The relationship between war and cinema is an odd one: a narrative match made in heaven, shot through with narrative conundrums. With its ability to harness both image and sound, film seems ideally suited to impart the maxim that ‘war is hell,’ but François Truffaut had a point when he said there could be no such thing as an anti-war movie,[i] because war is also action, and action is one of the main draws of film. Same deal with accuracy; the tools of film can create a uniquely precise representation of combat, yet whenever a war movie is praised for its realism, the reaction from veterans of the actual war always seems to be the same: ‘Good movie, but that’s not what it was really like.’
Which makes sense, because another truism about war is that it’s fundamentally unknowable, impossible for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to truly imagine. And the best filmmakers recognize that this is not discouraging, in an artistic sense, but liberating. The object is not to portray war with perfect accuracy, because that’s impossible; it’s about figuring out what aspects of it you can convey, and what the story can say about the the world we live in.
And that’s why those of us who love film can count ourselves lucky that Terrence Malick was able to make a war movie.
In the history of cinema, there’s never been anyone quite (or even all that much) like Malick. Born in Illinois in 1943, he grew up in Oklahoma and Austin, earned a B.A. in philosophy from Harvard, and started a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, but quit over a disagreement with his thesis advisor[ii] and left without a degree. He taught philosophy at M.I.T. and worked as a freelance journalist for a time, then finally turned to film, earning an MFA in the inaugural class of the now-famous AFI Conservatory in 1969. Thus began one of the most compellingly peculiar film careers of all time, one that’s been debated, mythologized, and puzzled over to a remarkable degree for a director who’s still alive and working. After some early work as a screenwriter, Malick made two of the most gorgeous movies of the 1970s: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), dual masterpieces in which relatively familiar, straightforward stories—murderous lovers on the run in the former, secret lovers plotting to kill a rich husband in the latter—reach a state of odd transcendence through the grandeur of the world around them. (They also helped launch some stellar acting careers: Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands; Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven.)
After that wondrous directorial entrance, Malick could have done almost anything, but instead, he disappeared—moved abruptly to Paris and didn’t make another movie for 20 years. When he finally did, it was our chosen war film: The Thin Red Line, released in 1998. In the intervening decades, he had become a mysterious, quasi-mythical figure. When word got out that he was finally making another movie, it caused a bit of a sensation in Hollywood, with virtually every big-name actor of the era clamoring to be involved. (The ‘Casting’ section of the movie’s Wikipedia page is quite entertaining, and worth reading in its entirety; the catalog of prominent actors who shot scenes that didn’t make the cut, were involved at some earlier stage, or met with Malick at some point—many of them willing to work for a pittance, or nothing at all—is remarkable, and too lengthy to enumerate here.[iii]) He continued to work after that, but so slowly and irregularly that a new Malick project continued to cause a stir in the industry for over a decade. Following The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), he changed pace again, putting out several smaller-scale movies that, living as I often have in areas that limited releases don’t reach, I haven’t been able to keep up with. As is traditional for an enigmatic artist like Malick, critical reception has been divided on his post-hiatus work; for every recent entry, you can find critics who were enchanted and critics who were exasperated.
On the surface, Malick seems like a stereotypical eccentric-genius filmmaker, and in some ways, he is—yet his eccentricities, both personal and artistic, turn out to be more nuanced than that, defying easy categorization. He’s an intensely private person who refuses to give interviews (or even have his picture taken), but the common image of him as a recluse is misleading; the British film scholar David Thompson “met him in the 90s and it turned out that there was nothing reclusive about him. He was friendly, every bit as intelligent as you expected, and informed and experienced in many subjects—but disinclined to talk about movies.”[iv] Even during his 20-year hiatus, he didn’t leave film behind—just lived abroad, did a lot of work on a grand project that never came to fruition, and wrote some scripts that never got filmed.
Similarly, many people have found him difficult to work with, from crew members who walked off his sets to producers he drove to madness and despair (and almost to financial ruin)[v] to actors who found that their parts in the final cut bore little resemblance to the parts they thought they’d been playing.[vi] But he has also formed lifelong partnerships with collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber, and plenty of others, including actors, have been captivated by him and his unorthodox methods—Woody Harrelson and John Savage reportedly hung around the set of The Thin Red Line for a month after their scenes were finished, just to watch him work. Thematically, he’s a deep thinker and an idealist who wears his philosophical intellect on his sleeve, but, as we’ll see, he’s also a clever, technically adept filmmaker with a firm command of the medium. His movies have never made much money, but the industry (collectively, at least) will never stop letting him make them, because his gifts are undeniable and no one else can do what he does.
What that is, exactly, is at once obvious—his work is instantly recognizable once you’re familiar with it—and difficult to put your finger on. Some elements of his style are clearly identifiable: the “rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the gorgeous cinematography… the striking use of music.” The results, as Chris Wisniewski goes on to note, are “narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.”[vii]
All that is true, but it makes his movies sound more experimental, formally radical—and, as a result, inaccessible—than they really are. The way I’d put it is that Malick uses the same basic devices as more mainstream filmmakers, but in such an unusual way that words like ‘experimental’ and ‘radical’ seem like appropriate descriptors. He ‘does’ plot and emotion, but his stories don’t unfold or affect us like anyone else’s. He does dialogue, but it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. He doesn’t edit like anyone else—he messes with physical continuity far more than most directors would dare—but our sense of what happens in a given sequence is somehow not seriously affected.[viii]
What happens, then, when this singular style is applied to a war story? You get a movie in The Thin Red Line that, despite its undoubtedly polarizing aesthetic, deserves to be considered among the very best war films, based solely on its visual splendor and the subtly interesting ways it explores its unknowable subject. Unsurprisingly, Malick deviates significantly from his source material, a decidedly non-mystical 1962 novel by James Jones about the Guadalcanal campaign. But you can see why the story appealed to him, apart from his great respect for the author;[ix] its tropical paradise setting dovetails with nature-oriented sensibilities, and its intensive focus on the taking of a single hill allows him to eschew conventional narrative structure without losing the primary appeal of the genre.
That appeal of course, is the action and awe of combat, and the Malick aesthetic, achieved this time with the great cinematographer John Toll, turns out to be surprisingly well suited to it. Malick’s non-negotiable insistence on shooting outside, on location,[x] and in natural light whenever possible, makes the beauty and strangeness of the battlefield and its surrounding environment palpable in a way few other movies have achieved. And he can orchestrate organized chaos with the best of them; as Roger Ebert notes in an otherwise lukewarm review, “the battle scenes themselves are masterful, in creating a sense of the geography of a particular hill, the way it is defended by Japanese bunkers, the ways in which the American soldiers attempt to take it.”[xi] By some combination of training and instinct, Malick has a remarkably keen feel for on-screen motion, of both the frame itself and the subjects within it. If there’s an overarching visual quality to his work, it’s one of exceptional fluidity and grace, whether the camera is hurtling through chaos, drifting dreamlike through bliss, or simply sitting still and observing. So it is throughout The Thin Red Line, and especially in the battle scenes. Whether it’s between separate shots or, in a few amazing instances, between multiple distinct frames contained within one long shot, the images flow extremely smoothly, portraying the excitement, terror, and headlong momentum of combat as clearly and forcefully as any great war film.
Meanwhile, Malick’s contemplative side, his particular interest in the natural world, and his related talent for finding tension in moments of stillness and closely observed details, let him portray the thrill and strangeness of war in ways that are uniquely his own. Who else would think to show, in the middle of a battle scene, two men stopped in their tracks by a venomous snake, or another man reaching out and touching a leaf that shrivels up in response, or a wounded bird in the aftermath of an artillery barrage? Who else would show the descent into the inferno of war with not the standard progression—idyllic home front, tough training, brutal combat—but starting with two soldiers gone AWOL with the natives on an island paradise, then a tense wait in the confines of a transport ship and a long, surreal trek through the jungle before the battle begins? Malick certainly doesn’t glorify combat, but in depicting it, he doesn’t shy away from his ability to craft wonderfully striking images. Think of the moment when, as the soldiers are first approaching Hill 210, they all drop to the ground and abruptly vanish into the tall grass, and then, in the moment just before they charge, the grass is suddenly illuminated by the sun emerging from behind a cloud. Or the sequence of them advancing through the fog on their way to the Japanese camp, the mood set by Hans Zimmer’s gorgeously eerie music. Or, towards the end, one of my favorite static shots of all time: a jungle stream that looks tranquil until, with nerve-racking slowness, dozens of camouflaged enemy soldiers start materializing out of the undergrowth.
This all makes for captivating cinema, but it’s somewhat stylized and cerebral—pretty far removed, you’d imagine, from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience of the war for these soldiers. But there are also ways in which Malick’s style makes The Thin Red Line, not more accurate than conventional war films, but accurate in different ways, capturing different aspects of the subject. His focus on the natural environment, for example, combined with his deft and liberal use of the moving camera, result in what seems like a good representation of how the battle for Hill 210 would appear visually to the men fighting it: namely, grass, grass, and more grass, seen from inches above the ground. By the same token, he makes other sensory aspects of it unusually tangible: the mud, the rain, the heat, and the suffocating stillness of the jungle.
And even more so than his visual style, Malick’s approach to character and narrative structure allows him to explore the war experience in interesting ways. In contemporaneous reviews, many critics complained that while the actors give excellent performances, there are simply too many characters, too thinly drawn. They weren’t technically wrong, but I think they may have been missing the point: that the movie is less focused on the arcs of individual characters than on the arc of the entire unit—specifically a company, which is apparently the largest unit with which most infantrymen readily identify. That’s the reason, I think, why the voiceovers quickly lose their specificity, and why so many of the men seem to have one-syllable names: Witt, Bell, Welsh, Doll, Keck, Fife, Dale, Gaff, Coombs, Band, and so on; Malick is interested in them primarily as parts of a larger whole. He does include plenty of character development that fleshes out the group, often in interesting ways. In the ruthless, embittered Colonel Tall, we get a thoughtful case study in what makes a bad commander, and in his two captains, Staros and Gaff, two possible ways to counteract his destructive tendencies. In Private Bell, we explore the soldier’s love for the woman he left behind, how it affects his war experience and, as her letter late in the movie implies, how his fervent, almost delirious yearnings can start to become divorced from reality. In Private Doll, we see a soldier who comes into the war cocky, discovers heights of terror and reserves of bravery he didn’t know he possessed, and doesn’t lose his innate swagger, but comes out of the war more thoughtful and self-aware than before. And then there’s Witt, the closest the movie comes to a protagonist, who appeals to us (and to his comrades) more and more as he reveals new sides of himself: unshakable idealism, a seemingly contagious serenity in the face of war’s cruelty, and eventually, exceptional toughness and bravery. He’ll go to great lengths to escape the war (we don’t see how he made it to the island paradise, but it must have been pretty intense), but once he’s forced back into it, he’s locked in, focused, and able to meet death with something like the calm he hoped for.
These character arcs, and the others that populate the narrative, may not be complete according to traditional standards, but they all combine to give us a strong sense of a unit and its war experience, which rarely conforms to narrative conventions. The Guadalcanal campaign for the men in an actual company was probably more like what we get here: a brief explanation of the larger strategic situation that’s quickly forgotten amid the nitty-gritty of their own circumstances; then a big, hellish battle that defines their combat experience and reaches some sort of resolution (they succeed in taking Hill 210, but at great cost); then a lot of downtime, punctuated by a few, far less conclusive bursts of action, until they’re eventually relieved and taken off the island.
With this unconventional narrative, Malick is able to convey aspects of war that are well documented, but that conventional narratives aren’t as well suited to. He builds a strong sense of the fundamental disorientation of 20th-century combat, the feeling of never being sure exactly where you are or what you’re supposed to do, and the fundamental strangeness of not only the environment, but the enemy when you finally encounter him up close. I could understand someone taking issue with the way the Japanese are depicted here, in both directions: that the movie skates over their exceptional brutality, or that it dehumanizes them too much. But I think it does make an honest attempt to show how utterly alien they might have appeared to American soldiers at the time, and we do catch brief glimpses of a wide range of characters as the Americans overrun their camp: crazed guy laughing, crazed guy screaming, terrified kid, guy meditating amid the chaos, and so on. In just a few minutes of screen time, Malick also poignantly illustrates how the suffering of war affects the civilians caught in the middle, contrasting Witt’s opening idyll with a later scene in which he wanders through a village and finds the natives distrustful, fighting amongst themselves.
Likewise, The Thin Red Line does a notably good job of portraying downtime in war, the mind-numbing tedium and the way it messes with time in general; we get well over an hour of screen time (basically a short movie) about a few days of combat, and then it just, sort of…keeps going, for nearly an hour longer—which is structurally radical for a movie, but not necessarily for real war experience. Another element of combat that the movie captures better than most is its randomness—of death, certainly, but also of experience, who ends up doing what to influence the outcome of a battle. Malick’s long, tortuous editing process played into this nicely by subverting the norms of casting, and the expectations that they engender. John Travolta and George Clooney are on screen so briefly that their presence barely registers, and other big names, like Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto and John Cusack, appear in only a few scenes, while relative unknowns like Jim Caviezel, Dash Mihok, and Ben Chaplin end up with some of the most prominent roles.
The movie conveys the futility of war, and how arbitrary one’s role in it can feel. As we’ve mentioned, the strategic significance of the company’s action is stated but quickly forgotten, and to a greater degree than most war movies, the action and killing—all to capture a single uninhabited hill—seem to occur in a contextual void, and the long, listless coda only adds to that feeling. And the movie captures the almost existential confusion that the soldiers feel as a result, not by showing them struggling to vocalize it years later, but in the straightforwardly powerful ending scene in which they’re taken off the island. As the camera moves among them while they crowd onto the landing craft, they look relieved to be alive, horribly traumatized for sure, but also simply bewildered, unable to fully wrap their heads around this place or what they did there.
And in that scene, as in the rest of the movie, we have those voiceovers, ruminating on the philosophical and spiritual implications of it all. These are likely the most polarizing aspect of The Thin Red Line, and I can certainly understand how one might find them pretentious, or at least distracting. All I’ll say about them is this. Malick studied philosophy much more seriously than I ever did, but I think that even for the select few like him with the deep analytical mindset—those who become philosophy professors, or write scripts like The Thin Red Line—the basic draw of good philosophy is the same as it is for the rest of us: that it just gets you thinking about the big, unanswerable questions. My favorite philosopher was Nietzsche, not because his ideas were the most convincing (they weren’t), but because whenever I read him, my mind would be absolutely humming for hours afterwards.
For my money, that’s all Malick is trying to do. I think he knows that most of us aren’t going to remember and analytically deconstruct every idea in those voiceovers. He just wants to get us thinking about the same things that fascinate him about this story. Seems like he’s suggesting that conflict is an essential part of life, and modern war is just a tragically destructive iteration of that? Huh, now he’s floating the idea that every living thing is part of one big soul, so maybe war is a reflection of the conflict within ourselves? No definitive answers here, but it makes you think, huh? It’s not the only way to make a great war movie. But it’s a fascinating, often thrilling, visually magnificent way—a cinematic feat only Terrence Malick could pull off. And I’m very glad he did. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[i] An insightful exploration of that concept, and the history of war movies more generally: https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/1/29/21112768/war-movies-1917-dunkirk-saving-private-ryan-apocalypse-now
[ii] The noted British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, whose work I seem to remember reading (or, more likely, slogging through and eventually declaring unreadable, since most ‘philosophers of mind’ turn out to be weirdly terrible writers) in my own undergraduate studies.
[v] In this contemporaneous article, Peter Biskind goes into great detail about Malick’s eccentricities and the wild, Herculean effort it took to bring him out of retirement to make The Thin Red Line: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2010/04/runaway-genius-199812
[vi] My favorite example from The Thin Red Line is Adrien Brody, who thought he was going to “carry the movie” and was surprised to find his role reduced to two lines and several shots of him reacting to stuff.
[viii] Wisniewski’s article above ^^ examines Malick’s distinctive disregard for continuity editing in more detail.
[ix] As Biskind notes in the Vanity Fair article above, Malick felt the need to ask Jones’s widow for permission for every deviation from the novel, until she reassured him that he had her blessing to adapt it as he saw fit.
[x] Mostly the jungles of northern Australia, but a bit in the actual Solomon Islands as well.