The Thin Red Line – Every Man Is A Universe

The moral implications of Schopenhauer’s world as Will and Representation

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 15, Issue 9 / September 2011 8 minutes (1912 words)

“The question is, is there any place on the battlefield for human compassion? That’s James Jones’ question… [He] wrote a story about his own experiences in war – that men go into war not knowing why – they’re usually indoctrinated to go in for idealistic reasons. Then they realise they’re going to die or they’re going to have to kill somebody and they become tremendously horrified… [He] said that the great experiences he had in the war were, one, the horror, and, two, the day he was shot and knew he was going to die… Such a fear came over him — up from his feet, overwhelming his body — that it stripped away all social and military conditioning, personality, grasp… When you know you are going to die [this] tremendous fear overwhelms you. And in that moment of fright and horror, [you] literally lose [your] self… It shatters all of your social conditioning, your facade, your personality… Something is replaced once that self is gone… into this nothingness…and that’s this unbearable compassion of love…, compassion of love for [your] fellow men… for the fellow standing next to [you]… He said, after you feel that, and have lost your self, then you know you will die for your buddy. And he said, it’s one of the strange ironies that come out of this terrible diseased idea of war. He says he never felt that love again. That the love of a parent for a child comes closest. But the parent still holds on to their identity.”

Nick Nolte [1]

Terrence Malick shares with Kubrick certain similarities in terms of approach, although the two are also very different in important ways. Similarities include the desire to stifle the identification process, that is the identification with characters on screen, particularly any sense of identification with omnipotence fantasy, one of the very things we have come to expect from Hollywood movie going. They are also both masters of what Robert Kolker calls the ‘open text’.

The open text invites audience participation, to interpret what they are seeing. They have to be part of the creation of the meaning of the film. This does not mean the films are totally ambiguous about their meaning, which would be the same as saying that they mean nothing, but that the text of the film is multi-layered and has the ability to become richer the more the audience participates in the analysis of what they are watching. In other words, the films function as art, as what art should be – helping us to illuminate the human condition for ourselves but allowing viewer participation so the meaning is not fixed and simple.

This is almost exactly what mainstream filmmaking is not – which also means both directors are largely misunderstood and often considered to be pretentious.

The Thin Red Line has a genuine philosophical worldview. By covering the Guadalcanal battle through the thoughts of various soldiers the film demonstrates that objective reality – that is reality as it is in itself – is beyond the grasp of the human condition. We all experience this same single reality, the events depicted in the film, but its meaning is different for each and every one of the soldiers. They are each limited to their own consciousness and cannot share in others’, in Schopenhauer’s terms the world they all share is only available to them through their representation of it, and this will be shaped, warped and limited by their unique senses, views and experiences.

By listening to the inner monologue of various soldiers we share in each of their worldviews, each of their ideologies which compete with one another for our attention and indeed for our validation of their truth content.

The film doesn’t tell you which is right, or more right/useful -you have to decide. It does, however, give clues as to which philosophies seem to genuinely add value to the individuals who have them and which are ultimately destructive.

The soldiers actively create meaning to try to make sense of the extreme circumstances which surround them. They cannot but do otherwise. Simply drawing conclusions from sensory perception (induction) is impossible – they, as all humans, cannot but theory soak all their experiences with their own worldview, ideology and morality in order to understand them and make them meaningful.

Because of the very extreme nature of what they are forced to experience this process of meaning creation is problematic as reaching an adequate understanding of, and creating appropriate meaning for, the horror they experience is difficult. It causes in each a degree of existential crisis – they cannot escape the obligation they have to themselves to try to make sense of what they see despite their inadequacies in doing so.

We have the politically ambitious Lt. Col. Tall [Nick Nolte], the humane Capt. Staros [Elias Koteas], the cynical materialist Sgt. Welsh [Sean Penn], the spiritual Pvt. Witt [Jim Caviezel], and Pvt. Bell [Ben Chaplin], who can only function and retain his sanity through his fantasies of his wife [Mirando Otto], along with Capt. Gaff [John Cusak], Cpl. Fife [Adrien Brody], Sgt. Storm [John C. Reilly], Sgt. Keck [Woody Harrelson], Lt. Whyte [Jared Leto], Brig Gen Quintard [John Travolta], Capt. Bosche [George Clooney], Pfc Beade [Nick Stahl], Pvt Ash [Thomas Jane] and Sgt. McCron [John Savage] among others. The central voiceover which opens and closes the film is the Buddhist-like Pfc. Doll [Dash Mihok]. Each reacts to the events around them differently; by being fearful, by going mad, by becoming cruel and inhumane, and so on. Either way, there is no resolution of these competing interpretations of the world and how to react to it outside of the conflict they enter into with each other (either violent or verbal). The limitations of the subjective consciousness and, in the final analysis, the isolation this entails, cannot be transcended.

The film suggests that perhaps some of the ideologies contain less truth content than others. Pvt. Witt’s fantasy of an afterlife in heaven is unsupported by the film and indeed the comfort that this view appears to offer him in the face of real suffering of others can at times imply a quasi disturbed and dangerous disregard on his part to human suffering. His fantasy view of the perfection of the Melanese society at the beginning is revisited later and undermined too. Pvt. Bell’s worldview is almost exclusively informed by his fantasy of the love he has of his wife. This fantasy is undermined by her letter to him stating that she has met someone else and wants a divorce – he is left to construct his raison d’être on entirely new ground following this, an undertaking which we are given no information regarding its success. The film implies that his fantasy enabled him to accomplish important practical feats, suggesting that a fantasy informed worldview has its merits, that is, until the fantasy can no longer be held up in the face of reality.

The conflicting perspectives of Staros and Tall also serve to bring practical benefits – Tall’s ambition drives the men to accomplishments they would not have made under Staros’ command as he is too sympathetic to their well being to allow them to be put in harm’s way. Staros’ humanity tempers Tall’s simplistic inhumane views of his troops as objects to be used rather than subjects in their own right.

The central narration by Doll does not seem to bring him into conflict with anyone except himself but emphasises that man is a part of nature and not separate from it and this includes a natural inclination to both empathy and cruelty. This becomes both slightly spiritual and Buddhist-like but also humbling and modest about the human condition and any claims to any innate specialness we think we have. However, if the film implies through Doll that war is inherent in nature (the physical and human worlds) then it fails to address any possibility, perhaps best articulated by Karl Popper, that we have the ability to create institutions and forms of governance which limit the likelihood of war even though we remain as imperfect as always as individuals.

Welsh’s materialism seems to be the singular worldview best supported by the reality we see but even here his apparent cynicism and selfishness, which he purports as his outlook (the desire to create an island for himself echoes Witt’s desertion to an actual island at the beginning of the film), are not consistent with the altruism he displays in the film (helping the man on the hill, generosity to Witt and sadness at his death). Clearly he has not lost his empathy despite his claims to look after only himself. Welsh’s ruminations shows him as a humanist – as someone who finds sorrow in the limitations of human experience and articulates the tragedy that we are able to experience so little of humanity – “let me lack not having met you”. His character is central to the theme of isolation versus human interaction.

Whilst Malick seems to subtly direct our desire for identification to various characters at various times, often with mutually contradictory ideologies, he assigns no clear moral superiority or inferiority to the differing worldviews of the characters in the film other than what the viewer applies to the text themselves – rather he forces us to realize that we are all isolated in our individual consciousness but must all share the world, and different interpretations about the world, with each other. The very structure of the film implies a call for tolerance, with Malick offering potential identification with any tolerant worldviews that offer a philosophy of love, compassion and empathy, but at the same time implying that they do not all offer the same ability to meet practical real world problems. Inauthentic, dogmatic morality and intolerance are criticised by Welsh in his statement about most men, “They want you dead or part of their lie”. The lack of any truly objective authority in the world (i.e God) to make this statement on his behalf so that it might hold more than subjective power is sobering and is the challenge of the human condition when faced with questions of morality.

The most moving scenes in the film echo Nick Nolte’s comments about James Jones which open this essay – where people who truly experience the horror of war lose their inauthenticity and an overwhelming and truly authentic altruism takes over them – such as the scene of Bell breaking down after the assault on the Japanese bunker on the hill. This overwhelming focus on others’ well being threatens to break the limits of the human condition, of being isolated in your own consciousness, and whilst it cannot actually break out of the barriers of inescapable isolation it offers a momentary sense of transcendence from the subjective self.

One might say that the central theme of the film is that each person holds an entire internal universe which represents everything about their world and that this has profound implications for morality. How do you approach life when you are made fully cognisant of your own mortality? The film offers multiple opinions for us to share in, identify or reject, but emphasises the need to allow for each to create their own meaning in life and of life.


1 This is an amalgamation of various interview in which Nick Nolte discusses the same subject:

Charlie Rose
The Guardian
The Free Library

<i>The Thin Red Line</i> – Every Man Is A Universe

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 15, Issue 9 / September 2011 Essays   terrence malick