Glory in The Thin Red Line

August 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

What is “glory”? We often associate it with fame or a person having achieved a specific position or status in life. Limiting glory to only this seems to leave out some of the more impressive definitions that it also embodies such as: “resplendent beauty or magnificence” or “a state of absolute happiness, gratification, contentment, etc.” The only times I normally ever utter the word “glory” is in church when reading the Bible or singing hymns and even doing so I don’t often have a well-rounded definition of what I’m even saying. Recently I watched The Thin Red Line again and was struck by how Terrence Malick seems to grasp this notion that glory is something big and important to how we live. After watching the movie I re-read C.S. Lewis’ great essay “The Weight of Glory” and was struck by the similar emphases brought out by both Lewis and Malick when speaking of “glory”.

For Lewis, glory seems to have two main ideas that play a part in the Christian’s life. The first is, quite literally, having a good fame or report with God and the other is that there is an otherworldly sense of magnificence and splendor that permeates our everyday world. Knowing this, the Christian should seek to magnify it wherever it is found and work on creating it with his life. This glory is, in fact, all around us if we are willing to look for it. It’s in the sunset setting the clouds on fire, the innocence of a small child’s smile and the laughter of good friends. It’s everywhere, in God’s Creation, and shockingly it is even dispersed through sinful humanity at times.

Lewis says this in reference to glory and humanity, “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch…We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.” This glory shines through Nature and also shines through us everyday, even though we often fail to see it. There are certain people who manage to see the glory easier than others and Malick is one of these people.

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Malick has an eye for glory in all his films, but it seems to be a special focus in The Thin Red Line. His other films (Badlands (72), Days of Heaven (78) and The New World (05)) show us such spectacles of beauty and grace that we can’t help but be jarred into noticing the glory. The Thin Red Line is no different, but instead of just showing us, Malick seems intent on drawing us into an actual conversation about this elusive “glory”. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) often muses about glory fractured by war and how mankind always manages to mask his glory. In many ways he is the main character amidst a star-studded ensemble cast, which makes me believe that Witt’s struggles and thoughts about glory may be the most important of the myriad of points that Malick is seeking to make.

How’d we lose the good that was given to us? Let is slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?“-Private Witt

Why does mankind seem to forfeit his glory so easily, even sometime denying it exists? Perhaps it’s because with an admission that all men have a spark of divine splendor in them it would force us to change how we act. It would change the way we look at other people and the world at large. Lewis says, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Malick tries to force us to see this, giving us glory and horror in his characters, often in the same frame. But he raises the same question: can we still see the glory?

TheThinRedLine-NewLife.jpg image by tomasutpen

Private Train (John Dee Smith) delivers one of the film’s most important lines near its conclusion, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird — and feels the glory — feels something smiling through it.” Malick illustrates the man who sees the glory through Witt and gives him opposition in the form of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Witt sees the glory and Welsh doesn’t. Welsh has been beat down by the horrors of war and can no longer see the glory that shines through man every once in a while. It’s understandable, but clearly not the way life is best lived.

So the question now remains, how do we become people who see glory instead of death? How do we remind ourselves that there are no ordinary people?

All around us, everyday, there is glory to be seen. God’s Creation, despite its sin-damaged state, is still good. To see the world in this way may require a drastic mentality shift. It’s not easy, but if you look for the good and true, it is there to be found. Lewis and Malick know this and it is evident in their respective work. Nothing is ordinary and glory abounds all around us. Are we people who can see it?

Further Reading:

Brett McCracken’s insightful write-up of The Thin Red Line at The Search.

The Weight of Glory and The Hold Steady at Adventures in Living a Good Story.

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