Photo: Slant Magazine
Terrence Malick continues the search for a perfect cinema of memory with his take on the war film in The Thin Red Line (1998). Of course, the guiding principle in this pursuit is imperfection, and the film draws power from its refusal to tidy up an oft-valorized piece of American history: World War II. That’s not to say that it takes an overtly cynical or finger-pointing political bent in the manner of an Oliver Stone. Instead, it accesses a piece of the American collective subconscious that expresses an ambivalence towards the responsibilities of wartime. An aging commanding officer tries to stave off humiliation by forcing a little glory into his life, and dolefully admits to his superficial motives. A soulful, serial deserter gets pulled back into the fray but doesn’t shy away from the tough going of the action. A seasoned 1st Sgt swings between direct, confident command and drunken ennui. There is a sort of “doing what needs to be done” fatalism in every character that eats away at them in clear terms. The usual Malick musings on man’s relationship with nature are here, this time applied to the callous persistence of war. But the stakes are much higher than anything the director has approached in previous films, as acknowledged by the Homeric allusions and the immense scale of the cast and locations. Ironically, what results is a film that is perhaps Malick’s most intimate offering yet. Epistolary narration, an unabashed sentimentality, violent moments that offer more than just empty spectacle, and an almost wonky look at military bureaucracy combine to create a frustrated, emotionally affecting meditation on American nostalgia.
The film meets its reflection on the fractured nature of a collective memory with an aesthetic that can best be described as hazy. A thick fog crawls through the Guadalcanal jungle, creating real narrative stakes for the soldiers that must fight through it in addition to giving the environment an ancient and magical quality. Man-made smoke also fills frames in abundance (Jack Fisk, Malick’s go-to production designer, had to have worked double-time on this film), pitting destructive human intervention in direct conflict with the rhythms of nature. At times the screen seems clouded with an amalgam of both fog and smoke, teasing out the existential crisis of whether or not it matters if anyone is overseeing the charnel house. The camera is aimless, seeming mostly unmoored in the wake of this question. It glides through the grass with the breeze, lingering on objects, animals, and the occasional moment of abject wartime gore. Explosions erupt in the foreground as the camera wanders through these violent tableaux, underscoring the unsustainable tension between natural and cultural history. And while it may seem that Malick is treading familiar thematic ground, he freshens up his own mold by bringing an unprecedented heft to the subject matter.
Though the horrors of war are anything but romanticized in this film, it does not ignore the tendency to mythologize these stories and adorn them with the glorifying cadence of the epic. Specifically, Homer’s Odyssey clings to the screen before Lt Col Tall (Nick Nolte) even makes his overt reference to “rosy-fingered dawn.” The film opens on an Ogygia in the Solomon Islands to which Witt (Jim Caviziel) has defected, but eventually sets him back on a course that cuts across the ocean towards more carnage. It also gives us glimpses of a life back home for several characters in the form of flashback arcs, one of which undermines a staple of the Odysseus mythos and becomes the source for a masterclass in breaking an audience’s heart. Explicit atavism also works in service of the primeval atmosphere that the film strives for, with characters crying and twitching and writhing and howling as the weight of their participation in a canonization of murder bears down on them. One set piece involving the storming of a camp is particularly dizzying as a distillation of this sort of barking madness throughout the film. John Toll’s confining chiaroscuro in other moments serves to amplify this frenzy, but it also memorializes by providing statuesque casts of faces that leave a lasting impression.
Despite the humanizing characterizations behind these faces, the film spreads itself across so many voices that it renders absurd any notion that a depth of feeling can be drawn from the patina of history. One of the great joys of the war film is the ensemble casting, but this film uses that construct to a disorienting effect. Malick’s script deploys his usual voiceover narration, except this time the introspection is given over to a whole host of characters musing over childhood, spirituality, life back home, the ins and outs of a military career, and more. The result is what feels like a series of epistles and the skeleton of an intimacy that defies the otherwise cold disconnect towards human life required of a war story. However, this intimacy is eventually subverted by a number of instances in which it’s unclear who is doing the narrating, and the connections forged throughout the film begin to dissipate. Compounding this slippage is the sheer number of characters that the viewer must keep track of. And Malick takes the opportunity provided by this white noise of characterization to deflate Hollywood star power, tossing in roles for John Travolta and George Clooney that hardly even last long enough to register. Nolte’s performance, however, is unforgettable. He brings such a gung-ho bravado to Gordon Tall that fits right in with the John Waynes of the era in which the film is set. That he was largely snubbed for Supporting Actor accolades stands as one of the historically great awards season injustices.
It’s worth noting in a discussion of this film that nostalgia originated in the 17th Century as a medical term used to describe a range of behaviors in Swiss soldiers pining for home. The Thin Red Line digs into this etymology and raises questions about how we should approach loss and longing. Is an awareness of historical significance a destructive practice in its own right? What is our responsibility in maintaining a vision of a bygone America? Does nature play a role in how we treat each other and ourselves? The film and its characters remain enigmatically engaged with these questions throughout, and train an unblinking gaze on our participation in revisiting historical trauma. Despite the fact that Witt claims “people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it,” I don’t believe I’ll be forgetting him anytime soon.