This blog series started by arguing writers may not be able to show divine encounters in a movie without it seeming cheesy.
One way to get around this is show God or angels but focus the film on our inability to fully understand him. We can talk about how strange or even funny holy beings seem to us humans. Alternatively, we can have characters who fulfill Christ-like roles, allowing us to talk about God metaphorically.
However, all these methods assume you have to show something otherworldly happening, something breaking into our natural world.
Depending on what kind of story you want to tell in your film, you may not actually need to do that. You may be able to just show the natural world, and how that points to God in its own way.
So, showing the beauty of nature in a film can be a means of pointing toward the one who created nature. Many people argue Terrence Malick’s films are particularly good at capturing this idea.
Writers have noted a variety of Christian themes in Malick’s films — suffering and grace in Knight of Cups, the proper place of romantic love in To the Wonder — but the beauty of nature, and the sense something is behind it comes up repeatedly in his movies.
This is particularly true in Malick’s film The Thin Red Line.
Plot-wise, Thin Red Line is a Word War II epic, a dramatization of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
While it certainly succeeds at being a war film — balancing battle scenes with personal scenes of different soldiers’ motivations, capturing the way pride can motivate officers to do terrible things to their man — in the end Thin Red Line isn’t about the Americans fighting the Japanese.
It begins not with generals planning their offense but with shots of the island the battle takes place on, with a soldier narrating about how there seems to be a war within nature, perhaps two spiritual forces within the world fight each other.
When the battle starts in earnest, Malick alternates between shoots of solders to shots of the battleground’s surroundings.
At one point the camera moves from a shot of soldiers arguing to show a bird struggling on the ground.
Then there’s the film’s main plot, which follows Witt, a soldier who enjoys going AWOL so he can hang out with native people, swim, stare at trees and generally take in the beauty of the world around him.
When one of his superiors claims there’s no world beyond the one they know, Witt replies, “I seen another world.”
As Roy Anker puts it in his book Of Pilgrims and Fire, Witt looks around and sees “a beauty so resplendent, even in this war war zone, that it suggests a kind of divine presence or at least some measure if divine intention that has been cloaked by humanity’s depredations, namely war” (Anker 33).
This fits perfectly with what one of the film’s producers, Robert Geisler, remembers talking with Malick about as they developed the film: the film would portray Guadalcanal as “a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison… of war.”
Rather than making a movie primarily about the wars humans fight, Malick makes Thin Red Line into a movie primarily about God calling to us through nature and how war hurts nature, keeping people from hearing that divine call.
Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them.
Also, stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I examine another possible way to show divine encounters in films.