Passing Into The Night: Terrence Malick Asks The Hard Questions

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“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking 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?”
-Terrence Malick / The Thin Red Line


This great evil.  It exists in many forms, many disguises, and somehow perpetuates itself as something good or acceptable at times in society.  There are moments, thankfully few in my personal lifetime, that have emblazoned such evil and its effects upon me like some burn across my hands after touching a white hot cooking pan. Suffice to say that it is out there slithering along the muddy earth awaiting its next prey

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In 1998, the film “The Thin Red Line” was released to critical acclaim, but little box office. The public viewed it as yet another WWII film on the heels of Spielberg’s search for Private Ryan.  As kinetic and pulsing as Spielberg’s film was, Malick’s film is poetic and thoughtful.  In the long run, Malick’s film wins out for you can return to it like some favorite great novel that continues to teach and illuminate your life in unexpected ways. The narration alone, such as the one quoted above, is filled with questions and universal thoughts written to be examined and felt.


I speak of evil because lately in this world, the slithering creature seems to be having a field day.  I fear not only for our children, but for mankind as some higher being. I finished watching Malick’s epic take on the world alone a few nights ago and came away with a feeling of hopelessness or a kind of restlessness that we, as a family of men, have still yet to come together to work towards common goals and feed all that are hungry for justice, happiness, and love.  Are we not all looking for these three things?  Malick asks the hard questions and we still seem to be not listening.  We all struggle in our own way without the need for more to shoulder when the world rears its ugly head.  I am hungry, like all of you. I have my carefree times, my selfish goals, and self congratulatory moments.  That is why I take a step back and look at where I am and who I am surrounded by.


How we deal with the evil inside us, as well as the world around us is the key.  I am talking of the very real evil that festers and germinates within many and sprouts violence both physical and mental to others at will and without mercy.  It angers me and saddens me with my inability to change things.  War certainly brings that out (as this film displays brilliantly), but so does society that does not cultivate the real hope for happiness or change after such a climactic war; any war for that matter.  We either deal with it in outrage or apparent denial.  What is the right path or roads we need to take?  This film brought out these thoughts and challenged me to assess the situation as all great art should do, but I do not have any answers.


I do not subscribe to the world has gone mad analogy being presented each night on television.  Scare tactics for ratings do not impress upon me with any importance or merit. Each one of us has a story, a beginning, a reason for who we are and why we do what we do.  The small infantry of men charging up that grassy hill upon a barrage of fire from an entrenched Japanese enemy, seems simple enough to view that we are in the right and they are evil.  However, once that hill is taken, we discover that the faceless Japanese are also human with the same frailties we all suffer from.  The enemy becomes us.  We succumb to this righteous evil only to discover we are only perpetuating and spreading the evil ourselves.  The effects of such an act destroys lives and nature surrounding us.  Pretty heady stuff for a WWII film and the reason that it is so much more relevant today than when first released.


One can only end these thoughts with an image that has haunted me ever since I saw it in a darkened theater upon its first release.  The image, for me, shows how our propensity for violence and cruelty has a lasting impact on the innocent.  The image produces tragic consequences with a newborn bird caught amidst the onslaught of cannon fire, screaming men, and whizzing tracer fire.  This is us.  These are the results of our insanity and hate we still bear.  How do we end such evil?  Can we end such evil?  And a question that bears asking, do we want to end such evil?

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“The Thin Red Line” (1998) written/directed by Terrence Malick, Cinematography by John Toll

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