After The Thin Red Line

by Peter

The credits started rolling and my roommate and I switched the lamplight on mechanically, under duress.  We sat there nervously, both wanting the other to help us come to an understanding of the film, but feeling like anything that could be said would inevitably be crass, would be a violation.  Josh made an attempt at talking, but I don’t think he managed a complete sentence before he tossed the conversational ball: “W-What did you think?”  I just stood up and cleared away our dishes.  Incomplete pass.  Within a few minutes, we were sitting across from each other on the floor, crying, crying, crying.

I got in late for work the next morning.  Josh and I – we hadn’t been able to stop talking.  Bedumbed the night before, now we were bursting.  We stuffed hours talking.  My shower, my breakfast, exercise, devotions: gone.  I did manage to get dressed.  (Praise be.)  The rout continued: within three days I found myself referring to The Thin Red Line as “my favorite film.”  In three days it had supplanted a favorite of nine years.  I was capsized. Overthrown. Demolished. Smitten. Trounced.

It feels like that experience is the best argument I can offer for this film’s sublimity.  It is sublime.  I felt it.  In my gut.   I have never reacted to a film like I reacted to this one.  Not even close.  I know, though, that we could bandy “I loved it”’s and “I hated it”’s forever (and that TRL has gotten plenty of the latter), so I’ll try recommending it with slightly more universal tools than my upturned innards.

I’m going to say two things here: that Line’s departure from genre norms is a good thing, and that its contemplative indeterminacy is timely and wholesome.  If you don’t have much time to read right now, skip to the second section.


The First Thing: In the Box, Out of the Box, Breaking the Box, Please Recycle.

The Thin Red Line is a war film that isn’t about war.  It’s an intellectual film that doesn’t offer conclusions.  It’s just a bad fitter.  It isn’t for fans of war films.  It isn’t for action flick junkies.  It isn’t for WWII enthusiasts.  I’m not sure that it’s a film for anyone–for any particularly marketable constituency. (Mystically-minded connoisseurs of high-end popular culture, perhaps?  All two of them?)  If you’re renting this movie on a whim, chances are you are expecting something other than what you’ll see.

The movie insists that I, the viewer, conform myself to it.  It’s not a film that fits my patrolled, well-managed internal emosystem or my culturally-condoned mental categories.  It’ll make my mood and accost my mind, not match them.

That’s disorienting, and it’s uncomfortable.  In this case, it’s also glorious.

Now, I’m not saying that disorientation, discomfort, and defied expectations are glorious things.  Nor is “breaking out of” conventional categories definitionally valuable.  People who fall in love with those effects as ends are usually, I think, infatuated with displays of power in a way that’s similar to the person who’s inclined to worship a conqueror because of his conquest.  It’s a kind of aesthetic Machiavellianism or Nietzscheism (according to the popular way of characterizing them. Apologies, Machi & Nietz.).  But disorientation, etc. isn’t a sign of that infatuation, either, and I’m pretty sure my love of TRL has nothing to do with it.

No, The Thin Red Line defies our categorical expectations because it has to, not just because it can.  The movie wouldn’t work with a different setting or subject, and its setting and subject are the things from which we derive our expectations.  It’s not trying to trick people who like action films into watching it.  It’s not attempting to capitalize on public interest in World War II.  Without the beauty of Polynesia and the brutality of modern warfare during a time of effective stalemate, The Thin Red Line could not say what it’s meant to say, evoke what it’s meant to evoke, or represent what it’s meant to represent.

If it defies our expectations it is because we have made a simple mistake.  It’s as if we looked into a crowd, thought we recognized a good friend, and approached them, only to find that it is not the person we know.  The problem is with our perception, and not with the stranger.

Now, the discomfort this film often inspires has causes that go deeper than unmet expectations.  Its content hurts us.  This is one of those films that could (and does) leave viewers asking, “Why?! Why did it subject me to that? What good did experiencing that do me?”  They want to know if the disorientation and strong emotion they feel could possibly be worth it.

I say – quietly and insistently – “Yes.  It is worth it.”

This film will bear fruit if you submit to it, wait for it to tell you what it’s saying.  It will not bear fruit if you are quick to find a place for it (“It’s an anti-war film!” “It’s transcendentalist panentheistic fiddle faddle!”) or if you approach it with pre-fabricated questions (“What is its theme?” “Who is the main character?”).  The questions the film itself suggests (“How can we hope?” “What’s wrong with the world?” “Why did or didn’t he save himself?”) could hardly have a more fertile field for their exploration than the film that suggested them.

But the primary reason that I think this film is worth whatever pain or confusion it produces goes past the fact that it is a fertile field for exploring questions.  It’s not essentially a question-answering film.  No, The Thin Red Line is attempting to be a little picture of the whole, unaccountable world – the world that caused the questions most other films set out to answer.  It’s representational rather than propositional.  It’s representing the thing that sends us scrambling for our propositions, and showing us – slowly, heavily – that that thing is vaster and truer than our propositions are.  That, reader, is valuable.

I’ll try to describe that a little more purely in this next section.


The Second Thing: This Is & That Is. This & That Are More Than Your Synthesis Is.  They Are.

I’ve said that The Thin Red Line is a representation of the whole, unaccountable world.  This is obvious: the whole, unaccountable world is a big thing to represent.  The Thin Red Line does it by the only means I can imagine.  It reaches out to the edges of what exists or happens in the world, gathers up what it finds there in its clenching fists, and draws them together, muscles bulging.  Scenes of mesmerizing beauty and scenes of harrowing brutality sleep side by side here, and they birth breathing, quiet stretches of melancholy resignation; inane, manic acrimony; or simple, shriven hope.  That’s the magic of this movie: it brings opposing extremes together and forces its viewers and its characters to respond to the clash.  It forces us to abandon pictures of the world that are too pretty, too petty, or too sad.  It challenges us to find hope and harmony or to despair or go mad.  It’s like a diptych with the Transfiguration facing the Crucifixion.

The movie poster above this section gets this central feature of the film right where the DVD cover above the first section failed.  The DVD cover was made after the Academy Awards as part Fox’s marketing blitz to capitalize on its successes.  It touts the film’s credentials as a “war film classic.”  It’s one of the sources of all the confusion and disappointment I talked about above.  This poster, on the other hand, (in addition to hinting at the movie’s psychological focus in the tagline) lays its graphic emphasis on names, on irises, and on dew.

The dewy grass, I’m almost certain, was superimposed over the soldiers’ faces.  The fact that I can tell may mean that it’s poorly designed, but the fact that it was done (if it was done) implies that it is there because of firm intention.   The grass is really supposed to be there. And that makes sense, given what I said above.  This film insists on our looking at war while we look at nature and at nature while we look at war.  You cannot merely have one or the other.

Look at the soldiers’ eyes.  If they communicate anything, they communicate that the soldiers are looking for an answer to some question.  (This is especially true of the top two.)  If we can take that as correct, that the soldiers are looking for an answer, then here again is something to notice about the film that fits with the above description: each of them is looking in different directions.  “How can you hope?” the movie asks.  One soldier looks up, one glances away, and one looks at the dew.  “What do you make of a world with beauty and brutality?” Up. Away. To the dew.

The world contains holiness and horrors both, and an honest human mind must mirror them comprehensively.  We cannot treat sorrow as if it disproves joy.  We cannot treat joy as if it minimizes sorrow.  We must say “and,” and this film allows us to say almost nothing else.  That’s good practice for us, for people who are quick to retreat to comfortable ideas, who too often prefer a comprehensible picture of reality to truth.  But don’t worry, zealous lovers of clarity.  I think you’ll see, as I did, that when simple systematic pictures get swept aside by the beauty and brutality of this film, it leaves faith, hope, and love, and distrust, despair, and hate in its wake.  They are shockingly clear, they are completely opposed, and one or the other is absolutely necessary.  That, my friends, is Christian and good if anything is.

That’s a bit of why I loved this film, why it’s my favorite.  Watch it with an intention toward meditation; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.