Academic journal article CineAction

Unanswered Questions: Vision and Experience in Terrence Malick's the Thin Red Line

Academic journal article CineAction

Unanswered Questions: Vision and Experience in Terrence Malick's the Thin Red Line

Article excerpt

In the chapter "Participant Observers" in his 1972 Film as Film V.F. Perkins writes the following:

   [F]ilms are unlikely to replace speech or writing as the medium
   for examining and conveying ideas. Moral, political,
   philosophical and other concepts can attain in words an (at
   least apparent) clarity and precision which no other medium
   can rival. The movie's claim to significance lies in its embodiment
   of tensions, complexities and ambiguities. It has a
   built-in tendency to favour the communication of vision and
   experience as against programme. (1)

Perkins' claim about the significance of movies applies to the achievements of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line; it also anticipates Simon Critchley's advice on how to avoid slipping up on any "hermeneutic banana skins" when interpreting The Thin Red Line:

   Malick's movies seem to make philosophical statements
   and present philosophical positions. Nonetheless, to read
   through the cinematic image to some identifiable philosophical
   master text would be a mistake, for it would be not to
   read at all.... To read from cinematic language to some
   philosophical metalanguage is both to miss what is specific
   to the medium of film and usually to engage in some sort of
   cod-philosophy deliberately designed to intimidate the
   uninitiated. (2)

Critchley's informative article brings valuable contexts for The Thin Red Line to my attention and I agree with most of his observations; yet, though he warns against reading from "cinematic language" to "philosophical metalanguage", Critchley nevertheless overlooks some significant elements of Malick's style.

Critchley notes that "It]he narrative of The Thin Red Line is organized around three relationships, each composed of a conflict between two characters." While I might not argue that Malick "organises" The Thin Red Line around these three relationships, I agree that the film assigns distinction to them, although these relationships do not exhaust all the material of the film. As Critchley observes, one relationship is between Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas)--Malick uses this to dramatise the conflict between an ambitious senior officer, although the film qualifies that ambition, and his more caring subordinate; Tall's relationship with his senior officers, represented at the start by John Travolta's General Quintard, provides a context for Tall and Staros' relationship, while Captain Staros has a significant relationship with his men. The relationship between Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) yields a philosophical debate between idealist and materialist prompted by and focussed upon war and death. In turn, the relationship between Witt and his dead mother, established in the prologue, provides one context for the staging of Witt's idealism against Welsh's materialism. Disagreements over perception put pressure on these two relationships; and this is the case with the relationship between Bell (Ben Chaplin) and his wife (Miranda Otto), his visualised memories of her alluding to Witt's memories of his mother. Witt and Bell participate in the assault on the Japanese bunker and their comrades in that group play important parts: they include Private First Class Doll (Dash Mihok), who steals a pistol and later shouts to Corporal Queen (David Harrod), another member of that group, after killing a retreating Japanese soldier; Captain John Gaff (John Cusack), who compares importantly with Captain Staros; and Private First Class Charlie Dale (Arie Verveen), whose collecting of teeth from dead Japanese soldiers in the village produces one of the film's prominent moments.

Critchley concentrates on the relationship between Witt and Welsh and in this article I do the same. As he writes, "[t]he conflict is established in the first dialogue between the two soldiers, after Witt has been incarcerated for going AWOL in a Melanesian village (the scenes of somewhat cloying communal harmony that open the film). …

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