Landscapes of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ (Film Essay), December 2012.

redline

The following essay considers Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in terms of the setting. While attempting a reliable account of textual analysis of the relevant shots and sequences, it intends to predominantly focus on the significance and meaning of the representation of nature in Malick’s work. The essay attempts to analyse nature on a formal level as a part of the setting while also assigning its modes of depiction deeper philosophical questions and debates, especially in nature’s encroaching beyond the assumed passivity of the setting. It will further consider nature in terms of the director’s symbolic and aesthetic choices with regards to colour. It will also ponder the visual and symbolic omnipresence of nature in Malick’s picture, while considering the juxtaposition of collectivity and individuality in terms of positioning of elements of nature and the characters in a shot. Last but not least, the essay aims to present the setting’s close relation to the theme of conflict – both at physical and metaphysical levels, and refer to a number of other philosophical interests of Malick’s which collectively dominate and underpin the narrative. Being aware of the restricted parameters of this essay, and the extensive use of philosophical themes within The Thin Red Line, I am going to limit my presentation to the ones most clearly represented in and crucial to the setting alone.

This paragraph aims to look at the theme of circularity in Malick’s imagery, focusing subsequently on circular character of life as reflected by the setting, movement within the frame, repetitive representation of motifs, in particular in film’s portrayal of nature, while piecing these together to form a whole. In his review of the book Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity Bill Schaffer remarks on the “circular movements that pervade the film – movements of water, movements of the camera, movements of grass, movements of the characters.”[i] The circular motion of images of nature in the film introduces a key theme to Malick’s work, namely the circularity of life and death, the idea of the undercurrent motion which animates the characters of the story within their time and space the same way it animates nature. The waves of the surrounding sea and the waves of the hills seem both hostile and to provide a shelter, they imitate both fear and longing, reflected in soldiers’ fear of death and a vague longing of it, evoked by a romanticised memory of a lover standing in the alluring sea, inviting the soldier to come out. The location in itself, as an element of the setting, conveys a similar clash of entrapment and fear with the depiction of an idyll and harmony, where fear should not have a place. It is fear created within the anonymity and strangeness of the setting that dictates characters’ movements and reactions, whether they are taken and presented within a frame as a collective unit or individual characters. The mobile nature of Malick’s setting falling into the existential notion of circularity of life and death is very accurately summarised and further explored by Adrian Martin in his essay Things to Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick.  

“Furthermore, all these are images of movement, transformation, transience, ephemerality: the wand changes the form of things (and itself metamorphoses from a gun), the water is never a fixed body, the bird is still for only a moment. (…) But Malick’s characters are never wholly there in their story, their history, their destiny: they float like ghosts, unformed, malleable, subject to mercurial shifts in mood or attitude, no more stable or fixed than the breeze or the stream.”[ii]

Circularity is also reflected in the repetitive representation of nature. The Thin Red Line continuously considers death and loss; as Private Witt loses “the glory”, the alligator loses its freedom, the sides of the war lose, the Japanese villagers lose their homes, the soldier loses his lover, the squad loses its soldiers and friends lose friends. At the end and amidst every loss there is a birth, again, illustrated almost entirely within the film’s depiction of nature. This claim can be justified with a number of shots. In the middle of the bloody battle field, amongst shouts and fires, with men losing their lives at the very second when the camera closes upon the bird hatching. In a similar way, at the end of the film, shortly after the festive departure of the soldiers, the camera returns to the island focusing on a hatching plant, as if to harbinger the rebirth of the island itself, the sacrificed return to the roots, often ascribed, as further discussed, to certain religiosity. It is the beginning, the Eden, the roots which seem to be of a significant concern to Malick.

“Malick’s characters are never wholly there (..): they float like ghosts, unformed, malleable, subject to mercurial shifts in mood or attitude, no more stable or fixed than the breeze or the stream.”[iii]

The setting in The Thin Red Line can thus be regarded as being of the expressionist tradition, as not only is it aligned with the film’s philosophical and symbolic motivations but also expresses moods, attitudes and emotions of the characters incorporated within it. The citation provided touches upon another significant theme within Malick’s use of setting: the loss as already mentioned in the previous paragraph, in particular though, the loss of the present, the loss of the moment. Martin again attributes this to the “poetic ambition: to film the things of the world (people, animals, flora and fauna) before they acquire their names, before they coalesce into firm shapes, objects, identities …”[iv], a claim which is again clearly observed in the setting in the animals being born, fleeing the frame or simply positioned individually in close up shots given no further visual context. Schaffer, however, notes: “In Malick’s world nothing is securely anchored to itself.”[v] This is illustrated by the choice within representation of nature in The Thin Red Line; it is the glimpse of the butterfly that pierces the battle scene, fleeing the moment, these are the birds and even the unanchored flowering plant on the beach, risking being washed by the sea. The abundance of the epic within the setting is, however, widely criticised in academic coverage of Malick’s work. James Morrison and Thomas Schur claim, for instance, that Malick “often risks cliché in the lyricism of the landscape”[vi]. However Malick’s imagery could attribute its symbolism and ‘philosophy of nature’[vii] to a number of religious movements and thinkers, it is perhaps worth to hazard criticism that Malick continues to operate to a great extent with symbols easily falling into clichés; water, light, fire, earth used as a commentary on the experience of life, death, rebirth. This simplified interpretation is supported in one of the voice-overs with the words of a prayer of one of the soldiers “You’re my light. My guide”. These accusations may also be drawn in terms of Malick’s use of colours, easily, although somewhat degradingly, read in terms of a certain religiosity, which, on a side note, is explicitly expressed in the narrative, for instance in the aforementioned scene of praying. The simplified interpretation can also be drawn from the juxtaposition of red and blue in terms of life, death, love, evil, forgiveness, which fall into mainstream cultural associations within the Christian tradition.

“Light is fixed, immaterial, central. At once fire and ice, it is the symbol of both objectivity and eternity. It is the heaven’s gaze itself. Clear and serene, it traces outlines, delimits, distributes space into symmetrical areas. It is justice, but it is also the Idea, the archetype engraved upon a cloudless sky. Light: the essence, the realm of the intemporal. Water is diffuse, elusive, formless. It evokes time, carnal love; it is the tide itself – death and resurrection – and the gateway to the elemental world. Everything is reflected in water, everything founders in it, everything is reborn in it. It is change, the ebb and flow of the universe. Light separates, water unites. Paradise would appear to be ruled by two warring sisters.”[viii]

Water as the signifier and the surrounding dominates the narrative and symbolism within the film. Water dictates the soldiers’ actions and war positioning: as they move on in the battlefield we are continuously encountered by the lack of water or overabundance of it, both coming as a threat. Water is also considered a unifying symbolic force of nature, as supported by the direct quotation from the voice-over of Private Jack Bell “We. We together. One being. Flow together like water. Till I can’t tell you from me.”[ix]

Martin notes: “In the later work, The Thin Red Line and The New World, we have entered fully into (…) irreconcilable struggle between light and water: the muted, muddy, dull colour schemes of serial military men in uniform, moving through grass or water, are confronted with dazzling, hard-edge apparitions of terrible beauty or sublime death.”[x]

This may also be reflected in the aforementioned loss of the Witt’s “glory” – the inability of the moment, tied to the myth of Biblical Eden, as is accurately summarised by Martin in his essay: “Brakhage made a film called The Animals of Eden and After – and could there be a better title for the cinema of Terrence Malick, with its obsessive central myth of Eden before and after the Fall?”[xi] The loss of Eden leaves a gap unable to fulfil, the lack being echoed throughout the film in the form of loss and longing. As put by Sgt. Welsh towards the end of the story “”If I never see you in this life, let me feel the lack.”[xii] The idyllic world we enter as the alligator gracefully enters peaceful waters in the first shot of the film collapses with troops raiding the island. The bonds within a native community break, the animals, cohabiting human space trustfully in the days of “glory”, seem to estrange themselves from people after the raid. What is more, the “glory” days ultimately are never stated to be only a fiction projected by Private Witt or actual events preceding the invasion of the island.

“Malick creates (…) an image that is a question, by letting images of men and nature approach a point of convergence and similarity which serves only to adumbrate their separation and mutual isolation at another level”[xiii]

This claim partially supports the points previously made about the similarity between the nature of humans and animals, or, more poignantly perhaps, the similarity between the images of the two. When Sgt. Welsh is asked whether he ever feels lonely, he replies with a grim “Only around people”[xiv], this should be read in juxtaposition with an angry threat coming from an American soldier after the massacre of the Japanese village: “Birds up there? They’re gonna eat you all.”[xv] The alligator is captured and tied down. The harmony becomes mythical, present only in the lack. In the following quotation, not only does Private Witt express the loss and the lack, set against the symbolic light, but also innate longing: “We were a family. How’d it break up and come 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?”[xvi]

James Morrison and Thomas Schur refer to a film as a medium as a way back to nature, which they attribute to its materiality.[xvii] They proceed to summarize Malick’s films, as already mentioned in the course of the essay, as certain mediations on nature.[xviii] The complexity of the depiction of nature in The Thin Red Line has imposed limits on the depth of the conducted analysis. The both unifying and dividing quality to the depiction of nature in the film underpins deeper philosophical debates in Malick’s work, only touched upon in

[i] Bill Schaffer, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’, in Senses of Cinema 36 (2005), accessed online, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/book-reviews/forms_of_being/.

[ii] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’, in Rouge (2006), accessed online, http://www.rouge.com.au/10/malick.html/.

[iii] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’.

[iv] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’.

[v] Bill Schaffer, ‘The Shape of Fear: Thoughts after The Thin Red Line’, in Senses of Cinema 8 (2000), accessed online, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2000/8/thinredline/.

[vi] James Morrison and Thomas Schur, The Films of Terrence Malick (Westport: PRAEGER, 2003), 51

[vii] James Morrison and Thomas Schur, The Films of Terrence Malick (Westport: PRAEGER, 2003), 68

[viii] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’.

[ix] Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line, Directed by Terrence Malick, USA: 1998.

[x][x] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’.

[xi] Adrian Martin, Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’.

[xii] Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line, Directed by Terrence Malick, USA: 1998.

[xiii] Bill Schaffer, ‘The Shape of Fear: Thoughts after The Thin Red Line’, 8.

[xiv]  Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line, Directed by Terrence Malick, USA: 1998.

[xiv]  Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line, Directed by Terrence Malick, USA: 1998.

[xiv] James Morrison and Thomas Schur, The Films of Terrence Malick (Westport: PRAEGER, 2003), 68

[xiv] James Morrison and Thomas Schur, The Films of Terrence Malick (Westport: PRAEGER, 2003), 68

[xiv] Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line, Directed by Terrence Malick, USA: 1998.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Martin, Adrian. ‘Things To Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’. In Rouge (2006). Online. http://www.rouge.com.au/10/malick.html. Accessed 10/11/11

Morrison, James and Schur, Thomas. The Films of Terrence Malick. Westport: PRAEGER, 2003.

Schaffer, Bill. ‘Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’. In Senses of Cinema 36 (2005). Online. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/book-reviews/forms_of_being/. Accessed 10/12/11

Schaffer, Bill. ‘The Shape of Fear: Thoughts after The Thin Red Line’. In Senses of Cinema 8 (2000). Online. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2000/8/thinredline/. Accessed 10/12/11

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