About thirteen years ago, I walked into the Max Palevsky Cinema at Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago with my season pass to Doc Films in hand, fully intending and somewhat eager to watch The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s war movie that had been released early in 1999 (officially in limited release in 1998, to be eligible for the Oscars). The movie is notable for being the “other” war movie of the year, released to far less fanfare than Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line also features almost every male movie star you’ve ever heard of (George Clooney, John Travolta, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, even Jared Leto. Even Thomas “The Punisher” Jane!), most of them in roles lasting between ten seconds and a couple of minutes (this in a nearly three-hour-long film).
As a young cinéaste brimming with culture and mindful of the accent aigu, I looked forward to comparing the two WWII epics, and settled into my seat for what felt like an unusually long wait. Grumblings in the seats gave way to frail resignation when the powers that be at Doc Films eventually deigned to inform the audience that technical difficulties would deprive us of a film this evening. What would I do now? Head home and not download the movie through the BitTorrent technology that did not exist at the time? Obviously, that’s exactly what I did (or, what I did not do?).
The years passed by. I directed a couple of films for my dorm’s annual film fest, while Malick released a couple more films starring Colin Farrell and Brad Pitt; our respective achievements being roughly equal in distinction, I’d say. But in all the time since that abortive attempt in college, I never got around to watching The Thin Red Line. And so when the film was recently made available to me in a free, non-torrent-related way, I decided to watch it. Thirteen years later, I would have my revenge. (“Revenge?” you may ask. “Revenge on what?” I don’t know, maybe nothing. Maybe I just wanted to say, “I would have my revenge.”)
Having seen Malick’s patience-trying The Tree of Life last year, with memories of it still painfully fresh, I had a good idea of what to expect from my mercurial, well-documented compeer in the cinematic arts. The Thin Red Line is certainly epic, in the sense of having immense visual scale and ambition. It is burgeoning with emotion and includes what must be every variant of anguished facial expression.
Malick indulges his fetish for what I might call “voiceover,” but which is probably more accurately a series of disembodied prayers or spoken dreams that just happen to coincide with images of what must be the most eloquent soldiers of all time.
Nature and man exchange moments of preeminence, the former unambiguously holy, the latter a cauldron of self-doubt and self-destruction, always taking for granted the primacy of the self, for better or (usually) worse.
Much like Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, Miranda Otto plays the role of salvific beauty, a memory both literally and figuratively “washed,” a singular image of domesticity amid war and nature. She is gorgeously photographed, awash in lens flares and ethereal lighting.
A first-rate composer (Hans Zimmer) is brought on board to contribute first-rate work, which is then soundly overshadowed by glorious selections of classical music.
Plot doesn’t much matter. In fact, I initially thought the setting was Vietnam, until I heard a character utter the word, “Japs.” But Vietnam, Korea, WWII, Wolf 359, it doesn’t matter because the movie doesn’t take its meaning from the story and dynamics of those conflicts. Rather, it strips away the social consciousness of specific historical incidents in favor of a philosophical meditation on the relationship between soldiers and war itself, and the conflict that war creates within the individual.
That, in a few paragraphs, seems to sum up what makes a Terrence Malick movie.
So how does The Thin Red Line compare to Saving Private Ryan? Well, in homage to Tom Hanks’s parting words to Matt Damon in the latter, I still delight in playing co-op war video games with my brother and uttering, “Earn this!” every time I sacrifice myself to save him. But beyond this and a general appreciation of Saving Private Ryan as a great entertainment, worthy of all manner of movie critic blather (“tour de force,” anyone?) I don’t know that it is as memorable as The Thin Red Line will be for me, and as The Tree of Life has been. Saving Private Ryan takes a conventional view of morality and pursues it through a familiar cinematic language and aesthetic. It does many things right because it plays within a sandbox of established standards. In contrast, The Thin Red Line is in some sense beyond good and evil. It seems to try to create its own standards of aesthetics and morality.
Having said that, there are perhaps viewers who enjoy “difficult” movies simply for the sake of their being challenging and different; I am not such a viewer. For all the beautiful poetry that The Thin Red Line creates (and the same is true for The Tree of Life), for all the philosophy it refracts, it is a supremely contemplative movie, more like a vision quest than an entertainment. It could fairly be called tedious or self-indulgent, but at its best, it feels like more than a movie.
I might compare it to going out to the desert and staring at the sky and the mountains for a few hours, and then a snake slithers past your feet and a dying man-child whispers inscrutably into your ear, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness, truth?” Yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of going to Disneyland.
Certainly, it wasn’t important enough to me at the time to hunt out some other way of watching the movie. But it’s funny to think how one accident of fate led to a thirteen-year delay. I wonder if it would have changed the course of my life in any way had I seen it that night, when I had intended to. Dare I ask, in emulation of Sliding Doors (a movie I actually did watch in college), what happened in that other timeline?
Maybe I would have been inspired to create a completely different life. Instead of graduating from college, I make my own vision quest into the jungles of South America. Instead of working a day job, I contemplate the futility of civilized society while foraging for berries. Instead of learning to ballroom dance, I swim in lakes with indigenous children. Instead of taking photographs, I am the photograph. Leaves are my toilet paper, and the world is my toilet. One day, my child bride scrapes her knee, and I blow on the wound, my breath unwittingly setting off a course of weather events that will culminate in the hurricane of the century thousands of miles away that wipes out the New England coast, enveloping Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in its wake. Facebook never exists!
Instead of wasting the best years of his life mired in the death spiral of browsing mundane status updates and “poking” his “friends,” a UChicago grad student in the Committee on Social Thought remains motivated enough to build the world’s first time machine; materials include pointed critique, snarky retorts, and the guarded praise bestowed by an emeritus professor. He travels back in time to one evening at Doc Films, where years ago he waited in vain to watch The Thin Red Line, thereafter always wondering what would have happened in the alternate timeline where he actually does watch it. He repairs the malfunctioning projector, and this time, the audience watches the movie in full, rather than heading home to open Netscape Navigator to see if Amazon has finally opened a VHS store.
Somewhere in the audience, I am rapt by an image on screen of the sunlight glimmering through the jungle canopy, and am boggled by the possibility of loving and hating a movie at the same time. This cocktail of emotions compels me to consider the fundamental role that discontentment plays in motivating human beings toward something greater than ourselves. I unleash ramblings to this effect upon the nearest willing soul, who happens to be a toothsome first-year with a bonnet full of AP credits and a weakness for rambling men. Philosophical discourse leads to sweet nothings and mad caresses, and I find myself an intoxicated man in the bloom of new love; then a relationship man, expected to provide the emotional responsiveness that underpins all human closeness, and yet is ever elusive; then a man divided against himself, my devotion to the beauty of a crumbling reality at war with my devotion to the beauty of childish hopes; then finally, a shattered man, finding peace nowhere, able to neither serve nor command, most alone when in society, and wondering, always wondering what might have happened if only that blasted projector had malfunctioned that fateful night, and I had to leave the theater without watching that accursed film. I start muttering in my sleep, choking the words out upon my pillow, “Mother Jungle, cradle me in your bosom.” My toothsome lass tells me, “If you love the jungle so much, why don’t you crawl back up its womb?”
And so I do. I sell all my earthly possessions to buy the autogyro from The Road Warrior, and I fly south to a new world, in search of new life and no civilization, desperate to become just a man. On the way, I am set upon by jealous bandits and thugs led by a brutish yet strangely articulate madman named The Humungus. They fire upon me, disabling my craft. I crash land in Belize, but narrowly survive and am nursed back to health by a pack of stoic spider monkeys. When I have fully healed, I am integrated into their simian society, and eventually earn my monkey name by saving the life of the sanctified monkey chieftain from the jaws of a wicked jaguar, the curiously named Jagar. In gratitude, he offers me his daughter Poalipalina in marriage. I decline, because even for a man who has turned his back on human society, the idea of marrying a monkey is pretty disgusting. This rejection fills Poalipalina with shame and self-loathing; after all, what monkey would want her now? Distraught, she commits ritual suicide by plunging into the Chasm of Scorned Ambitions and dashing herself to pieces upon the rocky feet of the Many-Fingered River God (who is really just a waterfall). The monkey chieftain claims that I have disgraced his tribe and cries out for blood, vowing that he will have his revenge. His warriors don the armor of the aggrieved and hunt me with the slings of the affronted. I flee for my life and vine-swing through the wilderness until I reach the jungles of South America, thus creating the timeline you have just witnessed.