Some of the most tragic images in the film come from characters we hardly know: there’s Woody Harrelson’s Keck accidentally killing himself with a grenade and using his dying breaths to plead to the guys around him to write a letter to his girlfriend; there’s Adrien Brody’s Fife, who walks around with a scared-shitless expression on his face for the entire film; and there’s Nick Stahl’s Beade fearfully rambling to Welsh shortly before they invade the shores of the island. To a somewhat lesser yet nonetheless powerful extent, there’s also the scene when Leto’s Whyte gestures an order for two soldiers to run up the face of the hill toward a hidden enemy only to almost swallow his gum when both men are quickly and unremarkably shot down: pop-pop, pop-pop. I could go on, but to me the grace of The Thin Red Line isn’t the eloquence of the narration. It’s the fact that when I think of tragic moments in this film I think of the fates of the characters I hardly know. As the dead Japanese solider puts it in his brief voiceover: “Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.” As the voices overlap, yes, the individualism of the characters fades away, but it is replaced by a powerful feeling of commonality, a sense that, as you said, they share a single soul. It’s that soul we get to know, until it reaches the point that Witt isn’t just speaking “over” the other characters on screen but for them. Is the language poetic? No question. But even if this narration is less individualized than Holly’s in Badlands, it really isn’t too far removed from Linda’s in Days of Heaven. The language is poetic because it’s spoken by the soul, expressing the feelings that the men couldn’t articulate on their own. I realize that must sound like an effort to rationalize Malick’s approach, but that’s just how it hits me.
EH: That’s fair enough, and I should stress that, at its best, I do feel like the film achieves the balance you’re talking about, where each life is weighed equally, each story given its due. At one point, Malick cuts away from the battle, from the dying men and the chaos, to show a scruffy bird trying to struggle to its feet amidst the thick roots at the base of a tree, another of his many visual assertions that mankind’s place in the world is shared equally by other animals, by flora and oceans and dirt as well. In another scene, a soldier lying on a hillside gets momentarily distracted, during a lull in the fighting, by a tall stalk of grass in front of his face. He runs it between his fingers, mesmerized, the blood and bullets forgotten in his awe at this simple sign of nature’s beauty. Malick, one senses, sees himself in this soldier: awed by the world, even when all around this moment of quiet contemplation, men are killing and dying. In a later shot, as the soldiers charge, seen from behind, indistinguishable from one another as they often are, a bright blue butterfly flickers across the frame behind them, a flash of brilliant color that’s a startling contrast against all the monochrome green of the grass, the trees, the uniforms of the soldiers.
Such moments suggest that Malick is unwilling or unable to ignore the beauty of the world even when everything seems grim and horrible. One of the voiceovers, recalling the shot of the bird whose weak-legged struggles had paralleled the dying soldiers, delivers a parable: “One man looks at a dying bird and sees nothing but unanswered pain. But death gets the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man looks at that same bird and feels the glory, sees something smiling through it.” That’s Malick at his best right there, the man who looks at the dying bird—or the dying soldier—and sees not only the anguish but the beauty, the poetry, the spiritual fulfillment.
This is a challenging, ambitious thematic focus for a war film, so it’s no surprise that sometimes Malick’s poetry comes across as maudlin rather than moving. At times, his emphasis on the communal rather than the individual leads to clichés—perhaps inevitably, because what are clichés but generalizations about large groups of people? The most cloying scenes in the film revolve around Marty (Miranda Otto), the wife of the soldier Bell, seen in the soldier’s dialogue-free flashbacks to his idyllic married life back home, and heard in voiceover when she writes her husband a letter. The flashbacks are inoffensive, sensual but rather empty, generic depictions of the soldier’s longing for his woman’s company, but the wife’s letter is one of the most eye-rolling moments in a film that frequently flirts with over-the-top emotionality. In typically Malickian florid language, she tells her husband that she is leaving him for another man, then says, “Oh my friend of all those shining years, help me leave you,” to which I can only respond, “Oh, brother!” At times like this, I’m thankful that so much of The Thin Red Line glides by without dialogue, even as I wish that perhaps he’d trimmed a bit more of that overblown language to focus even more intently on the wordless splendor and raw emotion he’s so adept at capturing.
JB: Oh, Ed! The storyline between Bell and his wife might be my favorite in the film, and her letter is a powerful conclusion to it. It’s a storyline that Malick constructs effectively over the course of the film through installments that might seem ephemeral individually but that enhance one another in the collective experience. Near the end of the film, in a summation of everything we’ve seen, Penn’s Welsh reflects via narration, “Only one thing a man can do: Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself.” That’s precisely what Bell is trying to do with his wife. She’s more than the person he loves. She’s his sanity, his inner peace. Even more than that, she’s his hope, the tool he uses to convince himself that he can come out of this war the same man who went into it. “I want to stay changeless for you,” Bell says in a moment of dreamy narration, imagining his wife. But it’s clear that he needs to stay changeless for himself, too. He clings to her memory in a desperate attempt to feel that his true self isn’t so far away.
Bell’s flashbacks or fantasies about his wife are captured in some of the most evocative shots in the film. There are the shots of Bell’s wife in a yellow dress on a swing, repeatedly drifting away to the far corner of the frame, and then swinging back into crisp focus, as if suggesting the difficulty Bell has fully conjuring his wife’s face in his memory after so much time away. There are the shots of his wife in a blue dress wading into the water at a beach, as if symbolizing the physical gap between them. And there are repeated shots of curtains blowing gently in the breeze of their open bedroom window, as if suggesting that his wife feels his distant presence somewhere out there, far away. Just before Bell reads the letter from his wife, Malick gives us a shot of his wife sitting up in bed, looking out that window, clearly thinking about him, and it’s only in the final moment that we realize that there’s another figure in the bed alongside her. Through that simple shot, we feel the devastation before Bell does, but we also sense his wife’s genuine affection for him, a sense that, yes, she’s with another man now, and, yes, probably in love, but that if she had the power she would have kept Bell from leaving her in the first place.
“Help me leave you.” I can see why that strikes you as maudlin, but that line slays me. It captures an emotion that I think happens frequently in life but that rarely makes it up on the screen: that awful point at the end of a failed relationship when one suddenly realizes all that they’ve shared and lost. Granted, it makes it up on the screen in this case because Malick allows it to be explicitly stated, and that opens the door for charges of excessive sentimentality. But I think the emotion is earned.
In that sequence when Bell is talking about remaining changeless for his wife, clinging to his love for her as his internal truth, longing not just for a physical closeness but an emotional one, part of the narration unfolds like this:
How do we get to those other shores? To those blue hills?
Where does it come from?
Who lit this flame in us?
For me, that’s one of the most lyrically effective sequences in all of Malick. The word “Love” operates not only as the answer to the first portion but as the beginning of the second. It’s beautifully poetic in its own right, and it complements Malick’s visuals, as Bell stares over an expanse of water and imagines being intimate with his wife. Malick does “wordless splendor” as well as any filmmaker. And, for better or worse, he does “overblown language,” too. I will grant you that sometimes the latter simply makes one long for the former. But some of the rawest moments in Malick come from those (potentially) overblown words.
EH: I wish I felt the emotion of the Bell plot as intensely as you obviously do, but for the most part it feels too melodramatic and overly familiar to really touch me, though there are plenty of other sequences in The Thin Red Line that I find incredibly powerful. I do like that narration about love that you quote, especially since the phrasing of it mirrors the similar narration in which Malick’s characters ask where the “great evil” in the world comes from. As one man wonders why the world is so full of cruelty and pain, another wonders about the possibility of love and connection: both extremes are equally mysterious, like so much about the human heart and soul. That symmetry is very Malickian, that idea that human behavior is ineffable whether motivated by love or by hatred.
That’s why my favorite thread in the film is arguably the best representation of that dialectic, the story of the soldier Witt, who is the closest the film comes to a central character. Witt is the innocent at war, a man whose inner serenity allows him to retain his decency and innocence in a way that puzzles and frustrates his superior officer, Sean Penn’s Welsh, who knows that he’s been changed and damaged irrevocably by the war in a way that Witt seems to have avoided. After the American soldiers storm the Japanese camp, Witt plays with his canteen, letting water stream over a large curved leaf, watching the path of the water across the surface of the leaf. As he stares into the reflective surface of the small pond that the soldiers are clustered around, he thinks back to his time as a deserter, and his memory burbles up into the film like bubbles emerging from the depths of the water. The beautiful vocal-and-clapping music of the South Pacific islanders fades in on the soundtrack as he remembers bathing in a waterfall or watching the islanders with their canoes.
That music—so sweet and heartfelt and wonderful—returns several times as a symbol of the innocence and tranquility that Witt found at the beginning of the film. The film ends, after Witt’s death, with a series of peaceful shots that might represent his soul’s path back away from the battle, away from the war and its horrors. An islander in a canoe drifts slowly along a river, heading from a small open body of water into a narrow stream surrounded on all sides by the dense darkness of the jungle. A pair of parrots groom one another’s feathers. The ocean rolls up towards an empty beach, the waves pouring over a small rock with a few shoots of green leaves sticking up out of the water. And then, as the image fades to the black of the credits, the singing of the islanders returns to the soundtrack one last time, so that the film both begins and ends with innocence and beauty. In between these spiritual, moving bookends, there is a great deal of violence, noise and chaos, but in the end Malick suggests that the horrors of the war can be enveloped by a natural order that encompasses both the best and the worst of the world and of humanity. Witt, it seems, understood that, intuitively at least, while Welsh and most of the other soldiers do not.
JB: Witt is certainly the soul of the film, but I find myself wondering if perhaps Welsh is the stand-in for Malick. I know that seems like an odd choice. After all, Malick’s films are overflowing with awe for the natural world, and The Thin Red Line, with its numerous shots of a heavenly light penetrating the jungle canopy, is filled with a heightened spirituality that would indicate that Malick’s heart beats within Witt, the guy who finds beauty in everything around him. But maybe not. Maybe Witt is Malick’s ideal, his hero, something he aspires to be but cannot reach. And, thus, maybe Welsh is him. Early in the film, Welsh tells Witt, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing.” In the middle of the movie he asks Witt, “What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” Then late in the film Welsh asks Witt, “Still believing in the beautiful light, are you? How do you do that? You’re a magician to me.” Welsh, like Malick, views individual human lives as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And so while it’s tempting to assume that Malick, like Witt, believes in some glorious life beyond our human existence, perhaps he doesn’t, and thus perhaps Welsh best represents a fear in Malick that this is all there is. “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack,” Welsh says via narration in the film’s final minutes. “A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” Welsh is aching to believe, and maybe Malick is, too. Maybe all his reverence for the natural world comes out of a feeling that it doesn’t get any better.
And I guess that brings us to The New World, a film that seems to be grappling with how man should make use of this place of ours. The film’s title has two meanings, referring first to the place where Colin Farrell’s John Smith and his fellow sailors establish Jamestown and then to the place from which they came, England, which is seen through the eyes of Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas (who is never called by that name and at that point is going by “Rebecca”). What’s interesting is that while Malick recognizes the arrival of Europeans in the New World as yet another “tear in the fabric of the natural world,” he isn’t dismissive of the civilization they left behind. When Pocahontas arrives in England, late in the film, she responds to it with the kind of awe that Malick has for the natural world, and Malick embraces that response, as if rediscovering his amazement for what humankind can do, as if recognizing that out of man’s destructive tendencies springs a different kind of beauty. The sense I get watching this film is that while Malick longs for the purity of the New World prior to the European infestation, he recognizes that mankind is ultimately incapable of remaining in that state. And for all the destruction that’s portrayed or implied here, The New World is ultimately optimistic about the nature of the human spirit. Am I right?
EH: I’m not sure the film as a whole is “optimistic,” exactly, though it does end on a note of the sublime after crossing some pretty dark territory. But there’s no doubt that, for a film about the European arrival in—and exploitation of—the New World of the Americas, it’s not entirely polemical about its subject. In the opening scenes, Malick captures the mutual awe of the Europeans seeing a new land for the first time and the natives who are impressed by the ships with their large white sails. The ships glide through the water into an inlet, glimpsed from the shore between the trees, harbingers of death and destruction much like the warship at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, but also a mystery and a wonder to the natives who have never seen anything like this before. For the natives, their awe is tinged with fear, with uncertainty and suspicion, afraid of this strange force entering their homeland but also attracted to it, unable to look away. For the Westerners, their awe is purely joyful, the joy of explorers discovering a new place, the joy of sailors who haven’t seen any land in months. Smith, in chains in the ship’s hold, glimpses the lush green land through small portals, and raises his manacled hands towards the sky, which is separated from him by the wooden grating above him.
Those opening scenes set the tone, in that this initial encounter between the Europeans and the natives is hopeful from both sides. The natives are warier, understandably—they have more to lose and more to fear—but both of these groups confront each other, at least in those wide-eyed first moments, with some measure of earnest interest. In a way, that only makes what happens subsequently so heartbreaking: the brutality, distrust and warfare that dominate relations between the Europeans and the natives in the future arise from this brief glimpse of a more hopeful possibility. As in The Thin Red Line, Malick is interested in the folly of human violence, as communication and attempts at mutual understanding give way to murder, displacement and manipulation.
JB: The difference, of course, between the violence of The Thin Red Line and that of The New World is that in the former we see planned warfare between two nations that more or less understand the purpose and ramifications of their actions and in the latter we see comparatively spontaneous violence between two cultures trying to figure it out as they go along.
The transcendentalist Malick may not have set out to make a chiefly historical picture, but I’m not sure The New World does anything better than it evokes this rare place and time when so much was new and uncertain. It starts with that landing at Virginia in 1607, with those three English ships approaching the shore to the breathless, cascading strains of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, as the camera hovers just above water level and sweeps around these almost impossibly small ships (you guys crossed the Atlantic in those!?) before Malick cuts to views from the shoreline, over the shoulders of the understandably mystified “naturals,” who have no way of knowing what the vessels are, where they came from or if they’re capable of coming ashore. It continues with a terrific little scene in which Raoul Trujillo’s Tomocomo cautiously rises from a hiding place in the bushes as he listens to the sound of trees being chopped in the forest—a disconcerting sound, even if it’s a familiar one. And then there’s the first face-to-face meeting in an open field: the English looking uncomfortable and nervous as the natives approach them with mostly confident curiosity.