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Life in the Context of Death – A Brief Discussion of The Thin Red Line

05/26/2011

At the request of a friend, I recently pulled up Terence Malick’s 1998 war epic The Thin Red Line on my Netflix Instant Queue having little to no knowledge of what to expect. It is now summertime so I’m writing this more for myself than my previous posts (which were all for classes).

My initial reaction to the film was negative. I’m not a big fan of films that consider themselves too good for narrative. The first hour to me felt pretentiously unfocused, not unlike David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But around the one hour mark something in me started to change. The theme of the film began to emerge. And then I understood why there was such little focus on narrative storytelling. This was not a film about soldiers in a war, this was about life – all life – as it faces its end. The scope of this theme is far to large to portray within the confines of a single character’s arc.

The opening shot of the crocodile (or alligator, I can never tell one from the other) impresses upon the audience the image of a killer. Our first thoughts of that creature go to its strength, its invulnerability. And judging from its confident movements, I’d say the beast has the same feelings of itself. But the next time we see it, about 2/3 through the film, it is tied down and surrounded by hungry looking men with guns. The predator becomes the prey. Every quality of strength we attribute to the animal upon first sight is contradicted by this second image. The great beast is about to meet its end.

There are frequent cutaways in this film that punctuate thematic undertones. My study in soviet montage theory equipped me to understand the goals of this type of juxtaposition. One soldier periodically remembers his wife, and the love between them. Here, love is the fullest expression of life. It is what life strives for. This is the soldier’s reason to live; and possibly, to die. Life is at its most meaningful when death is nearby. And when she sends him a letter requesting divorce, his meaning gives way. Her life needs love and she has the opportunity to fill that need, but only at the cost of his need for her. Those moments he remembers, holding her, touching her, running his fingers through her hair, those are the high points of his life – a life that now stands as something post-meaning. He had meaning when he had her. Now he has neither.

I recall an image of a bird, maybe halfway through the film, that appears to be in its last moments. The bird stumbles along as if there is something in its nature compelling it to move – as if by acting alive it might sustain itself a little while longer.

Of the characters in the film, only Caviezel’s seems to have any clue as to the meaning of death. He longs for his life to reach its climax in a meaningful way. Is there regret for the decision to sacrifice oneself? Not for him, but maybe for the audience.

The film does not necessarily portray death as an evil. Rather, it seems to view death as a necessity. The journey is only significant when there is a destination. Such is life and death.

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