A Thin Red Photogram
Since I first saw Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE (1998) the year of its release, I’ve been intrigued by an instant of screen time – a flash of red when opposing forces finally meet at bayonet range. Second and third viewings were needed to confirm that I had, in fact, seen this flash. Years later, when I examined a 35mm print of the film at the level of the strip, I saw that this brief shock of red was the work of two photograms, side by side.
What is this spliced-in shot doing in the scene?
Visually, the color rhymes with a spurt of stage blood from a Japanese soldier shown a few beats earlier, but the photogram itself is not an image of blood. It looks as though a red cloth has been placed over the lens, with a few creases of the fabric visible, and a bit of ulterior light making its way through the stitching.
Malick’s films always have micro-rhythmic inserts that have more to do with visceral sensation than with the filling in of narrative context. In this case, perhaps, the red flash is chiefly there for the sake of indicating the impact of a violent act. But in an antiwar film, red is surely a loaded color. If it evokes the national flags of the two military forces in question, it also bears an association with the cost of life, on both sides.
“It’s not blood, it’s red,” Godard famously remarked of the mise-en-scène in PIERROT LE FOU (1965), but at some level, this red flash in Malick’s film is “not red, it’s blood.” Better still, it is blood and red at the same time: both representational and abstract. Whose blood? It is hard to say, and the confusion is the point.
At heart, the film explores the spatial interval between two sides. Hence the eerie shot-countershot between the bunker atop the hill and the valley below; hence the low-tracking camera that traverses the field between, which often seems alive in its own right, pulsing with insects and wildlife, its grass blades like the tentacles of an organism. The red flash occurs when this interval collapses, in the form of combat at close quarters, amid fog.
Nearly every commentator on THE THIN RED LINE makes a point of distinguishing it from the significantly more patriotic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), and rightly so. Where the blood in Spielberg’s film connotes courage, trauma, and sacrifice, ultimately for the sake of nationalistic commemoration and the gratitude expressed by the elderly Ryan in the film’s bookending scenes at a cemetery, Malick’s more poetic and pensive treatment of the war regards that very sentiment as an obstacle to the kind of sensitivity that THE THIN RED LINE wants to inspire.
This red flash prompts us to share in the film’s running meditation on interrelatedness and otherness. Despite its ambiguity, the flash issues from the film’s rather anti-violent embrace of alterity in a communitarian key. As such, this chromatic gesture undercuts whatever satisfaction we might be inclined to feel as we see the Japanese troops overtaken by the Americans, the side with which the film has primarily (and self-critically) aligned us.
Viewed in this light, this semi-abstract burst of red thematically ties in with the film’s ongoing dialogues (between Witt and Welsh, between Tall and Staros) on the value of human life, the laws and proclivities of “nature,” the madness of combat, the possibility of escaping its pathologies and the cynicism they breed. The red flash militates against not only adversarial reductions of the other, but also against the property-oriented thinking and careerist egoism embodied by the higher-ups in the military system (See Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s reading of the film in FORMS OF BEING: CINEMA, AESTHETICS, SUBJECTIVITY (London: Palgrave BFI, 2004)).
THE THIN RED LINE is not a film that shows us, fully realized and without lingering problems, the condition of interrelatedness for which it yearns. As is often the case in Malick’s films, scenes of “paradise” (from the forest interlude in BADLANDS (1973) to the Native American camp in THE NEW WORLD (2005)) are depicted with no small measure of self-negating irony. What THE THIN RED LINE powerfully lyricizes through its cinematic style is the limited, fragile beginning – not the utopic fulfilment – of a selfless, non-hostile openness onto radical alterity and exteriority as such.
This millisecond of red onscreen goes hand in hand with the film’s endeavor to awaken us to the wonders of what Witt defines as “another world,” which is actually a different way of perceiving and co-inhabiting this world, the only one we have.