One man looks at a dying bird and
thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain.
But death’s got the final word.
lt’s laughing at him.
Another man sees that same bird,
feels the glory.
Feels something smiling through him.
I watched Terence Malik’s The Thin Red Line on the evening it was released, February 26 1999. Although I cannot point to any one moment when I became a Christian, I suspect a good argument could be made for right then. I sat beside a young woman I was falling desperately in love with. I had just finished my mock exams for the Leaving Certificate and was for the first time in my life experiencing serious stress. And most importantly I was in the middle of a very long and protracted argument with some unusual Christians about the crazy shite they believed.
The Thin Red Line is not a plot you follow but an experience you are immersed into. Sounds wanky, doesn’t it? But watching it again before The Tree Of Life, I was reminded of how the ongoing motif of the grass blowing in the wind left me torn to pieces. The wind blows and the grass sways and the sun comes out from behind clouds and all of a sudden the bombs begin to fall. Against scenes of gruesome painful battle, we see pictures of fledglings caught in the shelling and crawling to their death. From the eyes of soldiers glimpsing their last sight, the grass swaying is ever-present. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a quote kinda-smart adolescents like me always love to stumble over from Pascal. I didn’t know who Pascal was or how much in line with Malick he is but I knew he once said:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed
What I started to realise watching this long portrait of a nightmare that happened for years on end in the Pacific I realised that if this is nature, there is also grace. At one point, Witt, played by Jim Calzaviel muses:
Maybe all men got one big soul
who everybody’s a part of.
All faces of the same man.
One big self.
Everyone looking for salvation by himself.
Each like a coal drawn from the fire.
The thinking reed is an image of the God who is the one that Bell speaks of when reminiscing about his wife left at home says:
Who are you to live in all these many forms?
Your death that captures all.
You, too, are the source
of all that’s gonna be born.
You give calm a spirit,
The contented heart.
I had not yet read Job, but Malick was preparing me for it. How often are we like straw before the wind, like chaff swept away by a gale?
Grace is not opposed to nature but it does transform it. That truth creaked into my soul when Savros stood up to Tall and refused to take his men on a suicidal frontal assault. His courage bucks against the nature of things, the given hierarchy and chain of command within the army. He hangs up the phone to guide one of his men through the last moments of life.
Nihilism is an understandable reaction to the world we live in (the misanthropic Welsh is also compellingly drawn). One character, Sgt. McCron played by John Savage, fighting to slow his fall into insanity prays but to no avail:
Show me how to see things the way you do.
Show me how to see things the way you do.
We’re just dirt. We’re just dirt.
Against this, Witt, while not denying that the darkness exists, maintains that it will not overcome the light. The choice was clear for the over-dramatic teenaged me sitting in that cinema. You can search out that grace or you can slip into madness. I genuinely think that when these words were uttered, the penny of the Gospel finally dropped:
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?
Malick’s gnostic musings served as a question to which the only answer to be found was in the “Eloi, Eloi” of Jesus on the cross. He had passed through the night. And as Augustine had children calling “Tolle Legge!”, I sat beside a woman who would become my woman, who was literally represented in the film by one of only two female characters, Bell’s wife, who in one flashback is walking out into the dusk-lit sea and calls:
Come out where l am.
I went into watching that movie siding with Sean Penn’s character Welsh:
If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing.
There’s not some other world out there
where everything’s gonna be OK.
There’s just this one.
Just this rock.
That position had come under fire by having my life turned upside down by grace in the form of the girl sitting beside me who maintained that her whole life had been charged with a grace that completes nature. This movie, like a Heidegger thesis cast in sunlight, dragged my imagination finally into a place where these pieces came together. The Spirit called out “Check” and was patient for a few more months before declaring “Mate!” but shots of waving grass played a much bigger role than I’d like to admit.
Where does it come from?
Who lit this flame in us?
No war can put it out, conquer it.
l was a prisoner.
You set me free.
Your Correspondent, Does not imagine his suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth