Two films released by the Criterion Collection this week focus on men at war. We'll discuss Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' on the next episode of The Film Talk, and below; later in the week I'll post a piece on 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence'. These are two of the most compelling films released on DVD this year.
When I first saw Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line', it was the turn of the century, Bill Clinton was still in office, the Twin Towers were intact, and the film seemed to be about the past. The distant past, to be sure: a film that begins with a reptile submerging and ends with a plant growing on a beach seems to exist a long time before we did. The nearer past, ostensibly: it takes place in 1942 during the early Guadalcanal Campaign (although you'll look in vain for the caption that appeared on the print I saw over a decade ago to indicate it; Malick, it seems, has had that removed from the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD release: he wants the movie to exist outside time). This is only appropriate, as it aims to be a poem about the primitive roots of violence, the lack of maturity among men who see the world only as a fight, the power of love to sustain even when it is broken, the tragedy of human beings caught in a web that they think dictates that only violence can be the path to power in this life.
Voices of men mingle over images of nature, John Travolta pulls rank on Nick Nolte, ironically mirroring the tragic missing-the-point skirmishes between some blogospheric film critics, Jim Caviezel auditions for Jesus' last day by playing out some of his early life, prayers are sung and sound like food. Watching it now, after what may be the defining decade of our generation has passed, it's impossible not to think of 'The Thin Red Line' as a film about the here and now. Jared Leto sends men to their deaths not knowing why or what he's doing, and perhaps not even caring; how was I to know, in 1998, that this was a prophecy about the man about to steal the White House? Bodies are on fire and I hear the voice of Max von Sydow in 'The Exorcist' invoking the notion that evil is allowed to happen to make us believe we are unlovable. Youth is wasted as guys accidentally blow themselves up; identity is formed through 'having your own war'; loss is made flesh as its stewards are 'mocked with the sight of what we might have known'. Terror rules the world. And then, there's light. And trees. And a new, untouched space, underwater, unaware. A place where poetry underwrites the state of things. The paradox of 'The Thin Red Line' is that it makes you feel at peace even as it confronts you with horror. It opens up a space of wonder amidst decay, serving as an awe-striking religious shibboleth. It's not a war film. It's a warning: of what we are like when we make the economic and political purposes of life depend on an avoidance of the transcendent.