The Thin Red Line

The Lt. Colonel, the filmmaker, the supreme being. I don't know what's worse: the idea that someone has a reason for all this, or that there was never a reason at all. That maybe war produces the very fuel it burns and becomes self-sustaining, self-consuming. And the soldiers who fight it charge headlong into everything because to stop would be to reflect, and the questions you find might not have answers. Who stops a war? What stops a war? The battalion knows it's out-manned and outmatched. Staros reclaims enough time from wartime to realize this is a suicide mission. Lt. Col. Tall orders an advance; Staros refuses to obey. Some men are saved but many more are fated for death. A moral calculus impossible to plot out, and thus no one ever has.

Why are we here? There are millions of men, billions of decisions, that could have prevented this massacre. No matter, we're here and we can only do what we can. War's tautological axiom. But did Terrence Malick have to make this movie? Did God have to make us fight this battle? It becomes unclear whose authority the Lt. Col. speaks for. His ghoulish pragmatism may be the only sure thing left in a world on fire. But someone's out there fanning the flames. We don't know who. Or what.

Guadalcanal is important enough to matter and puny enough not to. Almost no one wants to die here. This isn't Midway, or Normandy, or Stalingrad. It's the rock that no one wants. You have to die for it anyway. Some find spiritual meaning in self-sacrifice (Bell), some submit to the ambiguity (Witt); others are the angels of history at whose feet the world's wreckage collects (Welsh). That's if you don't see the deaths of everyone you know and lose yourself in their absence, like McCron.

Maybe all men's souls are just pieces of a bigger soul. Maybe all wars are the accumulation of each fight against death, and that's why death feels so final, because you're not the only one fighting it, and you know and you see others are losing, have lost, and why should you be the one to win, because who promised you that your life mattered in the first place?

In APOCALYPSE NOW the white man succumbs to madness because none of this means anything but still it happens. To follow the orders of an absent or evil god means you’re far from heaven, perhaps even in hell. What goodness remains to be to salvaged? Coppola gets this, but the Vietnamese soldiers don't. To them the moral stakes are entirely clear. Evil exists. We can put a name (USA) and a face (imperialism) to it. If war has ever held any meaning, then it must be found in anti-imperial combat. That's why US Americans glorify WWII: they credit themselves for thwarting the Axis Powers' imperial will. Yet what about their homeland, a murderous empire given free reign of its own? How many defeats has the world mourned since 1945, how many capitalist conquests resisted in vain? These tears cannot be counted because their number is always growing. Drops in an ocean whose tides threaten ancestral lands, sovereign nations, islands like Guadalcanal that cannot fight climate change anymore than they could fight the indomitable USA, a nation of citizen-soldiers whose deaths are constantly retold in cinema, enshrined at altars built for young worshippers, candles whose flames supposedly burn brightest of all.

If this is Malick's worst film — which it may well *not* be — then it's because his other films come closer to balancing the questions they raise. We needn't have a resolution every time, or even at all. Yet this is a war film, and it has a lot to answer for, as do all its questionable kindred. Malick at least has the courage to look his Japanese soldiers in the face, but what does he see? Does he see the universality of suffering and humanity, or does he see the specificity of a fascist nation's foot-soldiers who may or may not be true martyrs for the cause? Are they equals, Others, neither or both? US American films regularly flunk this test, and it's treated like a noble failure, this admission that white men of the most powerful country in the history of the world know nothing about the people they're killing. THE THIN RED LINE of course operates on a level of tonal, emotional, and formal complexity that few other films can imagine, so it's not like there are obvious tells or flaws. Your wife can still leave you. You can still die in Melanesia. War undoes everything; no safe, comfortable vantage point exists. Nonetheless there remains something fundamentally suspect about a film which posits the US American wartime experience as a universal truth that others, kindly or unkindly, can be compared against. Somehow this mightiest of nations is always the true victim, whose pain is felt most deeply, even when another's face bears that same pain. Can such solipsism be escaped? Clint might have found a way. I'm not sure Malick has.