“Where Will We Live?”

Terrence Malick’s Fugitive Edens

by James A. Williams

25 May 2011


'The Thin Red Line'

After Days of Heaven, 20-plus years transpired before Malick’s next directorial effort appeared. Whatever other significance the hiatus may have, it does allow any retrospective of Malick’s career to group his four films into convenient pairs. This isn’t an entirely arbitrary grouping though. Beyond the temporal proximity of Badlands and Days of Heaven and, later, The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World, each pair has strong thematic consonances. Most strikingly—and most problematically—the latter two seem to present a more naïve, a more simplistic vision than the earlier films. Indeed, in both The Thin Red Line and The New World the division between prelapsarian and postlapsarian worlds is so stark that it must be meant to invite skepticism—either this or Malick has, over the course of his career, become a less rather than more sophisticated artist.

The Thin Red Line begins with Private Witt wandering about a Melanesian village during a stint of being AWOL from the United States Army. The scenes here are so idyllic—featuring the local inhabitant singing and dancing and playing games—that at least one critic has described them as “cloying.” It’s a fair accusation but it’s perhaps helpful to think of the opening not so much as an objective presentation of reality as a manifestation of Witt’s essentially positive and innocent vision of the world. For he will return to the same village, after a significant battle, and discover nothing but disease and conflict and unhappiness.

As Bill Schaeffer writes, “The waters of the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line are cleansing, baptismal . . . Water envelopes the body, yet leaves it free of gravity: suddenly you can move up, down, around, over and through yourself. These virginal associations are later inverted, also made to show another face. The life of the natives will be seen for the first time as full of superstition, death and sickness, perhaps as a result of contact, perhaps as a revelation that here too there have always been two worlds at war with each other.”

Clearly, Witt’s experiences determine his perspective and the initial, wholly positive vision of the Melanesians is quite literally one half of the picture. I would suggest that this is true for the viewer as well as for Witt.  Even at the outset of The Thin Red Line Malick complicates the depiction of what follows; the very first shot of the film is of a crocodile in all its reptilian menace slipping into brownish water. Other signs of a fallen world occur throughout the film—a serpentine column of smoke rising from the smokestack of a battleship for example—and taken together they suggest that destruction, violence, pain are not a corruption of creation but its predicate.

The question, then, is what kind of person is best equipped to succeed in this essentially divided world. At first glance, the basic antagonism of the film is between Lt. Edward Welsh and Witt; after all, Welsh is the officer who disciplines Witt after he has gone AWOL telling him, “. . . in this world a man himself is nothin’ and there ain’t no world but this one . . . .” He is essentially a nihilistic pragmatist who insists that self-preservation is the only rational goal. Witt replies, “You’re wrong there, top. I seen another world.” Presumably he means the world of the Melanesian villagers but, more generally, we can assume that he has a vision of existence completely at odds with the destruction wrought by the massive conflict in which he is a bit player.

The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line

As it turns out, Welsh and Witt are not nearly so diametrically opposed as they first appear. Welsh’s willingness to risk his life to deliver morphine to a dying companion suggests the he is not as indifferent to his fellow human beings as he claims and he seems to have a grudging admiration for the purity of Witt’s vision, even if he cannot share it. It is, after all, Welsh who memorializes Witt after the latter’s death toward the end of the film.

If not Welsh then who is Witt’s foil in the film? The best candidate is Lt. Col. Gordon Tall. Witt is, well, kind of a half-wit; but his lack of calculation and craft, his profound compassion and innocence, make him akin to one of Dostoyevsky’s holy fools—Aloysha in The Brothers Karamazov or Prince Mishkin in The Idiot. In contrast, Tall is callous, careerist, arrogant, and occasionally cruel (though it should be noted that the unsympathetic portrait is mitigated if not absolved by the information received via voiceover that he has been humiliatingly passed over for advancement). It’s probably not an accident that more than a few scenes featuring Witt are followed by scenes featuring Tall, thereby powerfully juxtaposing Witt’s spontaneous goodness with Tall’s calculation and ambition.

Should we simply label Tall as the villain of the drama? Perhaps. After all, he sends men to their deaths with no apparent misgivings despite the strident protest of their commanding officer Lieutenant Staros. Afterward, while contemplating the battle and Staros’ fitness for duty, Tall claims, “Nature is cruel Staros.” Surely this sort of ruthless determination, and the understanding of the world which gives rise to it, anticipates the “way of nature” that The Tree of Life will consider. Before dismissing Tall, though, we should recognize that his decision is crucial in securing victory—a victory that in historical terms proved enormously consequential in the eventual American defeat of the Japanese forces in the Pacific.

In other words, any successful army depends on men like Tall. A man like Staros, who is full of concern for his men, lacks the hard resolve that wins wars. There is no enduring place in an army for a man like Witt either. He is a good enough soldier, in fact he is enormously courageous, but how much suffering can he witness before he will become hopelessly jaded? The return trip to the Melanesian village, where he sees nothing but suffering, suggests that his belief in “another world” will not long endure the horrors of battle, no matter how sympathetic the gaze he casts on allies and enemies alike.

Fortunately, Witt does not become jaded or cynical; unfortunately, the price is death. While out on a reconnaissance patrol he spots a line of Japanese troops moving along a ridge above a platoon of American soldiers. Sensing that the Americans will be subject to an ambush Witt leads the Japanese troops on a chase through the jungle, thereby earning his fellow soldiers time and alerting them indirectly to the danger they face. The chase concludes with Witt standing in a field surrounded by Japanese troops. What follows is ambiguous but it seems that rather than simply surrendering Witt provokes the Japanese soldiers to fire at him. The scene then cuts to a shot of his fellow shots huddled near a small river listening to the crackle of distant gunfire. Witt’s death is both enormously moving and, in the larger scheme of the conflict, relatively unimportant. He is simply another casualty for a man like Captain Tall and it is left to the viewer, and of course Welsh, to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of his vision and to lament its passing.


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