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It looked like a perfectly ordinary premiere. At the Academy Theatre in Hollywood, the red carpet was rolled out and the stars—Sean Penn, Jon Voight, Woody Harrelson—answered questions like: “Do you think this season is going to be the springboard for the rebirth of epic war movies?” In the twenty years since that evening (December 22, 1998), it’s become clear that The Thin Red Line was too unique, too weird to be the springboard for anything.

The making of the film was eccentric enough: World-famous actors discovered at advance screenings that director Terrence Malick had dramatically edited their contributions. (Adrien Brody’s leading role was reduced to a few lines, George Clooney’s part to a single scene, Viggo Mortensen deleted entirely.) But there was another sense in which Malick had gone his own way: Within what looked like a movie about the Guadalcanal campaign, Malick had produced something far more mysterious. As Roger Ebert noted, “The actors in The Thin Red Line are making one movie, and the director is making another.”

Whether that second movie belongs to any identifiable cinematic tradition I don’t know. It certainly belongs to a literary tradition. Like a number of poets, Malick fumbles to express a common experience: the inexplicable longing that elevates the soul and fills it with an agonizing hope. It’s the tradition of Thomas Traherne in the seventeenth century: “There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?” The “great thing” is not very specific, but neither was Wordsworth a century and a half later: 

                                    a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

It is not a novel observation—that you sometimes get a funny feeling when you look at a sunset—and yet those lines of Wordsworth’s have struck generations of readers with the sense, “Yes, he’s been there too.” C. S. Lewis called it joy: “It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” All these writers were seeking to describe a kind of promised bliss that vanishes before it is grasped, but leaves the mind asking: What was that, and what was it drawing us toward?

In his own search, Malick uses every tool at the director’s disposal. The soundtrack is haunting and insistent, and at both beginning and end it breaks into ecstatic song. The imagery—grass moved by the wind, the branches of a tree stretching toward the heavens, a gap in the ceiling giving way to the sky—hints at the yearning made explicit in the movie's voiceovers. Even while sheltering from gunfire or creeping toward a Japanese position, the characters ask about the meaning of love, the possibility of eternal life, the origin of evil. We hear one soldier reflect: “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain—that death’s got the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory. Feels something smiling through him.”

Some people find this unbearable, and a few critics had fun with the film’s earnestness: “the first New Age World War II movie…metaphysical guff”; “a war film made by a very somber flower child”; “the men in Company C come off like a troop of bad poets in need of a remedial creative writing class.” Fair enough, except that Malick himself is constantly questioning his own dreaminess. The film is poetic, but it also tests that poetry and asks whether it can survive. The metaphysical guff comes up against unbearable reality. The soldiers kill and kill; they blaspheme and taunt their prisoners; some are driven to madness by what they have seen; the camera deliberately lingers on one grotesquely mutilated corpse.

All this could be filed away as “the horrors of war,” the stock-in-trade of the cinema. But Malick also emphasizes simpler, cruder kinds of depravity: the soldiers getting drunk and fighting, Lieutenant Colonel Tall’s callous ambition, the destruction of Private Bell’s marriage. 

And while those voiceovers do go on about love and truth, the film also suggests that these may be empty aspirations. The voice of a dead Japanese soldier asks: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness, truth?”

This dialogue comes to a head in an exchange between the idealistic Private Witt and the cynical Sergeant Welsh. As they test each other, the music builds plangently, and we see two of Malick’s favorite motifs—the sky seen through a gap in the roof, a birdcage with an open door, as if to suggest that, like the birds, we could simply escape into another world. At this moment, Walsh’s voice cuts across the music: “You still believin’ in the beautiful light, are you?” The question is directed, not just to Witt, but to the film itself. It receives a firm, if indirect, reply.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

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