Critical Voices: Points of View in and on the Thin Red Line

By Millington, Jeremy | CineAction, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Critical Voices: Points of View in and on the Thin Red Line


Millington, Jeremy, CineAction


The Thin Red Line (1998) marked a return to filmmaking twenty years after Terrence Malick's previous release, Days of Heaven (1978), and thirty-five years removed from his debut film, Badlands (1973). The Thin Red Line signaled a shift to a new genre for Malick and his first away from the broad landscapes of rural, middle-Western America. In the period between his first two films and his third, a substantial body of critical literature blossomed, giving rise to certain expectations for this new project. Though Badlands and Days of Heaven displayed relatively concise narrative subjects, each garnered attention for their dense mythic underpinnings. Given these existing thematic proclivities, a film set during World War II didn't necessarily signal a significant departure for Malick. The majority of critical responses tentatively agree on the genre label for The Thin Red Line--this is a war film--as long as one understands 'war' from a variety of angles.

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The film is based on James Jones' 1963 novel of the same name, and Malick's treatment comes after an earlier film version released in 1964. Some have argued, rightly I believe, that The Thin Red Line fits best in the category of post-Vietnam American film making, akin to Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978), generally considered 'anti-war' films; compared with, say, the orthodoxy of the Good War mystique surrounding most popular World War II projects, cinematic or otherwise. (1) Additionally, Malick's personal history with philosophy, especially the work of Martin Heidegger, has become a rather popular interpretative lens during his absence from and return to filmmaking. He studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, though he never completed his doctoral work. A number of readings explore the film as a manifestation of Heideggerian themes on Being and mortality. (2) These are thematic readings, as none of Malick's films make any explicit, diegetic references to Heidegger or philosophy. Some writers ally the film with themes of transcendence and nature, (3) while others focus narrowly on its visual and aural patterns. (4) More conventional narrative analyses are in abundance as well, discussing the film in terms of its representation of a particular historical event (i.e. the battle of Guadalcanal). (5) Each of these contextualizing postures--thematic hallmarks, genre placement, historical record, and Malick biography--provide the basis for the dominant trends in the analyses of The Thin Red Line.

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One of the intriguing aspects of the film is better represented in the criticism than in a simple recounting of the plot (or even a casual viewing). It's a quality that arises through a careful survey of the sundry articles, essays, chapters and books on the film. These analyses don't serve merely to illuminate some picture of the film, though they certainly accomplish that in the outstanding cases; they also mirror a perplexing quality imbedded in the mise-en-scene. This is perhaps most evident in terms of one notorious filmic device: the voiceover. In broader terms, the issue of voiceover in Malick connects to point of view, which is vitally important in The Thin Red Line, though also in the war film genre as a whole. It is particularly central in terms of a fundamental ambiguity common to many of film history's exemplary cases. (6)

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The Thin Red Line is such an exemplary case, on all accounts. There are, on the one hand, points of view internal to the film, expressed through character and voiceover. That these are slippery and difficult to pin down is fairly uncontroversial. On the other hand, there is the more problematic issue of the film's point of view. There is a basic tension between the plurality and divergence of points of view in the film and Malick's elusive presentation of them, notably, through voiceover, which the literature on the film somewhat unwittingly embodies and reflects. …

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