Terrence Malick’s meditation on war in The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick’s 1998 war film The Thin Red Line is perhaps the most unique war film ever put to screen. Rather than fall under the common trope of simultaneously illustrating war’s brutality while also reveling in its entertainment value, Malick philosophically and poetically ponders the depths of humanity’s inclination to violence and its consequences on the soldiers, invaded societies, and nature. The film explores how war corrupts our divine grace and beauty to the point where we can no longer understand ourselves. The plot follows the American invasion of the Guadalcanal region of Japan during the Second World War, though the military strategies and plot details are of secondary importance to the film’s deeper meditations. The Thin Red Line reflects beautifully on war and humanity yet gives few answers. I walked away in a state of remorse, awe, and pondering, yet somehow satisfied in a state of discomfort. 

The Thin Red Line marks Malick’s return to the director’s chair from a 20-year hiatus (since 1978’s Days of Heaven, which I also highly recommend), during which time neither cinephiles nor scholars know exactly what he was doing. Despite his enigmatic and elusive persona, Malick was clearly influenced by his undergraduate training, graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in philosophy. Following Harvard, he began a Master’s in Philosophy program at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar but dropped out after disagreements with his thesis advisor. His filmmaking style is ingrained with his philosophical training through meditative voice-overs, lofty themes, and sweeping camera shots through natural landscapes. The usual tenets of plot, dialogue, and character development become secondary to these lofty meditations. Once I began to embrace rather than reject this style, my experience completely transformed. Watching any one of Malick’s films is a deviation from one’s daily life to ponder the fundamental struggle between grace and destruction, beauty and strife, good and evil.  

The opening line of The Thin Red Line suggests a Hobbesian state of nature, defined by constant war in pursuit of self-preservation: “What’s this war within the heart of nature?” Yet, the graceful, natural beauty of what unfolds on screen in the first scene affirms that evil and destruction are, and never were, our true nature. American soldiers and Guadalcanal children play and swim with glee and through this blissful cultural exchange, perhaps proposing theological ideas. Grace and beauty flow abundantly and nourish us like our natural goodness before Original Sin. The human need for completeness binds civilized America to the primitive Tribe. All scenes of grace and love, including flashbacks to a soldier falling in love with his wife back home, echo Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium: “so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.” War cannot be inevitable when we are meant for beauty’s arresting power to return us to completion.  

One image symbolizes the entire film: a slow panel gazing in awe on magnificent, looming trees with scattered bits of light shining through. The light of Truth and Divine Revelation eternally seeks to shine upon creation; yet, our frail nature is only capable of apprehending scattered bits of light. Every once in a while, we get glimpses of pure, unfiltered beauty that ignites our inner “spark” as one soldier calls it. This spark of God compels us to love, as evidenced by the American soldiers and tribal children in harmonious communion. But so often those moments can be forgotten by war’s incessant destruction. 

Overall, The Thin Red Line left me resolutely believing in the truth, beauty, and goodness of love as the universe’s dominating force. While the scattered light will never allow us to have a complete understanding of evil’s existence, we can remain firm that beauty will guide us to God. Some of the film’s final lines echo this: “Darkness and Light, Strife and Love, are they the workings of one mind?…Look out at the things you made, all things shining.” Salvation extinguishes war’s darkness and strife, returns us to our original nature almost realized by Plato, and grants the saved not mere scattered glimpses of Light, but an eternal gaze upon God. 

Luke Stringfellow is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Italian. He is known for successfully integrating Dante into almost every class he has ever attended. He can be reached at lstringf@nd.edu