So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
– Robert Frost
The release of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), after a twenty-year abscence from directorial duties, made it possible to reassess one of the most singularly visionary and poetic voices in modern American cinema. Perhaps the most obvious point of comparison between the two earlier films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and The Thin Red Line is the sheer difference in subject of the latter film from the previous two. Malick’s foray into a genre such as the combat film seems far removed from the austere Americana of his previous two films, and yet there is a definite logic as to why Malick would make such a film as I hope my examples from the two early films will show. What follows is therefore part surmise, part summation, as I venture to trace possible links between the intimate tone of Malick’s two early films and the sound and fury of The Thin Red Line.
There is Only One Subject
To say that Malick is concerned with the mortality of his characters is to point to the obvious; in Badlands and Days of Heaven, all of the male protagonists meet premature deaths: Bill (Richard Gere) is shot-down, the Farmer (Sam Shepard) is stabbed, while Kit (Martin Sheen) we assume will be electrocuted. That Malick’s male characters die violently, however, suggests a concern with something more than mortality alone. It is as if Malick’s vision of human fate instinctively demands that all the men in his films die in the prime of life. For Malick, as for the viewer, something is irrevocably and painfully lost when in Days of Heaven Bill slumps forward into the water, the camera placed underwater to receive him as he breathes his last breath and then is carried away by the current. If there is a particular myth with which to identify such a trope it would be that of Venus and Adonis. Like Adonis, the men in Malick’s films are killed while still young and like Adonis they have a Venus figure to memorialize their passing.
One need only look at the ending of Days of Heaven to realize just how much Malick equates being male with dying young. Towards the end of the film there is a brief scene at a train-station where Abby (Brooke Adams) waits for the next train out of town. In what I consider to be the most revealing moment of the film, Abby passes a group of soldiers bidding their loved-ones farewell as they prepare to journey to the battle-front. What is worth noting about this scene is the way in which it provides a historic context for the tragedy of the film’s archetypal plot, namely World War I America. It is as though Malick is providing us with a clue to his true subject by having this small band of soldiers pop-up at just the right moment in the narrative to suggest a coda-like summation of a theme which has been played-out by three soloists, namely Bill, Abby and The Farmer. The sense of closure, and of utter waste, which is contained in Abby’s brief glance at the soldiers, is uncanny.
In Days of Heaven, Bill’s scheme for profiting from Abby’s marriage to the Farmer is itself dependent upon the death of the Farmer. The film’s narrative momentum is predicated upon the untimely demise of a man not much older than Bill or Abby. Death is thus an ingrained component of the film’s thematic and narrative concerns. Far from being the end-point of a narrative, as in most classical narratives, imminent death here becomes a possible starting point for Bill, Abby and Linda (Linda Manz). The whole reason for these three characters finding themselves in the Texas wheat fields is due to Bill’s fight with a supervisor which may have left the supervisor dead (we are never quite sure). In many ways, death and destruction are the forces which drive Malick’s films onwards.
It would be appropriate to ask why Malick treats his male figures the way he does If we compared the fate of his male characters with that of his female characters we would find a distinct pattern emerging with the males being killed-off while the females act as our entry-point into the narrative world of the film. Quentin Turnour notes: “The men always have the West in their heads. Both Bill and (in Badlands) Kit feel the national urge to flee to this pre-modern and extra-historic wilderness.” Paradoxically, the result of this quest to flee modernity and history is to bring them closer towards it. Both Bill and Kit entangle themselves further and further into history and modernity by fleeing it: Kit by causing an interstate man-hunt and acquiring that most modern of inventions, celebrity; Bill by performing with the flying troupe and the reports of his progress in the newspapers. Of course, for both of them, it is their lovers who will be left behind to remember their lives. Ultimately, the task of ‘journalising’ the trajectory of their ‘male flight’ is left to the women.
In Badlands and Days of Heaven the women do the work of the film’s narrative conscious. It is to the women that the task of remembering, intuiting, narrativising events is allocated. In these two films it is the women who are also granted moments of epiphany, such as when Holly (Sissy Spacek) realizes the vast enormity of the cosmos and of the world she inhabits by viewing picture-postcards through a viewing apparatus. Her epiphanic realization of the duality of consciousness is rendered in terms which resemble James Joyce’s Stephen Hero when he writes a list of ever expanding domains which situate him; thus Holly speaks of the wonder of other people and of their lives in a moment which suggests that she is aware of the paradox of existence whereby we can be at one and the same time at the center of the universe and also at the periphery of it.
In Malick’s first two films, women are the subjects of cinematic contemplation insofar as they have a richer range of visual cues and experiences to draw from. As Adrian Danks writes of the stereoscope images in Badlands, “it is simply possible to say that these scenes, people, and places existed. Their ‘strangeness’ is somehow familiarised, ‘familialised’ and lent continuity by Holly’s chilling but homely voiceover.” It is this awareness of the paradoxical strangeness and familiarity of these images, and of the world from which these images were produced (which is Holly’s world and yet not Holly’s world), which marks Holly as Malick’s true Cartesian subject in much the same way that Rousseau’s Emile serves to present both the theory and the practice of a modern subjecthood. Only with Malick, the subject is constructed along phenomenological lines making the recognition of a world beyond the self (through images of that world) the means by which a subject begins to transcendentally perceive existence.
In Days of Heaven too, it is Linda, the waifish child narrator of the film, who acquires a wider sense of self when she looks through an illustrated volume in the Farmer’s library, or when seeing the grown-ups lose paradise through a telescope. As Adrian Danks points out, such instances of female contemplation, observation and interpretation are part of Malick’s cinema just as they were a part of Max Ophüls’ cinema before him. In a very important sense, Malick’s work continues a tradition of women-centred films by such directors as Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophüls, and Kenji Mizoguchi; the defining factor in the formation of this list of directors is the way they each present us with non-mysoginistic representations of women which foreground the female subject as the prime area of concern.
The men in Malick’s first two films, however, become the objects of cinematic contemplation in a manner reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg’s treatment of Gary Cooper as an object of erotic contemplation in Morocco (1930), while Marlene Dietrich becomes the subject of our emotional empathy as a result of what John Flaus has called “Sternberg’s reverse sexism”. One need only recall the way Richard Gere or Martin Sheen are presented to us as would-be Jimmy Deans to see how Malick’s representation of these males, who are at once actor/character/persona, relies upon an objectification of the actor to a degree which makes them dominate the landscape of the film. Men in Malick’s film’s are always more memorable, as objects, than women.
For the men of these two films, no subjective consciousness is palpable to us; their identity, as well as their future prospects, are “all used-up” by their very quest to flee to a wilderness, to a new Eden. Whatever it is the men may have been after, modernity catches up with them sooner or later and swallows them up whole; hence all the new inventions which appear throughout the course of Days of Heaven, in particular, the phantom-like way in which Bill rides back into the lives of Abby, Linda and the Farmer astride a motorcycle, eyes goggled and long-coat draped in a manner not unlike something from the battlegrounds of Europe.
Indeed, not only the future, but history itself seems to conspire with Malick against the men in his films. In all three of the films Malick has directed so far there is an element of historical fact as the basis of the story: Badlands is derived from the Charles Starkweather serial killings; Days of Heaven astonishes us with the sheer attention to detail of its evocation of itinerant sackers, as though it were a documantary on the subject; and The Thin Red Line takes a major battle of the Pacific theatre as its point-of-origin.
It could be argued that the above pattern of roles for men and women do not operate in The Thin Red Line, as the film presents us with an ensemble of male characters who contribute to the task of providing a voice-over commentary for the film. True enough, Malick’s latest film is a radical departure from his previous two in terms of the scale of his concern for existential matters, but the polyphonic nature of The Thin Red Line should not distract us from recognising the pattern at work in the first two films. Significantly, it is Miranda Otto’s character who beckons to Ben Chaplin’s Private Bell to, “Come out”, and follow her to the ocean’s blue caress in what is perhaps the film’s most easily overlooked voiceover sequence.
Apart from the young mother Private Witt (James Caviezel) meets while AWOL and Witt’s memories of his own mother, the wife of Private Bell is the only female presence of any significance in the whole film. During the sequences in which we are shown Bell’s life with his wife, the climactic point occurs when we finally hear her beckon to him with these few words of invitation. After the capture of the Japanese camp when Bell receives the letter from his wife asking for a divorce, we again hear her voice. Malick’s presentation of this sequence is such as to make us believe that the young officer we see Miranda Otto waiting for, as the text of the letter is read out,will be Bell himself. In fact, the figure walking into focus and eventually embracing Miranda Otto’s character is a stranger, and then we hear the words which confirm the catastrophe. As with the women in the previous two films, Bell’s wife is unable to remain steadfast and true. Malick’s view of the women in his films is not misogynistic – after all, the men they have to deal with are quite a motley crew of dreamers and nuts – but one that views the women as engaged in a different order of struggle. For the women, the struggle is one of dissolution and identity; for the men, it is a struggle betwen mortality and transcendence.
Malick’s favourite device, the voiceover, is worth examining in detail as it provides the entry-point into all three of his films. For Colin MacCabe, Malick’s use of voiceover in the The Thin Red Line is “marred” by the script which, as MacCabe puts it:
buries an excellent 90-minute war movie in a stream of pretentious, portentious and sententious verbiage which, at least on first hearing, is nothing more than a mishmash of recycled cliches about nature and violence.
I should add that I disagree with this assessment, mainly because it stems from what I believe is MacCabe’s misunderstanding of what Malick set out to do: namely an existential drama set in the context of modern warfare.
Reading MacCabe’s article in Sight and Sound, one senses his disappointment is caused as much with the above script faults he identifies as with the fact that all he really wants is for The Thin Red Line to emulate the classic combat film paradigm as articulated in The Story of G.I. Joe (William Wellman, 1945) and so many of Samuel Fuller’s films. MacCabe fails to see how his disappointment with the film’s mythopoeic as opposed to historic concerns are in themselves a misreading of the film. It’s a bit like blaming Homer for not being as good a historian as Herodotus was and getting all the military manuevers incorrect in The Illiad. But the mythic aspect of warfare is precisely the point of the film insofar as myths can be both personal and communal. When MacCabe criticises Malick for failing to present any sense of the historical ramifications of the Pacific campaign, he forgets the devastating words of Sargent Welsh (Sean Penn) immediately after risking his life by heroically taking morphine to a dying soldier: “Property! The whole thing’s about fucking property.” But, lest I be seen to be too harsh on Colin MacCabe, I would point out that Gavin Smith writes eloquently and sympathetically about the way in which The Thin Red Line “evade[s] the mythopoeic impulse”, though in the very next line he defines this impulse in terms which concur with my above metaphor regarding Homer and Herodotus: namely as, “that which makes a film larger than life and proffers it to stand in for history”.
Smith perceptively notes that it is only in The Thin Red Line that Malick succeeds in creating a “protagonist” who has enough “receptivity and empathy with any chosen object of contemplation” to make possible the aesthetic transcendence he strives for in his films. No other male character in Malick’s films is so suited to acting as a cypher for the sublime, or as Smith writes: “to behold the eternal confrontation of nature and culture for what it is, and to be able to articulate a metaphysical perspective”. It is significant that twenty plus years divide the first two films from the third. That Malick has succeeded in rendering a truly subjective male protagonist in this last film is testament to his twenty-year incubation and maturation as a filmmaker. There are, however, crucial differences in the way subjectivity is articulated and, in some instances, formed, between the two periods. As Gavin Smith also notes, in the earlier films the voiceovers belong to young girls who are often not very articulate about their situation, while in the last film the ensemble of voiceovers belong to an adult view of the world which is less impressionable. Ultimately, the critical difference which reasserts itself in all three films is that the men who count as the protagonists of the film die, regardless of their status as subjects. Private Witt’s sacrificial death, with its serene calm in the face of imminent death, matching that of his mother at her passing, is the moment of absolute transcendence in the film. Malick’s achievement in The Thin Red Line, is in capturing that serenity for all time.