Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
The Coens’ rejoinder, in No Country for Old Men, to Cormac McCarthy’s sense of being driven through history like a hapless beast is in fact a variant to be savored in light of Terrence Malick’s film, The Thin Red Line (1998), derived from a 1962 novel by James Jones. Malick, during a twenty-year absence from sharing with us a work-in-progress sense of nature (physis) that is apt to not only puzzle but infuriate those who don’t see nature and its physics coming up with anything devastatingly new, made his way into a battleground that a persistent residue of Heideggerian chit-chat would not have prepared him for.
In taking exception to Jones’ inertial account of the hellishness of war, Malick, to be sure, bequeaths us with a Niagara of philosophical conceits, generally appearing in the form of voice over from various American troops facing imminent death during an assault mission at Guadalcanal Island during the World War II, South Pacific campaign against the Japanese in 1942. These ponderings function like readily overlooked, largely atmospheric, vines in a landscape of virtually impenetrable, spectacular jungle, not merely botanic but dramatic. The portrayal of conflict under extremely high pressure insinuates, in tandem with cinematic portraiture of ravishingly beautiful land, sea and sky, an order of historical sensibility having been hitherto overlooked. And it is this troubling and exhilarating anticipation that the quiet deluge of soft and drawling explicit self-questioning endows with headway from the gut (or heart) if only we can recognize and linger with its cinematic, sensual function.
A place to start with this current of disclosure is the fondness of the unit’s leader, “Lieutenant Colonel Tall,” for framing the raging of his appetite for personal glory (“When a man gets that eagle, he can’t wait to get that star”) in the context of his being a graduate of an institution of higher learning, namely, West Point. Clashing with the force’s captain and Law graduate, “Staros,” over his leadership’s disregard for their troops’ head-on attack into machine-gun placements at the top of a strategically advantageous hill, he proudly pronounces, “We read Homer [a curiously pre-machine-gun poet] at the Point. In Greek.” Eventually sacking that thorn in his side, he recognizes the compliant and super-efficient, “Gaff,” as his “son,” and, indicating his relief in working with a soul mate (who hasn’t been tainted by career setbacks), addresses him in this way—“You’re young. You’re just out of the Academy.” In this context of dislodging conventionality, that bonding goes much farther than fluency between graduates of the same technical and patriotic school. Like a burr clinging to them on the field of advantage, total victory and dominance, “Academy” indicates the founding and prevalent moment (with Plato’s school of the same name) of classical rationalism as a world historical juggernaut on behalf of the untrammelled assault of advantageous intellection and its vast ingesting of bathetic triumphs deriving therefrom. The violence generally concealed within that cultivation showing an undeniably ennobling component is fulsomely exposed by Tall in the course of debate with Staros about priorities. “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros…I don’t think you’re tough enough.” And yet, despite seemingly coming away with all the marbles, riding a head of steam emanating from keen resentment and self-dramatization (“I’ve waited all my life for this. You don’t know what it’s like to be passed over”), Tall, striding into a forward position on the slope, tells himself, “I’m in a tomb, and I can’t lift the lid. Playin’ a roll I never conceived.”
Cormac McCarthy—in avowedly shooting to kill Marcel Proust for producing a novel having nothing serious to say about “life and death”—inadvertently shines a spotlight upon that theatre of consciousness at war with itself constituting the foremost and formative battlefield of The Thin Red Line. Amidst Proust’s novel’s epiphantic emanations of uncanny beauty about physical nature and the play of sunlight upon human constructions (drawing us to a dynamic only brushed against by Tall in his preoccupation with the “momentum” of his forces), we find an almost suicidal resolve toward scaling the forbidding heights of a new physics, a new manifestation of nature. Malick’s film, with its easily recognized perilous ascent, comes to us as closely akin to that readily overlooked effort. Reminiscent of the novel’s self-sparing Albertine leaving the nameless but unforgettable protagonist to come to terms alone with entombment in a deadening, static society, there is the wife of one of the film’s minor protagonists, “Private Bell,” coming to bear in her full fatuity by way of her letter to him at the front—“I’ve met an air force officer. I’ve fallen in love with him…I want a divorce, to marry him.” Prior to taking that hit, he had misstepped (just as Albertine’s man had found himself allowing her to bring out the worst, the bathetic possessiveness in him), in a reverie about her, weighing his chances of surviving the copious slaughter, “I want to stay changeless to you.” But the full thread of another, major protagonist’s campaign (namely, that of “Private Witt”), who links to Bell, in physical appearance, vocal timbre and reflective bravura, divulges the kind of Proustian fixation upon singularly intense sensuality a Newtonian Platonist like McCarthy would convulsively send packing, as Tall did to Staros.
At the beginning of the film, there is a large crocodile, bluish in the thick shade of the rain forest, with green mossy smatterings, plunging down a river bank and slicing through the deep green, algae-carpeted waters, its jaws and long snout piercingly remote from world history, and yet accompanied by an organ peal. Near the end, there is a similarly bluish and even larger crocodile, rope-bound and transported in an open wagon, at the time when the kings of the hill are on a one-week breather at a pristine beach and stretch of light-blue water behind the lines, and diverting themselves by various forms of sadistic play, a carry-over from the widespread abuse of Japanese prisoners who had killed and tortured so many members of the infantry Company C. Two of those not so happy campers quietly reflect in this way: “I look at that boy (in a makeshift hospital bed nearby) and I don’t feel nothin’. I don’t care about anything or anyone…”/ “Sounds like bliss… I don’t have that feelin’ yet.” The second speaker, “Sergeant Welsh” (far from the only one in sight to be welshing in face of the complex task embarked upon by this stupendously audacious film), had, early on, told Witt, whom he had hauled back to the unit from yet another spate of his being AWOL, ensconced with and enjoying the charity and earthiness of a village of missionary-impressed, low-key, happy-go-lucky natives, “I’m the best friend you ever had. Don’t you know it?” Welsh consigns Witt to the role of stretcher-bearer on the trek to the top, and in this connection we meet a wide range of soldiers—some literally frightened out of their wits, one throwing up from and paralyzed by fear and having to be escorted to the rear… but most of them frenzied in the line of fire (crunched against grasses of the most tangy green), bullets cutting their flesh with a sudden hiss, spatters of blood jumping out like quick insects as bullets collide with figures in cumbersome, anonymity-imposing, full battle gear. Amidst the storm of desperation and gore, Witt discharges his sentence with remarkable calm, with concentration upon his charges and seeming indifference to the deadly hailstorm. (He had declared to the sergeant, “I can take anything you can dish out. I’m twice the man you are, Welsh.” The latter maintains, “In this world, a man himself is nothin’. And there ain’t no world but this one.” At which the sometime medic drastically departs the scientific era: “I see another world. Sometimes I think it was just in my imagination.” That elicits the noncommittal but still friendly closer, “You see things I never will.”)
The visceral strike of this conflict receives masterful elaboration in glimpses into the suspenseful and anguished assimilation of their fate on the part of other members of the battle group Witt and Welsh belong to. (This thread, like so many others, casts serious doubt upon the implication, in the DVD supplements, particularly by the film’s three editors, that Malick was not about narrative structure and cognitive transparency—being seriously mindful only about vague, emotive tone and thereby mainly a cinematographer of effulgent flora and fauna, sea and sky, and a sound designer ferreting out scintillating, uncanny noises and snippets of music—leaving his technicians to shape the progressions of the activity. The various cast and crew members slip and slide over the inconvenient recognition of Malick’s being an accomplished writer when they’d love to believe that the writing here comes down to dispensable atmospherics.) First we hear Tall (dutifully trailing the general presiding over the ship carrying the group to their big moment), telling himself, in direct contradiction of his rah-rah spoken input, “All they sacrificed for me… All I might have given for love’s sake. Too late. Dyin’…slow as a tree…The closer you are to Caesar, the greater the fear.” Then we go below deck to the windowless hold where the troops are pressed and labelled toward enemy fire. “Train,” a small farm boy, explains with considerable agitation to Welsh that he’s been shaped into cowardice by an abusive father who used to beat him, leading him to hide in a chicken coop. A heavy blonde boy pumps himself up by telling a nervous little acquaintance, “I’m on my way to get me one of them [Japanese] pistols.” (In the confusion of the subsequent suit-up and reaching the deck and the landing crafts, he steals a hand gun and tucks it in his belt.) The unit’s captain, whom we have noted, has a lot of fear in his eyes, and he breathes tremulously. He pores over an oft read letter from home. Bell tells about having resigned his commission to be with his much-beloved wife, and then being drafted into the deathtrap infantry division. He muses that if he dies he will be positioned to greet her, “on the other side of the dark waters.” That vacillation recalls Witt, who, while still footloose and fancy free with the natives, remembers the religious assurance and calm with which his mother met death. “Immortality? I didn’t see it… ” [While this train of thought rolls along, we see a pet parrot of one of the natives, with candid eyes and insouciant chromatic brilliance. Mom’s dingy birds are in a cage, a chicken coop.]; “I just hope I can meet it the same way she did.” Here, too, Bell, the educated grunt, initiates his series of poetic thoughts about creativity. “Who are you… in all those many forms… You’re death that captures all. You too are the source of all that will be born. You’re glory, mercy, peace, truth… You give calm to the spirit… understanding, courage. The contented heart.” We see the loving couple delicately tracing upon each other’s fingertips.
Witt asks to be reinstated, and, at the front, his scope has to take account of figures like another sergeant, “Keck,” (and his lookalike, “Private First Class, Doll” who, on firing upon Japanese troops having strayed from their heavy fortification, stumbles into the revealing non sequitur, “I killed a man! Nobody can touch me for it!”) Soon afterwards Keck fumbles his live grenade—screaming out, optimistically, “I blew my foot off!” when in fact his whole lower body is ruined, and he soon dies, eliciting quite a level of dismay and humanity from those nearby. (He had asked that someone write to his “old lady.” “I want her to know I died like a man.” His earlier goading a cowardly underling, leading Welsh to intervene, casts the premium upon classiness in a rather strange light. Doll had agreed to deal with the note, and then, after Keck dies, bristles at the assignment, for in fact nobody can touch him for it. The Proustian range of irony and nuance here cues up an investigative field for the actions of Witt, Tall and Staros going forward. In this light, newly-decorated, melancholic and unscrupulous Tall towers above Keck-like commonness, while habitually resorting to the sergeant’s expediency. In a draft of monumental complexity, demands and rewards, there is no premium upon cleaving to the hoi polloi. Accordingly, Staros’ gladly accepting a desk-job in Washington, and a citation, from Tall, for bravery (“I’m glad to be going home”) takes the measure of his humanitarian instincts as more a conventional reflex than a comprehensive engagement of the situation. (During the atrocities in going over the top, he is more intent on the erosion of his personal credibility—now zapping invalids, now doing whiplash in being amidst the savagery—than in mustering some rooted authority.) Just before he exits for good, he turns down the notion, mooted by troops grateful for his proposing a flanking rather than a direct action, of litigation with a view to reinstatement. Thereby, his clichéd (Keck again) farewell speech acts as an indicator of the upscale area of the spectrum Witt’s far more resolved caring for others must deal with. “The tough part is not knowing if you’re doing any good… You’ve been like my sons. You are my sons. You live inside me. I’ll carry you wherever I go.” (Bell’s wife’s farewell includes, “… I just got too lonely, Jack… We’ll meet again.”) Recalling Staros’ prayer within himself, not for public consumption, before proceeding into the meat grinder, we are left with a sense of volatility that can break hearts. “Let me not betray you. Let me not betray my men.”
If Tall, Staros and Keck prove to be tone deaf, there comes through the pall of such emissions of capitulation a virtuoso performance of a touch separated by light years from theirs (and yet he did, it seems, have to tell Welsh how much better he was than his anguished friend and cynic manqué). Significantly, Witt’s real accomplishments as to primordial stature take the form of actions as against words, and often actions couched in sonic overtures elucidating the investment in a dynamic wildness leaving everything appalling and sufficient. With so many members of Charlie Company shaking like leaves, Witt’s placid demeanor fast-tracks him back to the line, and in fact he volunteers for the first push to the source of the deadly fire, along with the recent grad of the Academy, Bell and a few others. His dartings to and fro, up the slope, are economical, and his eyes never become inverted, through shock, fatigue or carelessness, against a bigger scene than the hill, and so they stay fixed upon the ramifications of each stage of the ascent. After the bunkers are broken, and the rout begins, he alone sticks to dealing with armed adversaries, avoiding the helter-skelter sadism and pillage toward terrified vanquished. Doll, as we might have guessed, stands out in running hard with the licence obtaining for deranged venom. Pausing from using a pair of pliers for obtaining the gold fillings of Japanese troops, dead or alive, he gives a talking to, to a petrified enemy imploring some dignity. “What are you to me? Nothin’.” Then he plugs his nose against all that gore and rotting flesh. One hulking GI, perhaps the blonde so fond of pistols (but perhaps another instalment of the play of soulmates), pummels an enemy with his hands up, shoots him several times and repeats the frenzy with other targets. Then we see Witt (who has been with the unit for six years and remarks, even when temporarily imprisoned for the desertion that opens the narrative, “I love Charlie Company. They’re my people”) quietly comforting the latter shamefaced and tearful serial killer. Right at the end, we see that same novice-giant looking out at the wake from a troop carrier taking the unit to another theatre of war. The epigram in his voice-over is far more incisive and eloquent than any words coming directly from Witt; but the overlaps of carnal energy—taken up by this killer-oracle packing a killer dialectic—insinuate that it is as much an accomplishment of Witt (who has, not long before, been shot dead by the Japanese battalion he has sacrificed his life in diverting from his compromised exploratory group) as it is an unexpected profundity in the big kid.
“Where is it that we were together?
Who were you that I lived with?
The brother. The friend.
Strife and love.
Are they the workings of one mind?
The features of the same face?
Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now.
Look out through my eyes.
Look out at the things you made.
All things shining.
On that troop ship there is Welsh, in a sea of GI’s, seen for a second, scowling and hopeless, as usual. But he had prepared and lingered at Witt’s grave in the forest—that Impressionist treasure of piercing plays of form, color and light, the setting for that Impressionist war that novelist Jones would not have approved of, where troopers being riddled full of holes fall near a plant, a leaf of which is shown to be riddled full of holes by some blight or insect. On incarcerating him for the umpteenth time (an incident no doubt taking liberties with the factual strictures of that campaign, but looking to a warring infrastructure where “the best friend” would offer a lot of slack), Welsh tries to impress Witt with the importance of a social network and consistency in sustaining it. “You’ll never be a real soldier. In C Company no one’s gonna screw that.” From out of a far from robust sense of interaction, he does press a case of carnal exigency, suspecting that Witt’s dabbling with utopia betrays adult integrity. “There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.” Witt’s energies clearly contravene rock-like ultimates, and his self-sacrifice constitutes attending to the demands of both camaraderie and mortality. In being grudgingly touched by just how real a soldier Witt proves to be, Welsh has come to stand corrected in his resenting and bathetic cynicism, as expressed in this dig directed upon his only friend. “What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?”
In demonstrating the difference that one-man-Witt has made for him, the ennobled war-criminal advances into an orientation the confluences of which appear, from various angles, in the musings of not only Witt but that other truncated casualty (and Witt look-alike), Bell. “Look out through my eyes/ Look out at the things you made.” This prayerful reverie concerning a thin red line over and above infantry at the front, namely, a cross-current thread of creative intensity as between finite consciousness and infinite dynamics, wells up from the uncanniness of great danger, great courage and great love as commensurate to great beauty of place stemming out in essential ways from those human gifts, and, conversely repaying them in the form of nascent gambits for going forward. (During the intense shelling that stymies Staros’ men, we see one of them crouching in foliage and then reaching out to touch and examine a fragile leaf.) Bell, from out of the early days when the memory of his beautiful blonde wife formed a lifeline, posts for us and his comrades this rendition, spanning many days, of the thin red line. “We. We together. One being. Flow together like water. Till I can’t tell you from me. I drink you. Now. Now… Love… where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No one can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.” As the deadly bloodshed looms and bursts forth, Witt’s reflections center upon that macabre infrastructure of dynamics which propels us into delusory, peevish, premature senility and death. “How’d it break up and fall apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light…. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?… [While the massacre of Japanese proceeds] This great evil. Where does it come from? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?… Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself. Each like a coal thrown from the fire…” (Showing himself to be a kindred spirit apropos of self-aggrandizement, despite disparities, Welsh, in putting Staros in his place for being, on the battlefield, preoccupied with getting him decorated for valor, lashes out, “Property. The whole fuckin’ thing’s about property!”… Everything a lie… You’re in a box. A moving box… They want you dead or in their lie…” He goes on to infer, sensibly but self-contradictorily, “There’s only one thing a man can do—find something that is his, and make an island for himself.”)
The Thin Red Line presents a type of cyclotron; or, rather, a combination of cyclotrons—Impressionist landscape; Impressionist warscape; Impressionist cul-de-sacs, capable of holding world historical importuning at bay (punctuated by sound and musical motifs, the former attenuated, the latter percussive)—for the sake of discovering what’s up amidst contemporary world history. On this reckoning, what’s up is a very tough haul, on the face of it, a virtual impossibility. It also, though, teases forward a series of vignettes, which, when all is said and done, introduce a mode of struggle that gets us somewhere. During Witt’s exploratory time-out at the native village, he speaks with a striking young woman who carries her young child in her arms. Her wide dark eyes and vivid smile confirm a scene worth a world of daring and a world of trouble. He enthuses to her (a bit recklessly, a bit like Staros and his pat verities) that the kids here don’t fight. She shyly contradicts that doctrinaire position (smiling all the while) in this way: “Sometimes… when they see this plane…” (This idyll-breaker is sharply sustained by kids running along the glorious beach with its creamy sands, mindful of the landing-craft heading their way, to round up Witt. One of them kicks one of the dogs that had happily joined in their gallop.) Coming as a natural progression within this slight overcast at the shimmering day, he asks her, “Are you afraid of me?”/ “Yes… because you look… army…”/ “Baby’s tired.”/ “Yes.” A procession of these non-combatants is shown, clapping in unison and chanting out a song with raw, shrill voices, trailing a man carrying a Bible. After the slaughter of the defeated Japanese forces, Witt goes to that well once again, finding a general fractiousness, and he momentarily encounters the woman, seen in profile in the middle distance, rather stonily looking away from him. The first time out, there were Stone Age domestic manipulations, and children’s games with pebbles from a stony beach. These events speak to us directly, “impressionistically,” about Witt’s having a lot to learn about being a coal thrown from the fire. His having used the term, “salvation,” puts him somewhat in league with Staros’ legalese, its abhorrence of risk and improvisation, and its subverting any exercise of full-bodied originality. Of course Witt does subsequently display moments of impressive self-directedness. But, in opting for the hierarchical and heavily blueprinted career of a soldier (he had enlisted years before Pearl Harbor), he walks away from once-promising impasses in civilian experience, failing to undertake contriving, by intuition, a thin red line of interplay where cold shoulders are omnipresent. Such an undertaking would recognize that Welsh (who has become complimentary in ribbing him, “You’re still a believer in the beautiful life, are ya? How do you do that? You’re a magician to me”), toward whom he tends to be patronizing (“I still see a spark in you”) was on to something in his rejoinder to the cliché, “No man is an island.” He regarded, with remarkable accuracy, normal (Platonic) history as inquisitorial—“They want you dead or in their lie.” There does surface, in little episodes that play so right (for instance, two brilliantly-colored and happy parrots [free-spirited animals who can be packaged to mimic the powers-that-be] enjoying the sun and heat and their own songs), a cue to savor simple (momentarily self-sufficient) offshoots as tuning factors heading into chain-saw tending impasses, discordancy. As he adjusts Witt’s helmet on his rifle that serves as his gravestone, Welsh asks quietly, “Where is your spark now?” Coming from him, that would appear to be yet another cynical blank shell. His eyes, though, are filled with not particularly bitter tears, and I think we have to chalk this moment up as one of finding something that’s his, occupancy—however brief—of a sovereign island—almost certainly leading nowhere in this regard, but showing a potential that “no one can put… out.”
The forest of epigrammatic vines, proceeding from singular tropicality and singular peril, leaves space for sayings (or songs) of distant historical bearing. Two oracular statements appear by way of confirming that the bizarre modernity of the problematic drama has in fact been headed our way for many millennia. The first oracle, in the form of a dead Japanese soldier, visible only as a bluish face wedged into a ridge of soil has this to tell us. “Are you wise? Don’t imagine your suffering will be less because you loved goodness and truth.” The second is Witt, only a voice passing over the temporary haven of the environs of the native village—and as such more apt to bring to the fore the musings of a long-forgotten, long-bypassed (by the Platonic, sadistic rout) investigator (namely, Heraclitus) into the many ways of war. “Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”