Epiphany Now

By Hannah Patterson

thin-red-line-terrence-malick.jpgThe Thin Red Line, 1998

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is one of the most important films in world cinema and the profundity of its exploration of conflict and the human distance from the natural world has never felt more relevant

The questions posed in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line – the complex manner of its execution and its profound effect on many viewers – mark it as one of the most masterful and significant films in the history of cinema, let alone the war genre. These qualities also make it challenging to analyse. In the new BFI Modern Classic on the film, critic Michel Chion rises to the task with a welcome gravity and an unusual humility.

Central to his study is the importance of the questions raised in the film, manifest in the soldiers’ myriad voices, which, from the outset, Chion claims he will not, and cannot, claim to answer. Following his fascinating examination of the use of Charles Ives’ musical composition, The Unanswered Question, he discusses an aspect of the film’s mise-en-scene that has previously received little attention: the focus on loneliness and the way in which the characters are pictured as ‘alone’, a state commonly associated in film criticism with an urban milieu, or the modern condition. Chion asserts that ‘Malick’s shooting and editing emphasises that every person is alone in their skin, their hopes, their fear and their position.’ ‘The world of the film,’ he states’, is 360 degrees open’: everyone and everything can be seen from everywhere, with shafts of light constantly signifying an openness to the sky. Indeed, with no aerial shots, we are almost always on a level with the characters, and nature. In this, Chion makes a valid case also for the film’s creation of a lost paradise (present also in Badlands and Days of Heaven) – one that that we dream of, even long for, but which is illusionary – and he crucially refutes the notion of Witt, who many critics have viewed as the protagonist of the film, as a saviour, a Christ-like figure in the film, suggesting that he does not, in fact, offer redemption.

There are, of course, aspects of the film that Chion doesn’t, and in this space, can’t, cover: detailed exploration of its place within the war genre, for instance, its relation to Saving Private Ryan, that other World War II film released shortly before, which, sadly, won out emphatically in the public’s acceptance. But for devotees of The Thin Red Line, there are happily more and more books being published now on Malick’s work. Another recently released BFI title worth considering is Forms of Being, a study of the relationship between subjectivity and the world, that assigns an entire section to analysis of the film (Godard’s Le Mépris and Almodovar’s All About My Mother are also considered in depth). Here, the authors also foreground questioning, taking into account how ‘language raises questions which … language may be inherently unable to answer’, and how the film answers its verbal questions visually.

Though more theoretical than Chion’s book, and a little stodgy at times, it does manage to cover performance, as well as the film’s exploration of intimacy, individuality and the nature of evil, also offering the reader further opportunities to explore the work of a true visionary.

The Thin Red Line by Michel Chion (BFI Publishing) and Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit (BFI Publishing).

Hannah Patterson is the Editor of The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America (2003) and a freelance film critic.