture, but also his present day’s collective memory, thus facilitating a similar sense of nationalistic pride and connection between the soldiers on screen and the Americans in the audience. Auster writes that Spielberg’s opening sequence in particular “touches the collective memory, evoking feelings both elegiac and patriotic,” and its citation of iconic newsreel footage and combat photos further strokes the cultural memory of the “terror, pain, and sacrifice” of D-Day and stamps the film “from the start with the seal of heroism and of America’s ultimate triumph in World War II” (207-8). And yet such signifiers of a shared American Home and culture, which would traditionally link “our boys” to the home front, are completely absent from Malick’s war film, as are all signs of national identity and any potential signifiers of patriotism (Basinger 45). Even communal scenes, group activity, and ritual are kept to a minimum in this genre which is traditionally about camaraderie, and “no one seems to have any sense at all of belonging to a national community, or the moral community of all the nations joined together in the struggle against the Axis powers” (Chion 28; Bersani and Dutoit 154).
Thus Malick not only eschews all references to culture and national identity- there is not a single American flag in the entire movie – but also to history, making his unanswerable questions and his critique of war mythically universal. Bersani and Dutoit point out that “extraordinarily for a so-called war film (especially one about World War II), there is not a single expression of patriotic sentiment in the film and there is no attempt whatsoever to provide a moral or historical justification or even explanation for the violence of war” (129). Indeed, many critics and reviewers angrily censured Malick for his lack of historical specificity, which seemed to betray the codes of the genre in which, as Spielberg himself claimed, “after Vietnam, realism was all that mattered” (in Streamas 146). Spielberg was so concerned with historical specificity and realism that he slavishly recreated details of authenticity in uniforms and military vehicles, even accurately reproducing the diamond-shaped dagger of the Hitler Youth (Doherty Projections, 303). In contrast, Malick’s war film barely even mentions the name Guadalcanal; it is spoken for the first of only two times nearly halfway through the three-hour film, after the main military objective has been achieved, so that it was never clear what the soldiers were fighting for. The film is not even immediately recognizable as World War II, but rather, through the conflating images and tone of Vietnam, becomes a de-historicized universal war. Thus, Malick can pose his antiwar inquisition into the nature of evil as a universal query, instigated and contextualized by human war but not isolated to it, nor to a single historical moment or nation.
Michaels writes that Malick “subordinates historical markers of narrative… to its mythic dimensions: the exile from Eden, the carnage of war, the yearning for transcendence” (Michaels 63). This movement towards myth further facilitates his broader philosophic questions and helps situate the dynamics of human war throughout the natural world, where they manifest themselves as the laws of the strong versus the weak and the native versus the invader. Malick returns to these questions of nature and power throughout his cinema, often choosing to explore them in similarly mythic and dehistoricized narratives: he strips the imperial-colonial context from the Pocahontas-John Smith story of the New World and reveals the primal nature of domination to be at least as old as the dinosaurs in Tree of Life, wherein a larger dinosaur pushes down the head of a smaller one, just to show he can. These primal dynamics are here too, in the Japanese and then the American invasion of the peaceful Melanesian paradise, and the battle between them for control. John Streamas writes that Malick prefers “myth as narrative mode better equipped than history to expose and resist the most brutal aspects of human nature” (144). And so, the men of The Thin Red Line “walk through a mythic state of nature beyond history, not Guadalcanal Island or any other real geographical site or battlefield milestone” and so bypass the traps of historical specificity and nationalistic propaganda, entering a space “outside of history” like the indigenous villagers, who seem to live in a sort of paradise before the fall. This treatment suffuses Malick’s antiwar message, as well as his deep love for the beauty and power of nature and for the glory of the human soul that seeks transcendence and human connection, with a universal, mythic power that grants it resonance and applicability beyond a single historic incident or cultural specificity.
Another element of the traditional World War II combat genre as outlined by Basinger and Kane which Malick twists and abstracts to his own ends is the presence of an ethnically (and later racially) diverse group of men, stereotypes of figures from across the country who are thrown together into a battle-made family. This element has remained one of the genre’s most commonly mimicked and it became especially popular in the millennial cycle of war films, including Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which privilege the bonds of brotherhood above all else. For instance, in Black Hawk Down “it’s about the man next to you and that’s all” and the men of We Were Soldiers fought “not for their country or their flag – they fought for each other.” Basinger writes that this ethnically-blended group represented the American melting pot and propagandistically signified to war-time audiences that “our strengths are our weaknesses, and vice versa” and that once united (in war), “our group power is extreme” (31). The truly lasting significance of this configuration has been its privileging and necessitating of the group and the formation of a family or brotherhood in combat, who unite to get the job done and defeat the enemy (Basinger 43). Kane also stresses this generic focus, explaining that in these World War II films “war is waged by the group, the basic military unit, whose members’ …identities – and even victory and defeat – are defined by their existence as a group” (101).
Furthermore, in particular relevance for The Thin Red Line, Kane writes that because the ultimate ideal in these movies is unity, national and group cohesion, “characters are rarely individuated; they are not complex or even delineated to any great degree” and lack psychological individuation (91). This generic predisposition to deny characters psychological depth seems to be a predilection of Malick himself, which occurs throughout his films, as with the soulless, uninterpretable Abby in Days of Heaven (and Bill and the farmer, as well). In The Thin Red Line, as many critics have noted and protested, many of the men of Malick’s Charlie Company seem almost interchangeable; Roger Ebert complains that the men “are not well-developed as individual characters” and that “they look much alike” (27). The actors physically resemble each other, many are never given identifiable names, and they all speak in a similar Southern accent, in defiance of the traditional regional diversity of the World War II platoon; and the often-hard-to-place voice overs, which frequently don’t match the image they are played against and all sound the same, overlap and seem to emanate from any/all of the group’s members rather than from a single individual. Thus most of these men come to function as (arche)types and as examples of a universal truth rather than as individuals. Malick’s handling of the many famous Hollywood star actors who were eager to work with the reclusive “genius” on his first film after a twenty-year hiatus reinforces this: he limits the parts of the most well-known actors, like George Clooney and John Travolta, to short snippets of dialogue, which are often insignificant and largely muted by another character’s overlapping voice over; in these scenes, he also aims his camera at the mute character’s face while the voice over and suppressed dialogue play, rather than at the famous star actor diegetically speaking.
Michel Chion describes the “disturbing effect of mixing up identities and making roles relatively interchangeable,” which shows that Malick’s “film places itself beyond primary and secondary roles or between famous actors and others who are unknown” (20). Perhaps it is disturbing for Chion in relation to traditional star-driven narrative Hollywood fare, and yet such handling of one’s actors and characters “foregrounds the anonymity and expendability of the wartime soldier,” as Lloyd Michaels writes, which facilitates Malick’s anti-war message and his arguments for the universality of war’s destruction (62). Indeed, Malick is not interested in individuals per say, but in “filming experiences that might be universal to soldiers in battle” (Leigh 9). His unanswerable questions too are universal, are, like the interrogative, subjective voice overs, above and beyond individual men yet voiced by soldiers in the context and experience of war. Dana Polan writes that “the narration in The Thin Red Line both originates in various characters and goes beyond them… seems to waft beyond any particular character’s perception, becoming virtually pan-individual disquisition on war and existence” (59). For example, during the capture of the Japanese village, Witt’s questions add poignancy to the images of pain and fiery destruction, asking in voice over “This great evil, where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from.” “Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us,” he asks finally as we see American soldiers shooting skinny, shirtless Japanese soldiers who have surrendered, see them push their crying, dying prisoners onto the ground, scared themselves. Malick’s muted ambient noise and Zimmer’s score, percussioned by a ticking clock and a beating heart, emotionally enables these questions to transcend their speaker and the specific situation, becoming universal human inquiries.
If Malick does individuate characters, for example with the two “main” characters Witt and Welsh, he does not do so with the religious or ethnic diversity of the traditional combat platoon, but through their existential wonderings and questionings, their embodiment of particular philosophic or existential positions which become a sort of debate played out within this context of war. The dialogues, which Chion more accurately describes as monologues since characters are often isolated from each other in separate shots and don’t verbally respond to one another, between Witt and Welsh establish the film’s primary thematic dialectic and interrogation: Witt, who began the film AWOL in the Paradise of the Melanesian village, has “seen another world” and “sees a spark” in Welsh as well (60). Welsh on the other hand, tries to close himself off from the destruction and hypocrisy of the world, to just “live for himself;” he sees no larger purpose to existence, no spark within people like Witt does, and flatly tells him that “in this world, a man himself is nothing – and there ain’t no other world but this” (61).
But where Welsh sees making oneself into a contained, isolated island as the only practical response to life’s cruelties and the horrors of war, Witt sees unity among all people and all living things. Witt represents the Emersonian idea of an Over-Soul, which Leigh describes as encapsulating “a felt spiritual and transcendent link between us” (10). Witt, who is not necessarily anti-war himself, loves Charlie Company because “these are my people” and is often not seen fighting, but rather watching the people and the world around him, usually with a bemused grin, and quitely touching and connecting with the men around him. “Maybe we all got one big soul where everybody’s a part of it,” his voice over ponders as he comforts a fellow soldier after the fierce taking of the hill, pouring water over his head as if to wash away all his pain and sins, “all faces of the same man, one big self.”
And yet, this Emersonian concept of human connectedness, Witt’s idea of “one big soul,” remains a far existential cry from the brotherhood-in-battle ethos of recent war films and from the fanatical emphasis placed on the unity of the group in World War II films. Malick’s “one big soul” does not attest to a redeeming fraternity forged in the crucible of combat nor does it stress the tactical or propagandistic importance of uniting behind one nation. Rather, it shows a connectedness among all living things, among men and nature, in spite of such combat and pain, and he uses the image of water (especially the flowing water of rivers) to convey this sense of a “transcendent link” between all living things, between “the two worlds” of reality and the ideal, of dark and light (Bersani and Dutoit 142). It is this common soul among all things, which is reinforced by Malick’s grand, awe-inspiring presentation of the trees and the sunsets and the formations of the natural world, which makes the universal destruction of war so devastating. In most of Malick’s films, people have such difficulty communicating with each other (exacerbated by Malick’s cinematic structures), and yet they physically reach out their hands to each other, they touch their archetypical brothers on the head or the shoulder, in a nonverbal sign of acknowledgement and human solidarity, even if words are not possible and no greater value can be extracted from the experience. Malick suggest that this reaching for human connection, the desire to see the “spark” in others and to feel a part of “one big soul,” is enough, is perhaps all that can be definitively gained from a life of human destruction and unanswerable questions.
It seems contradictory to compare The Thin Red Line with Basinger and Kane’s outline of the World War II combat film’s plot structures, for Malick has never been interested in such classical Hollywood plots or such cause-and-effect storytelling. Yet it is very interesting to compare Malick’s characteristically enigmatic ending(s) with that described of the genre by Basinger, for it reveals Malick’s intention with this war film. Basinger writes that in World War II combat films “THE END appears onscreen,” often in the form of a roll-call, and the audience is ultimately “ennobled for having shared [these men’s] combat experience, as [the soldiers] are ennobled for having undergone it” (46-8). Spielberg, following this tradition, insists that both the men onscreen and the audience be ennobled by undergoing an experience of combat and concludes with a sentimental yet firm assurance that both we and the greatest generation have “earned it.” Band of Brothers even initiates one of these legendary roll calls to commemorate all the men who cinematically (and historically) fought and sacrificed for their country (and for us).
However, such conclusive and glorifying endings are antithetical to Malick himself and especially to his message about war; no definitive answer is ever left us, no clear-cut moral instruction. Instead, he ends all of his films with visual montage enigmas, sets of images which seem impartial to the human story just experienced. Just as Malick began his film with images of nature, so too does he close his anti-war meditation on the image of Melanesian natives canoeing down a verdant river, followed by two beautifully bright parrots, and finally, a small plant sprouting out of what appears to be a rock, a pseudo-island in a puddle of water surrounded by white sand. This mysterious, inscrutable ending conveys the interrogative function of Malick’s cinema and his refusal to leave audiences with any message which can be neatly summed up; his endings are always mute, except for the non-linguistic sounds of nature, which further supports his proposition that “discursive solutions” are in fact no solutions at all (Bersani and Dutoit 134). As Bersani and Dutoit write of The Thin Red Line, though the war context poses explicit questions, which are voiced not only in the characters’ questioning voice overs themselves but also in Malick’s characteristically beautiful images and his anti-narrative focus on nature, “the film’s response will be non-discursive. Language raises questions which, Malick’s film suggests, language may be inherently unable to answer” (134). Perhaps it is this belief which has led Malick to refuse any interviews or verbal discussions of his work, why he remains reclusive and lets the films, which privilege the image, speak for themselves. And yet, “words never give up questioning and speaking” in Malick, even if there is no (linguistic) answer to be had or clear moral to be imparted (Chion 72). And so, The Thin Red Line, before its final enigmatic images, ends with just such questions, mysteriously posed by Witt from beyond the grave and highly ambiguous themselves: “Darkness and light, strife and love, are they the workings of one mind, features of the same face?” And the words which follow, the final words of the film, seem hopeful while still steadfastly rejecting the glorification of war or of the combat experience characteristic of more traditional endings (Saving Private Ryan); rather, these words (which are accompanied by beautiful images of the ocean and similar-looking men collected together on a ship) attest to the power of transcendence and human unity beyond such struggle: “oh my soul, let me be in you now…look out at the things you made, all things shining.”
Dana Polan writes that new generations of war films have lost the unity – “unity of form and content, of mission and meaning, of character and moral purpose” – which often defined the World War II combat films (55). He posits that the auteursim which rose to prominence in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War, of which Malick was a part, can in fact be seen as an “effect of the same political climate that led to the incoherencies of the contemporary Vietnam film” (58). Thus, he claims, auteurist Vietnam films embody the conflict’s “legacy of confusion, contradiction, and struggles over meaning,” which becomes manifested in their focus on the creation of meanings and in the large sense of “discussion or didacticism” which marks many of them, in contrast to the clearly-given morals of World War II films or even the justifying bonds of brotherhood seen in many millennial war films (56). It is this very interrogatory nature which Polan attributes to the legacy of the conflict and confusion in Vietnam and to the changes in the Hollywood system which defines Malick’s cinematic project as a whole. As discussed earlier with the dialectical debates spoken and structured by the characters Witt and Welsh, Malick here questions meanings and poses questions and yet, “like the narration that can go anywhere but never adds up to a final meaning,” no decisive position is taken (Polan 60).
After Witt sacrifices himself for his men, Welsh clearly becomes more drawn to his dead friend’s existential position than he had been before; he has been influenced by his ideas and his own desire to see the “spark” that Witt saw in people. As the film ends, Welsh speaks in a voice over which recalls the poetry, spiritual query, and ambiguity which have thus far characterized Witt’s voice overs, in contrast to his own earlier harsh and angry words: “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes and my life will be yours.” Welsh wants so much to believe in something beyond his own isolated island and the sharp reality of the pain of humanity, to believe that Witt didn’t “die for nothing,” but perhaps found the “other world out there where everything is gonna be OK” that Welsh had jadedly dismissed. And yet, though “the transformative effect” which Witt’s idealism has on Witt is highly apparent here, as Leigh points out, Malick himself refuses such a clearly decisive ending (hence his abstract, enigmatic end montage) (10). Ultimately “the film’s evaluation of that idealism remains purposefully undetermined,” the questions of existence pursued but not definitively answered (10). For as Leigh points out, “Witt’s idealism is not the film’s idealism;” rather, Malick offers a type of conclusion which “does not exactly answer Witt’s questions and yet takes them into account” (Leigh 11; Bersani and Dutoit 143). For indeed, the questions he asks are unanswerable, like the Sphinx; they cannot be summed up into language or turned into clearly-defined moral lessons. These are the questions of Malick’s philosophical project, questions which his cinema asks over and over again and “which it is not our role to answer, but to hear and let resonate” (Chion 8).

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