In a 2003 essay on Terrence Malick’s film, Days of Heaven, Hubert Cohen traces the Edenic motifs in Malick’s various films.
At the beginning of The Thin Red Line, “Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) . . . is AWOL and living in a Melanesian community that he stubbornly insists is edenic,” but later “after he has experienced the horrors of combat, Witt revisits his paradise and sees that it is not free of the ills of human society and nature. He has to acknowledge the presence of death, symbolized by a human skull he sees on a shelf; he watches young men shout at and push aside an elder; he notices a little girl afflicted with chicken pox (and covered with flies); and, in contrast to his near euphoria at being accepted by the children while swimming, he is saddened when a child refuses to shake his hand.” Cohen concludes that the film shows war’s “power to make us see the world as it really is-not as our self-imposed innocence has made it seem to be.”
Malick’s films are also known for their sumptuous depictions of nature. Cohen thinks that this is Malick’s attempt to “remind us that we are part of a larger, cosmic universe and process and that nature is not just background scenery to the really important drama we strut on the earthly stage.”Later in his essay, Cohen quotes these lines from Days of Heaven: “What is this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself, land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature, not one power but two? Love, where does it come from? Who lit the flame in us? No war can put it out. Strife and love, are they the features of the same face?” That verges on the Manichean, but it can be taken in an orthodox sense: There is creation, and there is the overlay of curse. Not one or the other but both.
This is the power of Malick’s vision, a vision a fallen Eden that refuses to give up either the fallenness or the Eden. We move in a world marked deeply by both. While we cannot recover the innocence of Eden, we live in a world still aglow with Edenic glory.