Sergeant Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.
You are going to die. I am going to die. We are all going to die. It is inevitable. The difference lies just in whether we want and allow to be reminded of the fact or not. Whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not and to what degree.
The way death and dying are shown in The Thin Red Line will trigger three different ways of reacting:
- We see it and allow to be reminded of our own death which will make us feel uneasy and sad to different degrees
- We see it and look away or feel nothing
- We see it and make fun of it
These three ways to react to someone’s dying can also be found as reactions in the movie.
I would argue that there is not one war movie out there that thematizes death, dying and killing like it is done in The Thin Red Line. I would also say that I think that this may be one of the reasons some people have a problem with it as the death scenes are very intimate, very intense. We have people who die screaming, people who die swearing, some pray, some mumble, some are quiet. This is quite usual in war movies but we have also an emphasis on those who watch them which is unusual. The importance of looks in The Thin Red Line would be worth a chapter on it’s own but I will only focus on the looks related to death and dying.
We have those who look away when someone is dying, no matter how close they are to the person. And we have those who acknowledge the others dying. Some are moved by it, some are not. Watching someone die is a very intimate act, if you think of it. Being with someone during his final moments is a privilege. Private Witt gives each and every single suffering man his full attention, looks at him unflinchingly but also unobtrusively and with compassion.
There are also the looks directed at the dying enemy. They are very different. They are indecent almost. Some make fun of them, stare, strip them off their dignity. Witt also looks at the enemy with the same intent attention and compassion.
In the movie there is equally a meditation about death’s randomness as expressed in the quote by Sgt Storm at the beginning of this post. Why does one man die while the other who is maybe a far lesser soldier survives unharmed? This is something that has been on my father’s mind a lot. When he was drafted he was heartbroken and hoping to get killed on the battlefield. While his friends and comrades died, he didn’t get one scratch. My father has not one tiny little scar, yet he eagerly awaited death. This is mysterious and the movie shows this exceptionally well.
Death is part of nature (which I will try to analyze in part III) but the dying on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made.
Killing is also a theme. Although it is legally acceptable to kill someone on a battlefield, in a war, soldiers didn’t kill lightly. I use the past tense deliberately because movies – or series in this case – like Generation Kill - and also already some of the Vietnam movies – show that there are more and more soldiers who have no empathy for those they kill. Those who play war games may see a running person at a distance not like a human being but just like another target. And they certainly don’t feel guilty.
The soldiers in The Thin Red Line do not kill lightly. They do feel guilt and the term “enemy” doesn’t mean much anymore once they have shot him down with their own gun.
One of my earliest posts on this blog focused on the topics Death and Dying. You can find it here: On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach Us a Buddhist Lesson. Nothing has changed in my perception since then. I still think that the way death and dying are treated in our society is very problematic. We have to accept the fact that they are part of life. All war movies deal with death and dying but not all involve the viewer as much as the The Thin Red Line. Like hardly any other movie it manages in a very subtle way to raise the awareness for our own mortality.
The following parts are upcoming:
Part III. Nature and Evil
Part IV. The Actors and the Characters
Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line