The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

In a funny way, Terrence Malick’s films remind me of Marguerite Duras’ novels, less for any internal formal characteristics than for the difficult duty they impose upon anyone who would choose to comment upon them. Both artists rush to take the risk of seeming too serious to be taken seriously – and I can see no worthwhile way to respond to their work, to write my experience of it, without taking a similar risk.


It is just another in a long series of shots tracking the advance of a combat squad as they nervously ascend a windswept hill alive with the possibility of enemy fire. Sometimes we find ourselves looking out into the grass from within the shifting mass; sometimes we accompany the group from ‘alongside’ like neutral envoys; sometimes we monitor their progress ‘objectively’ from above and the mass manufactured roundness of their helmeted heads makes each individual seem to disappear in the collective; sometimes we swoop in close to study a man in isolation and the unique way his body suffers the fear travelling through him; sometimes there is no man to be seen and no assigned POV, just the disembodied rush of the camera through grass (as in a slasher) . And sometimes we watch these men moving towards us from the vanishing point of the entire scene: from the fortified POV of the unseen Japanese gunners.

The shot that gets to me most simply gives another angle on the action – from behind and slightly above, so that we can see them all at once, moving within the unifying boundaries of their collective fear, yet still on the threshold of individuation as they scan the grass, itself moving in waves all around them. It is this image that singles me out and focuses my memory. Here I feel most insistently that these shots do more than just describe a series of actions, joining what precedes to what follows, more than just take me from A to B, though they do serve that purpose well enough.

The first thing that gets to me is the silence. Everything struck by silence, enveloped by it, absorbed in it. This silence expresses a force greater than any of the explosions to ensue – soon we will see this directly, in the startling tranquillity that instantly covers everything in sight just after the first two scouts are shot dead. Even before the first shots ring out, silence fills the entire screen and my body with the stilled violence of anticipation. Not just an aural silence, not just the absence of anything to be heard, but also a silence of colours, camouflage rendering the shifting human figures nearly indiscernible, almost silent against the flowing gold and green, their restless, searching movements echoing the swirling breezes which cross the grass and make it shudder in waves.

That’s the other, inseparable thing that I should make explicit, the sensation of layers of silence moving across each other in ceaseless waves. For there are at least two kinds of silence in this image, and two kinds of violence, also; two irreconcilable yet inseparable planets between which the film travels in a spiral throughout its length. The planet of men and the planet of nature. The silent waves of grass driven by gusts of wind and the waves and gusts of fear moving amongst the men. Two winds which seem to chase each other, mock each other, endlessly approaching each other from moment to moment, without any hope of being reconciled. These men seem about to disappear in the grass, so close are they to the point of being reabsorbed by the waves of nature, dissolving in the flow, rejoining the whole of creation at any moment. Yet the invisible force which propels them all at once, whipping them up into waves of silent motion which seem to mimic the moving world around them, is precisely their awareness of mortality, their separation, their fear, which travels all around, between, and through them.

And that is the third inseparable thing – the way these men move within themselves, individually and as a group. You can see how a soldier must move in the relentless awareness of his own mortal slowness, how he tries to live each moment entirely in the interval between perception and reflex, like a loaded spring. Focusing on any one man, it seems that his movements follow no rule other than that of his own incommunicable fear, spinning around on his toes, moment to moment, looking to make someone a target before he becomes one himself. But if you pull focus and take in the whole group, the waves of movement which move across and unite them become coherent. These waves are restless, multiple, unpredictable, they contend with each other, but they nonetheless take up the bodies of individuals and form them into definite patterns and lines of flow.

At this moment no one seems to direct the group. Instant to instant, each one of them again begins to move alone, out of the irreducibility of his own fear. Yet, at the same time, they are visibly interconnected by the waves of fear which cross them, they move and pulse as one. They are not attached to each other by puppet strings, no one coordinates them from above, each moves in his own interval of freedom, turns within his own circle of fear, watching for that moment when the flowing grass parts to reveal the point from which death will come, yet each leads and is led simultaneously.

Each man apparently responds with a certain degree of freedom, making his own fugitive decisions with each twist of the torso, choosing between the need to see what the others are already seeing or responding to and the need to cover what the others are not seeing or responding to. But these two poles of freedom are at the same time the bars of a double bind in which they are all caught up. Moment to moment, each one of them might be turning away from the very thing he needs to see – the point from which he will be seen and assigned to his destiny by the enemy – and this is exactly what keeps all of them moving at once. None of them can ever know if he is making the right response, responding to the right response, covering the right patch, monitoring the right wave in the grass, until it is already too late. Until a shot rings out and somebody is about to cross the thin red line which separates the state of living embodiment from the state of a corpse.

It is evidently the very fact that there is nothing yet definitely ‘out there’ to encounter amongst the waves of green, nothing to focus upon but their own pure apprehension, that leaves these men shaken, moving in a long, slow panic. These waves of fear are like ‘the outside’ itself moving across and within the group: the apprehension of an absolute unknown resonating between men – but that unknown is, beyond any immediate threat from particular men, man himself, the one animal that stands up and claims his own POV upon the world. Malick creates here the image of a question, 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. It is this very similarity, this convergence of silences, that for me makes the film’s obsessive questions come alive. “What’s this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” , we found ourselves being asked at the very beginning, before our eyes had time to focus on anything.


It is a critical commonplace that the characters in Malick’s films tend to be dominated and dwarfed by the milieu in which they find themselves. They wander through worlds defined by a single, all-pervading element absorbing everything into itself, modulating and vibrating within itself in all directions, they are surrounded on all sides by a natural substance in which they nonetheless fail to take root. Often it is an undulating sea of grass or wheat which opens itself up without resistance to human encroachment, yet defeats all attempts at mastery. In Days of Heaven (1978), this sovereignty of natural elements becomes an event within the narrative: the fire that has been deliberately lit among the fields suddenly rages out of control and sends all the humans scurrying uselessly like ants. Just as often, it is the sky that at once memorialises and miniaturises the play of human passions: Malick places his camera so that the horizon becomes a bloodless guillotine, chopping bodies in half, uprooting the head and suspending it in a pure blue ether, outside of any context, as if against a backdrop of eternity that mocks and glorifies the fragile human figure. Cinematic space is never fully humanised in Malick, never entirely defined by the vectors and focal points of human action and intention.

The waters of the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line are cleansing, baptismal. The naked human figures, young and old, native and soldier, are held together in the freedom of water, which contains but does not constrain. Water envelopes the body, yet leaves it free of gravity: suddenly you can move up, down, around, over and through yourself. These virginal associations are later inverted, also made to show another face. The life of the natives will be seen for the first time as full of superstition, death and sickness, perhaps as a result of contact, perhaps as a revelation that here too there have always been two worlds at war with each other. On the battlefield itself there is always too little or too much water. The soldier who has extracted gold from the teeth of dead Japanese in the sight of their dying comrades now disavows his pathetic spoils and casts them into the rain and mud, but the pouring rain cannot cleanse him of the memory of his actions, no water can reach a man buried in his own memory and guilt. Later still, as they move on to the next engagement, they will encounter the element of water anew as a mist which surrounds them like their own fear and drains the world of detail, leaving them with nothing to monitor but their own heartbeats and the sound of tracers whizzing past. A world without edges, soft, fluid, and penetrable, in which there is nothing to see but that instant of deadly emergence when the hardest penetrating thing – a bullet – comes looking for your body.

“We’re all trapped in our own moving box ….”

The Thin Red Line

In war, POV is everything, literally a matter of life or death. Death comes from the unseen POV: get the other in your sights and live; appear in his living field of view and you’re dead. Cinema, with its ability to take us up in a irresistible flow that cuts uncontrollably between different POVs, has always found unique possibilities of invention in war and weapons play. From Edwin Porter to John Woo and beyond, popular filmmakers have never ceased exploiting, exploring and reinventing the proxemics and architectonics of war and weapons play (just as, according to Virilio, war makers have never ceased exploiting, exploring and reinventing the cinematics of war itself).

The taking of a hill or a fortified position in battle amounts to the taking of a commanding POV (one might make a fascinating comparative study of the very different solutions and possibilities found in this situation by Coppola, Kubrick, Speilberg, and Malick) . The assaulting party initially finds itself in a condition of absolute vulnerability, faced with an enemy that will not show his face. As we are told, ‘one spot’s as good as another. There’s no place to hide’. This turns out to be equally true of the place occupied by the unseen killers. At the culmination of the assaulting party’s upward thrust all limits are finally broken through. The turning inside out of the enemy’s fortress or nest amounts to a turning inside out of a world which has been entirely dominated by the invisibility and apparent invulnerability of their POV.

This moment of triumph is emptied, immediately made to show another side, as Malick makes his characters and his viewers look at length into the faces of the defeated Japanese. An American soldier – already mentioned- props himself up among the dying and the dead, letting them know he is there to violate their mouths to extract gold from their teeth, unable to admit recognising anything in their faces but raw material. Witt (James Caviezel), arguably the film’s central protagonist, contemplates the appalling beauty of a Japanese soldier’s dead face half buried in ashes and dust: this face that moments before could not be seen, that had dictated their life and death from its own unassailable POV, now gives nothing to see, nothing to confront but the sad ordinariness of an unmourned body.

“I blew my butt off!”

The Thin Red Line

Witt is a detached watcher throughout the film, even as he acts with urgency and purpose, particularly in death scenes . He takes every chance to look into eyes of the dying, as if the invisible essence of a man might become visible at the very moment it flees the body. This is even true at the moment of his own death, as he goes to draw against impossible odds, surely knowing that the action will never be completed: as if there is nothing left for him to see in death, unless it is from within the POV of death itself. With his depthless blue eyes, his smile apparently shifting from sly trickster to loving mother all of men, from hardened defiance (“I’m twice the man you are”) to Buddha-like disinterest, Witt never ceases being astonished by a single question: what is it to have a POV? What Witt seems to find in the gaze of his comrades and enemies, finally, is less the ‘heart of darkness’ – if this is imagined as a black hole into which one cannot look without being struck with madness – than the heart of the ordinary. They are all the most ordinary men, it is only that the thin red line encircles them, tightening its noose with every step; only that they know they are all walking on the very threshold between life and death, between the state of a person and the state of a worthless thing.

Much to the ennervation of some viewers, Malick insists upon continuing The Thin Red Line well beyond the point where it ‘should finish’: the culmination of the first battle. The moment of reaching the summit is immediately revealed as just the beginning of another cycle of death and fear. The men will not even be allowed to drink. This moment, like every moment, is divided from within, conceals each of its two faces behind the other. There are always two inseparable, irreconcilable worlds, like the flow of water and the immoveable, skull-like rigidity of the hill. ‘This rock is all there is’, we are told, yet the rhythm of waves continually crosses both worlds: waves of water, waves of grass, and waves of memory. It is this poetic conflict of elements, this exploration of existence as self-dissension, that seems to structure The Thin Red Line from beginning to end, rather than any linear tracking of causes and effects (‘plot’), or the development of character and personal history. What Malick gives us – or makes pass in us – is less a representation of war, realistic or otherwise, than an exploration of the idea of war, i.e. of life divided against itself.

Cinema confounds the classical thesis according to which art gives the sensible form of the idea. For in this case the visitation of the sensible by the idea does not give the idea any body. The idea is not separable, it exists in cinema only as passage. The idea is visitation.

– Alain Badiou

“Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

The Thin Red Line

In Malick’s world nothing is securely anchored to itself, neither at the level of form or content. Everything flows into everything else, like water.

To the chagrin of many, characters often seem almost exchangeable, presenting endless modulations of a single face – this is especially true of Bell (Ben Chaplin) and Witt (I could not consistently separate and identify these two characters and their fates until a third viewing). POVs are divided in themselves. Often we find ourselves confronted with an obvious, unexplained conflict between voice over monologue and the assigned POV: one man looks out at the world for us, another comments upon the sight, claiming the memory as his own. Malick constantly brings music, voice-over, wild sound and image track into tension, the development of each following its own dynamics – again, many critics protested his pretentiousness in allowing music to intrude over dialogue for ‘mere dramatic effect’. Each register throws the others into relief, each throws the others in the background: fading in, fading out, rising, falling, the one passing into and across the other, always showing two faces in one.

Perhaps a single pellucid idea animates the whole of this film, like the light that breaks through the leaves as the teenage boy dies – another item that sent many critics cringing – but it is an idea that cannot be definitively stated, only explored, traversed, solicited. An idea expressed as a whole that exists precisely insofar as it cannot be registered all at once or reduced to a single dimension. An idea that does not give us a body able to be held for interrogation or dissection, that instead interrogates us, testing our responses, moment to moment. An idea that arises out of cinematic experimentation, an idea in passage that is delivered to us by the very process that it escapes us – the automated process of film. As Leo Charney might put it: ‘there it is …. gone’.


“Property, the whole fucking thing is about property.”

The Thin Red Line

In a film the art does not consist in reflecting, but in extracting and constructing … This clearly does not signify that the filmic art cannot think its time. It is, to the contrary, in thinking and constructing, in extracting to itself, that filmic art produces the eternal.

– Denis Levy

I’m not about to pronounce judgement on the ‘realism’ or otherwise of The Thin Red Line. Put simply, I don’t know anything about war. War takes place in another universe than the one in which I live and die: it takes place in the universe of images. For me, it exists above all as a series of images. War never touches me, even and especially when it is unfolding before my eyes. Nothing ever felt more distant and inconsequential than the experience of watching a missile find its target in real-time, even and especially when video cameras on nose cones allowed me to watch from the weapon’s own POV. As far as I could see, there was no consequence at all, nothing but a momentary flash of soothing white noise.

At the same time, it is equally true to say that it is precisely because of moving images that a person like me, born in the era of the first televised war, will never know a world without war; never experience for a moment a sense of global peace or a single night uninterrupted by news of fresh incursions against someone’s horizons; never live an instant without the awareness that somewhere beyond my own horizon war is happening, that the innocent are dying in their homes; never enjoy a second without the knowledge that the horizon itself might be wiped away in a flash of white light. I have always lived in this ridiculous disparity, under the unseeing gaze of moving images that render my own life less than real. I have never felt that I had any other choice.

“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this?”

The Thin Red Line

The way we imagine the relationship between collectivity and individuality is unavoidably political, even if no explicit pronouncements are made. The classical form in which actions eventually answer all the questions raised by perceptions implies one such imagining. Malick tests the limits of that form – as much from within as from ‘beyond’ – in the context of a war film and produces new, specifically cinematic opportunities for thought. One thought I take with me is this: the waves which visibly unify and divide Malick’s squad as it ascends the hill present an image of the way in which fear circulates at every scale. They assume both intersubjectivity and something that is irreducible to intersubjectivity. They are intersubjective because they travel across subjects without belonging to anyone. At this level, the waves are nothing but the expression of a shifting intersubjective ‘ratio’. But they also express something outside of the reach of intersubjectivity: these waves only move insofar as each feels himself alone in the face of death.

In this sense, Malick’s images ‘conceptualise’ fear as an image. At some level the dynamics of fear which his images ‘explicate’ perhaps come into play whenever war is declared, including for example, a ‘war on drugs’ (which is something some of us might know a little about). Youth violence, drugs, paedophilia, single mothers, net porn, etc, etc: the perennial expressions of moral outrage that circulate around these issues are part of the same feedback circuit as the images and practices which they condemn. The vectors of popular culture transmit effects of fear as much as ‘desire’: whatever we do, somehow it all tends to get lost in these waves of brownian emotion.

* * *

Nb. Readers interested in further researching the work of Alain Badiou – rebel disciple of Gilles Deleuze – should point their browsers in the direction of L’Art du Cinema. Those blessed with at least a smattering of reading-French – c’est moi! – or who know their way around the Alta Vista babel fish translator will find there a fascinating array of articles by Badiou and others, all devoted to thinking anew the specific impurity of film in terms of the singular operations of particular films. Badiou also offers a very welcome, if fleeting, critique of the use of determining categories in the development of Deleuze’s theory of the movement-image and time-image. The author is solely responsible for translating the Badiou and Levy quotes above, which are taken from the short articles ‘Le Cinéma Comme Faux Mouvement’ (‘The Cinema as False Movement’) by Alain Badou and ‘Repetition and Singularity’ by Denis Levy.

Leo Charney is an historian of early film and the author of a wonderful book of poetic musings on the nature of film entilted Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift. Like Badiou, Deleuze, and Schefer, he theorises the moving image as transience, rather than fixation (as in the classical psychoanalytic theory of positioning).

About The Author

Bill Schaffer teaches Film Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

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