Awe and wonder aren’t often found in movie theatres. For the most part we make do with excitement, laughter, shock or tears. In war movies, especially, awe and wonder seem antithetical to audience expectations; we’ve only just got used to realism – why tax us with grace? War movies should be about the horror of war; we should come away from war movies traumatised, like good soldiers. When The Thin Red Line opened to audiences in 1998, a lot of people thought director Terrence Malick had missed the point… all those shots of flora and fauna and seemingly nothing felt, no tears or cheers, no-one to care about in the thicket of his cast… But a lot of people were wrong about this movie; wrong about its goals, wrong about its failings, wrong even about its genre – since it isn’t a war movie at all, it’s a prayer.
The Thin Red Line is about the battle for the island of Guadalcanal the way 2001 is about astronauts on a space mission. That is to say, in narrative terms the battle forms the main thread of the plot, but in terms of what the movie is about, who fights the battle is more important than who wins. We are in the company of men for almost the entirety of the movie’s run-time. The only women we see are scarcely more than remembered dreams. Of those we come to know the best in Charlie Company, Sean Penn plays Sergeant Welsh, a cynic who, like all cynics, masks his heart with a sneer; Nick Nolte is Colonel Tall, an old man seizing a career opportunity, no matter what the human cost; Elias Koteas is Captain Staros; moral and compassionate, if perhaps the wrong man in the wrong place; Ben Chaplin is Private Bell; immersed in love and then baptised by it; and James Caviezel is Private Witt, or God, or Terrence Malick – his gaze steady and sad and caught-up in things, alone but not lonely.
The best way to understand Malick’s approach to movies is to think of the kind of movies Werner Herzog would make if he wasn’t at war with the world. Whereas Herzog, like Malick, views nature with awe, Malick doesn’t seek drama the way Herzog does. The most common criticism of Malick is that he makes movies that lack drive, but that’s only because the thing he’s after exists in stillness. There is a sense of calm to The Thin Red Line and to Days of Heaven and to Badlands. Events in these films seem at odds with their prevailing tone, but it’s a deliberate choice, not a failing to engage with the characters. Malick wants to evoke a sense of something eternal in these movies, something which – while it doesn’t lessen the value of life – places death and hardship in harmony with nature. If that makes him sound naïve, it’s a hard accusation to refute. He’s certainly not someone who seems to change his view as he gets older. But perhaps naivety is necessary to make the kind of movies Malick makes. There are other and better-qualified directors to make movies about ordinary struggles and people who don’t act like they’ve been up reading philosophy all night. Malick might be idiosyncratic, but at least he’s sincere.
The Thin Red Line is not a prayer in that it asks for anything, or that it seeks to convert viewers to a religious faith or a doctrinal world-view. It is a prayer in that it does what a prayer does for the believer; it draws together the world’s terrors and brings calm for a moment, creates stillness. Prayer does not stop the bad things that happen in life, neither does it ignore bad things, or wish them away. A good prayer is one which allows a person to deal with the world and to remember that all things pass. When James Caviezel says he’s “seen another world”, the wrong way to take it (the way Sean Penn takes it) is that he doesn’t see what’s happening around him. But Caviezel’s “other world”, and Malick’s, isn’t Heaven any more than it’s a denial of reality. Their “other world” is ours – they just see it differently.