In this world, a man himself is nothing.

Sean Penn as Sgt. Welsh in Malick’s The Thin Red Line

My family and friends know that I admire Terrence Malick’s films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder). Of those, his adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel The Thin Red Line is my clear favorite. I am sure I will return to that film in particular, and Malick’s oeuvre more generally, in future posts. For now, though, I want to examine a scene from TTRL in connection with something I brought up in an earlier post (see “Too Many Notes”), namely, the difficulty we have communicating with one another.


I indicated in that earlier post that I find it troubling how often, when we think we’re in agreement about something, or disagreement about it, we’re actually not even talking about the same thing.


Near the beginning of TTRL, we find ourselves in the brig of a ship with Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) and Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). Witt is charged with having been absent without leave, not for the first time. Welsh says that he has arranged for Witt to be transferred to a disciplinary unit, where he will be a stretcher-bearer. This exchange follows:


Witt: I can take anything you dish out. I’m twice the man you are.

Welsh: In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.

Witt: You’re wrong there, Top. I seen another world.


After Witt says, “I’m twice the man you are,” Welsh does not respond immediately. Penn turns his head and narrows his eyes, as if he’d been slapped. It’s a charged moment. You think that you sense his pent-up fury. He could be a viper, coiled and utterly still, poised to strike. You wait for it.


In a different, more conventional and prosaic film, and if the two characters actually shared the same universe, Welsh would grab Witt by the front of his shirt and haul him across the table. The sergeant would tell the private exactly what he could do to him if he wished. Maybe he would strike him.


But read what Welsh says. Not, “You son of a bitch — I’ll show you how much of a man I am.” Instead, “In this world, a man himself is nothing.” Witt’s “other world” is one where courage, justice, wisdom, and compassion have meaning. There is such a thing as heroism, as calmness in the face of our own unconquerable mortality. A “man” can be measured by his fidelity to such values. Witt is the descendant of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Aeneas, and their kind. Not identical to them, but related.


Welsh does not see any such world. For him, a “man” is nothing, that is, nothing more than meat. Courage, justice, and the rest are just words. Heroism is folly. Death triumphs over all.


Who is correct? But that’s the wrong question. It presupposes that they are talking about the same thing, when they aren’t. I don’t quite know how to make this clear except in the following way. Witt is right, as proven ultimately by the lives he saves through his own heroic sacrifice. Welsh is right, as proven by the killing, torture, and suffering we see during the film, not to mention the historical fact that 65 to 75 million people died during World War II, and about 150 million people in all the wars and conflicts of the 20th century (M. Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd ed., 2006).


To put it differently, I’ll go back to my physics analogy from the earlier post. Think of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics: we cannot measure both the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. And supposedly the very act of measuring contributes to the uncertainty, though this has recently been challenged.


I think of the dialogue between Witt and Welsh in roughly similar terms. If you see Witt’s universe, you can’t see Welsh’s. And vice versa.


Here’s a later scene from the movie, featuring the two characters. Take a look. Is the cage in which the birds perch a “cage” if the door is open? Is the roof a “roof” if it’s full of holes? What are we to think when Welsh answers Witt’s question “Do you ever get lonely” with “Only around people”? I have not sorted all this out, but somehow it seems related to what is troubling me about communication.






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