The Thin Red Line (1998) Part III Nature and Evil

This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night? (Private Witt)

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? (Private Train)

Is there evil in nature? Is man part of nature? If man is part of nature and man is evil, then nature is evil? Are nature and man one? Or is there a distinct dichotomy between man and nature?

Besides offering a profound meditation on Death and Dying The Thin Red Line also explores the topics nature and evil in different ways. Two positions are explored. Position one  assumes that man is part of nature and since he is capable of evil, nature is not all good. This idea is supported by Lt.Coll Tall when he speaks to Cpt Staros who wants to save his men. Tall shows him the lianas that suffocate the trees. This is evil, according to Tall, as it will kill the tree. Nature is not all good. He tries to make Staros accept evil because he thinks it is inevitable and part of nature.

Other scenes support this. In the beginning of the movie we see a little bird, probably he fell out of the nest and seems to be struggling for his life. We see him, his fight and we know he will die. Nobody did this to him, it just happened. It’s the way of nature.

One of the powerful symbols is the crocodile. In the beginning of the movie we see him swim freely, dive, in the end he has been bound by the men. He cannot harm anymore but he is subjugated.

The second line of thinking says that nature cannot be bad. Only man can be bad. We know the term of natural death. As I said in Part II death is part of nature but the death on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made. This line of thinking supports that man has left the realm of nature, is not part of nature anymore.

Even if there are bad things in nature, nothing as bad as war can happen without man’s doing.

The Thin Red Line is set in the Pacific, on the Solomon Islands, a place to which hardly any Americans or Europeans had gone before the war. An island with a lush vegetation and a population not knowing anything of Western civilisation. The movie begins with idyllic scenes among the natives. They live in harmony with nature and its rhythms.

When the soldiers later disembark on Guadalcanal, an old native man passes them by but doesn’t even acknowledge them despite the heavy gear they are carrying and the clothes they are wearing. They are only foreigners. The natives and their land do not know yet what they bring.

War has come into this tropical paradise and not only does war kill men, it destroys nature. The men are surrounded by tall grass, hiding in it, but the bombs and grenades destroy this lush paradise and transform it into arid land.

The end of the movie seems to want to say that no matter how much man tries to destroy nature, nature will survive and the film ends on a last picture of a sprouting  coconut.

These reflections on nature and man’s nature are very old. Philosophers like Rousseau have dedicated whole books on this. Rousseau thought that man was born good but society, or culture, made him bad. In his Discourse on Inequality you can find the following passage.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. (Rousseau 1754)

Here are

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part IV The Actors and the Characters and Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan are upcoming.

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5 thoughts on “The Thin Red Line (1998) Part III Nature and Evil

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    One of my biggest problems with the movie is the “tropical paradise” theme. Give me a break! It was a tropical hell. No soldier on either side would have wanted to return to the island for a vacation after the war. It was a paradise only if you wanted to sweat your ass off, sleep in water due to the constant rains of the rainy season, march through the dense jungle, contract tropical diseases like malaria, encounter tropical “pets” like mosquitoes,leeches, scorpions, giant spiders, wasps, fire ants, snakes, crocodiles … “And when he reaches Heaven to St. Peter he will tell, One more Marine reporting, sir – I’ve served my time in Hell”

    • Seen from that perspective, I agree, but that isn’t how the natives or those at leisure perceived it. In a uniform with heavy gear, it’s quite something else. Still it looks beuatiful and after their departure it didn’t.
      The themes are still valid, though. The questioning whether evil is part of nature or purely man-made, is a valid one.
      The nature theme works on mayn levels.

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    I agree, but still think Mallick sent camera men to find beautiful nature scenes and did not bother with the filthier aspects of a tropical island. It was filmed in Australia which tells you something. I mentioned in my review the fact that the soldiers in the holds of the metal ships were not even sweating early in the movie. The movie can be described as thoughtful and interesting, but it can not be described as realistic.

    • Yes, and that is the misunderstanding here. Not always do we have to be realistic to say profound things. He manages to say a lot about war, the nature of human beings… And the movie is much more multi-layered than others.

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