I apologize, but in the latter part of this month on “Reel Christianity”, I seem to be repeating myself. Back in July, I reviewed a superhero movie, “Batman Begins”, and followed it with a Terrence Malick film, “The Tree of Life”. This month, I’m following another superhero movie, “Iron Man”, with Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”. Oops. I didn’t really plan to, I just wanted to talk about this movie today. Hope you don’t mind. Anyway, “The Thin Red Line” is a 1998 World War Two movie that was nominated for that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. And that must have been a WWII remembrance year or something, because “Saving Private Ryan” and “Life is Beautiful”, two other WWII movies, were also nominated for the same award. That’s probably why the award went to a non-WWII film, “Shakespeare in Love”. Anyway, like “The Tree of Life”, “The Thin Red Line” focuses more on the image, particularly on nature itself, and it goes into the thoughts of the characters and what they’re going through. And since this is war, it’s very compelling.
There isn’t really a main character in this film, but to me, it’s Witt (Jim Caviziel), a soldier who has gone AWOL with another soldier and gone to an island in the South Pacific to live with the natives. He is eventually confronted by his sergeant, Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), who assigns him to go to Guadalcanal, another South-Pacific island close to Australia, where the Americans are going to fight the Japanese. Witt joins the other soldiers, and we see the many other characters we’ll be seeing a lot of in the film. Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) will be commanding the battle, and a victory would mean a promotion—and his status in the army, we find out, means more to him than risking the lives of soldiers. James Staros (Elias Koteas) is a captain working under him, and it seems like he has a little more humanity than Tall does, not wanting to risk his soldiers’ lives. Doll (Dash Mihok) is one of the more lighthearted soldiers, which later serves as a weakness when he’s not able to handle a fellow man dying in front of him. That man is Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson), who looks out for his men but at one point doesn’t look at what he’s doing himself and sets a grenade off, killing him. But Bell (Ben Chaplin) feels like he has it worst of all. He left behind a lover, and he can’t stop thinking about her… even after she eventually leaves him for someone who’s actually at home.
So yeah, this movie isn’t so much a war movie as much as a character study… of a lot of characters. And just like “The Tree of Life”, nature also plays an important role in the film. At the beginning of the film, Witt looks at the island and its people and contemplates about Heaven. Recently, his mother had passed away, which got him thinking about a life outside of this one:
WITT: I remember my mother when she was dying, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. …I wondered how it'd be like when I died, what it'd be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same... calm.
And after seeing the beauty around him, he starts finding God in the nature he sees. When Welsh finds him, he confronts him about his almost treasonous attitude:
WELSH: In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.
WITT: You’re wrong there, sir. I’ve seen another world. Sometimes, I think it was just my imagination.
WELSH: Well, you’ve seen things I never will. …We’re living in a world that’s blown itself to hell as fast as anybody can arrange it. In a situation like that, all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself.
Well, what do you know. It’s like the duality of nature and grace like in “The Tree of Life”! Or, in other words, the idea of “might makes right” like Welsh is saying and the idea of Heaven and love like Witt believes. I guess this is something that Malick feels strongly about. Anyway, what I want to talk about a little is that idea of Heaven, of a world beyond this one. It’s funny how Malick portrays nature in his films as such a beautiful thing, but in “The Thin Red Line”, his main character (well, to me, he’s the main character) is wondering about another world.
And once again, this leads me to show you once again the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks about judging others, not worrying, praying, and fasting, but he also tells the crowds that this world is not permanent; therefore, store up treasures in heaven. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) But this is hard for many of us to do, especially people like me who have lived all their life in the United States. We’re fat and greedy, but we don’t realize it. And it’s hard for us to let go of earthly things and look to our future in heaven.
Another story that shows this is when a rich young ruler goes to Jesus, telling him that he has kept all the commandments and he wants to know what else he has to do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Matthew 19:21) And the ruler, unwilling to give up his things, walks away sad. Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, who have pretty much left everything they know to follow Jesus, that “‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.’” (19:29)
As a Christian, I need to remember always that this life is not all there is. I have a home in Heaven, and I need to prepare myself to get there by telling people about Jesus in this life. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that you will store up treasures in Heaven by serving humbly on Earth.