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"What's your name, kid?": The acousmatic voiceovers of Private Edward P. Train in The Thin Red Line.

When it comes to Terrence Malick's films, the voiceovers have been enduringly fascinating to both viewers and critics. In The Thin Red Line (1998), the voiceovers have been the subject of considerable uncertainty and debate, and one set of them in particular has proven especially difficult to identify and interpret. Until recently, most critics thought that the film's most "philosophical" or "poetic" voiceovers were all spoken by the character Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and interpreted the film with this presumption in mind, many seeing what they thought of as Witt's perspective and actions as the moral center of the film (Bersani and Dutoit; Silverman; Whalen; Smith, "Let There Be Light"; Furstenau and MacAvoy; Morrison and Schur; Critchley; Davies; Michaels; and Dreyfus and Prince, to name a few). However, some scholars now contend--and we agree--that it is not Witt who speaks the majority of the poetic and philosophical voiceovers; instead, most are spoken by the minor character Private Edward P. Train (John Dee Smith) (Rybin, Millington, Pippin, Stivers). Notably, too, most of Train's voiceovers are uttered when he is not shown on the screen and not part of the diegetic action--a phenomenon sound theorist Michel Chion calls an acousmetre, a voiceover without a source, a film technique whose complexity demands special consideration (Voice 18-19). The Train voiceovers function differently than those of the other characters, all of which are synchronized with the image of a character shown on screen and illuminate that character's inner desires or conflicts within the narrative. This article will discuss how Train's eight voiceovers affect our understanding of The Thin Red Line. We argue that the Train voiceovers dynamically enact an unusually hopeful perspective for a war film, one that demonstrates the power of questioning rather than asserting and of inhabiting multiple points of view rather than remaining locked within an isolated, individualistic one. Train's voiceovers disorient viewers and call attention to the limitations of the diegetic characters as they try, largely unsuccessfully, to imagine "another world" in the face of possible death. Train's voiceovers open a "horizon" (1) that exposes the main characters' mode of being as one that fails to reach beyond culturally-inherited individual perspectives and traps them into either living a romanticized myth (as Welsh calls it, a "lie"), or suffering physical or spiritual/psychic isolation or death, thus allowing the destructive power of the military world to dominate. Train's voiceovers enact what Rybin, referring to the film's Heideggerian underpinnings, describes as the "moment in which ... [an] abstract, de-embodied notion of 'Being' finds in concrete, embodied 'hour and day,' its luminous opportunity to make a meaning that will hold forth the earth in the possibility of making a new world" (Rybin, "Voicing Meaning" 39). Heidegger says in "The Origin of the Work of Art" that to disclose truth, to open up a world, a human place is the "work" of art ("On the Origin" 54). Malick, who studied and taught Heidegger at Harvard (and interviewed him while working on his undergraduate honors thesis) before becoming a filmmaker, celebrates the belief that the artist--a "poet in destitute times" (Heidegger, "What Are Poets For?" 92)--can potentially redeem an era. In The Thin Red Line, the Train voiceovers play a key role in that effort at redemption.


Throughout the film we hear several voiceovers from the film's main characters, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), Private Witt, Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), all of which may be described as belonging to a genre of voiceover narration common to many films, which "clarifies, establishes interiority and intimacy with the audience, crystallises character subjectivity, [and] provides a moral gloss ..." (McLeod 57). In The Thin Red Line, each of the main characters is the focus of the visualized scene when his voiceover is heard, and all of their voiceovers reveal their internal thoughts, desires, or conflicts during the time represented within the diegesis. (2) For example, Colonel Tail's first voiceover immediately establishes his sense of inferiority and ineffectiveness in the military and the sharpness of the ambition that overwhelms his feelings for his family. Following his first appearance in the film--gazing out to sea, smoking a cigarette on board the ship headed to Guadalcanal--we see him in a meeting with Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), clearly younger than Tall and firmly in command of the battle plan. As Tall walks behind Quintard, we hear his internal thoughts, in voiceover: "Worked my ass off. Brown-nosed the generals. Degraded myself. For them. My family. My home." Quintard, leading the conversation, comments to Tall: "I admire you, Colonel. I do. Most men your age would have retired by now," which, based on what we've learned from Tail's voiceover, we understand must feel like a twist of the knife to him, coming as it does from a younger man whose career has resulted in achieving a position with greater authority than Tail's. Quintard has read Tall correctly, too, locking him in a direct gaze and asking him how much he "wants it"--how much he is willing to give to the upcoming battle. Tall assures him, darkly, that he'll give everything he has to. Then, in voiceover, we hear his internal capitulation to his ambition, despite his misgivings: "All they sacrificed for me. Poured out like water on the ground. All I might have given for love's sake. Dyin', slow as a tree." As we learn later, Tail's ambition distorts his perspective, closing him off from considering the human suffering of the troops and causing him to push them into a battle they shouldn't engage in (and towards certain death for some). There is no question, from a viewer's perspective, that these are the thoughts of Colonel Tall, and his voiceover words, in conjunction with the other elements of the scene, enlarge our sense of who he is and what conflicts he grapples with--conflicts that are dramatically relevant to the film's plot.

Similarly, Private Bell's voiceovers reveal his desire--in his case, to hang on to his love for his wife, Marty (Miranda Otto); many are combined with images of his memories of romantic moments and occur at times when he seems afraid. For example, we first meet Bell below deck as the troops head to Guadalcanal, lying on a cot and talking with a fellow soldier who has asked about why Bell is in the infantry rather than an officer. Bell tells him that he had been an officer but resigned his commission because he couldn't stand being separated from his wife. (In other words, he tried to give up his military career for love, unlike Tall.) As punishment, the Army drafted him into the infantry. The scene cuts to images of Bell and his wife at home, caressing; these are his recollections or, perhaps, his imagined desires. Then, in voiceover, we hear Bell's inner thoughts, addressed to his absent wife: "Why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you." Malick cuts back to the ship, where soldiers are running about, rushing to board the landing boats to go to shore, to battle, with alarms sounding in the background. Bell's voiceover continues, "If I go first, I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters." We then see him standing on deck, taking a deep breath and approached by Captain Staros, who tells him to put on his helmet and pats him on the shoulder. Again, we hear Bell: "Be with me now," and, helmet on, he shoulders his gun and grimaces, readying himself for the unknown he is facing. As with Tail's voiceover, there's no mystery about this voiceover's source. It is synchronized with an image of Bell, reveals his inner thoughts and struggle, and there's no doubt about the time when he is thinking these thoughts: he's about to go ashore on an island where the enemy is unknown and where he faces possible death; his voiceover shows us his attempt to use his memories of love for his wife to comfort himself in the heat of that terrible moment.

The voiceovers of the film's other main characters--Witt, Staros, and Welsh--are similar to those of Tall and Bell and are typical of many films' voiceovers. Establishing shots reveal the source of the spoken words, what is said both functions to advance the narrative and is connected to the time and place of the narrative shown on the screen, and the voiceover provides insight into the internal world of the characters. Of course each differs in substance--after all, each man's inner struggle is not the same. Through these voiceovers, we come to understand the poignant struggles of men trying to rationalize what they're doing, trying to mentally escape, trying to deny the darkness they're confronting, trying to confront fear and loss by calling upon familiar--one might even say quotidian, ordinary--personal and cultural perspectives, such as ambition, romance, paternalism, and cynicism.

If the voiceovers of these characters were the only ones in the film, there would be little significant perplexity about what we're seeing. (1) That is, we'd know we were following a group of soldiers and officers experiencing intense battles at Guadalcanal and suffering not only physical but also emotional, spiritual, and existential angst. We'd understand the various ways those men strive to articulate meaning in the face of possible death and how they each make use of a perspective they believe helps themselves endure their circumstances. Yet theirs are not The Thin Red Line's only voiceovers, and the striking difference between theirs and the eight voiceovers spoken by the minor character Private Edward P. Train (4) creates a significant interpretive challenge for the viewer. By creating differences between Train's voiceovers and those of the other characters, Malick introduces the idea that there is a particular way of giving significance to experience that moves beyond culturally-inherited inferiority and subjectivity and that represents a more inquisitive mode of participating within the world.


Train's voiceovers differ from those of Tall, Bell, Witt, Staros, and Welsh in several ways. We mentioned they are acousmatic; that is, in voiceover Train is "a special being, a kind of talking and acting shadow" (Chion, Voice 21). According to Chion, the acousmetre "becomes invested with magical powers as soon as it is involved, however slightly, in the image" (Voice 23). In any film with an acousmetre, he says, tremendous importance lies in "whether or not [the body of the speaking voice] has been seen" (Chion, Voice 23). At the very beginning of the film, it is not possible to identify the speaker of the opening voiceover, who asks, "What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself--the land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?" No character's image is associated with the voiceover speaker--the visual images are of a menacing--looking crocodile submerging itself in murky water, ancient trees choked by vines, and sunlight streaking into a dense forest. And, when we meet the first character, Private Witt, shortly after the mysterious opening sequence, his voice is different than that of the first voiceover speaker. Close listening to the film's opening scenes establishes the clear distinctions in timbre between the first and second speaker sequences. The first speaker has a voice that is guttural and deeper or more textured than the second--which is first heard in voice-off and is nasal and higher-pitched. An analysis of the film's first and second voices by forensic linguist Phil Harrison identifies crucial differences between them: (5)

(1.) Vowel in SKY: Train [the first speaker] monophthongises (more like a long 'aa'), in words like "why" or "vie"; Witt [the second speaker] has a diphthong /aI/ as in "I."

(2.) Morpheme -ing: Train drops [g] and has an alveolar [n], as in "avengin'"; Witt does not and has a velar [N], "uplifting."

(3.) Vowel in POT: Train is high-mid, rounded, as in "not" or "one"; Witt is much lower and unrounded, as in "God."

(4.) /nd/ clusters: Train has a weak to non-existent [d], "land" or "contend." become "Ian"' or "conten"'; Witt's is stronger, as in "find."

(5.) Pitch and intonation: Overall, pitch is lower for Train. Also, Train's intonation is generally rising, while Witt's is falling. (Harrison, Personal Communication)

Harrison concludes that the voices are without question different. Further confirmation comes by John Dee Smith, the actor who plays Train and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. He stated in a personal interview that he recorded, in post-production, the eight voiceovers in the film shown in Note 4. In addition, in terms of content, Witt's concern in his opening scene is for his own situation, thinking about his mother's death and wondering how he'll confront his own death when it comes; he is not speculating abstractly or objectively about the larger forces at work in nature, as is the initial voiceover speaker.

There are other ways in which Train's voiceovers differ from those of the other characters. For example, unlike theirs, it's initially unclear exactly what time period Train's voiceovers come from and how they correspond with the character who utters them (if one can identify his diegetic character as the speaker, which, as we argue later, is not certain until the end of the film, although some keen listeners may be able to make the aural connection following Train's first appearance in character). Several of his voiceovers are phrased in the present tense and seem to refer to the images shown on screen--even though Train is not present as a character when we hear his voice. For example, as we mentioned, it's Train's voice that opens the film, speaking in present tense: "What's this war in the heart of nature?" We hear Train in voiceover again following the troops' arrival to Guadalcanal, asking questions and making statements that seem to be addressed to nature, phrased in present tense, as the soldiers plod through fields, bamboo thickets, and up a hill: "Who are you to live in all these many forms? You're death that captures all. You, too, are the source of all that's gonna be born. You're glory ... mercy ... peace ... truth " Yet, despite the present-tense phrasing, these cannot be the inner thoughts or musings of Private Train at the time of the diegetic narrative. Certainly there's no image of him on screen at the time of either of the first two voiceovers. And, before his second, we've learned that his diegetic character is a terrified, nervous soldier, hardly one to ponder philosophically about nature. We hear him speak in character for the first time below deck on the ship headed to Guadalcanal, talking to Sergeant Welsh and sputtering about how afraid he is:

Train: "I just can't help how damn scared I am, Sarge. I can't help it. I got ... you know, my step daddy took a block and beat me, and beat me when I was real little. And I was scared, and I used to run, and I used to hide. I slept in the chicken coop a whole lotta nights. And uh, I never thought it'd get no worse than that. But I'm, I'm living by the minute over here. I'm counting the seconds. Now, we're gonna be landing, we're gonna be landing soon. There's gonna be air raids. We're probably gonna die before we get off the beach! This place is like a big floating graveyard!"

WELSH: "What's your name, kid?"

TRAIN: "I wanna own an automobile when I get out!"

WELSH: "What's your name?"

TRAIN: "Edward, Edward P. Train."

WELSH: "Train."

TRAIN: "The only things that are permanent is, is dyin' and the Lord. That's it. That's all you gotta worry about. This war ain't, this war ain't gonna be the end of me, and it ain't gonna be the end of you neither."

This young soldier consumed by fear contrasts sharply with the calm, questioning, musing Train of the initial voiceovers who asks about the multiple and conflicting powers of nature.

How could this scared soldier be the same person as the voiceover speaker, so able to contemplate ambiguity and ask such probing questions? This perplexity may be resolved by considering that as a group, the Train voiceovers are likely spoken by an older Private Train thinking back on the war from a time well beyond the events within the narrative. This is suggested in part by the voiceovers that are phrased in the past tense or refer to the past: "Hours like months, days like years. Walked into the golden age. Stood on the shores of a new world"; "Can't nothin' make you forget it ... and, at the film's end, "Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with?" This last voiceover, especially, sounds like a person reflecting on past events. Throughout the film, we see particular events taking place within the present narrative, yet Train's voiceovers refer to or ponder upon those events but could not be uttered within the time of the narrative. Like Millington, who also points out that Train's voiceovers should provoke uncertainty within the viewer (34), we think the prompt to viewers to question both what we are seeing and hearing and the time period of the narrative is part of the film's goal.

A further illustration of the special nature of Train's voiceovers is that unlike those of the other characters, in which immediate connection exists between an image of the character and his voiceover, in only two instances does an association exist between a visual image of Train's diegetic character and his voiceover, and in one of those the connection is so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. (See Note 6 for a list of the seven appearances of Train's diegetic character throughout the film.) The first six of his voiceovers (see Note 4) are uttered when Train is not shown on the screen and is not part of the diegetic narrative--unlike the close connections in time and narrative unity between the other characters' voiceovers and the diegetic action. In the seventh, about two hours into the film, a subtle association between his voiceover and the image of his diegetic character is made, yet it is so elusive that it would be very difficult for viewers to detect. His voiceover, "Hours like months, days like years. Walked into the golden age. Stood on the shores of a new world" is heard shortly after Train appears, sitting beside Private Doll (Dash Mihok), one of many drunken soldiers in a truck while on leave. His yelling voice, which is muted and blends in with many other natural sounds and music, is not at all similar in sound to the voiceover, and it has been more than an hour and a half since we've heard his character's "normal" speaking voice, so an aural connection cannot be made. Prior to this moment, too, he has not been visually associated at all with the six voiceovers that have already been uttered. Even though there is a brief visual connection between the image of his character and his voiceover, it's a stretch to connect the character we see--one of many boisterous soldiers, hardly the visual focus of the scene--with the person speaking in the voiceover, expressing what sounds like a poetic, even rosy, recollection of the joys of leave.

At the very end of the film, however, we see a close up of Train talking to Private Carni (Danny Hoch) as the troops sail away from Guadalcanal, and the association between the image of Train's diegetic character and his voiceover is much tighter and the aural connection much easier to detect. It is the moment of "de-acousmatization" (Chion, Voice 23-24)--the revelation of the of the voiceover speaker's identity. The camera pans over a deck packed tightly with soldiers and closes in on Doll, and we hear Train's diegetic character in voice-off: "Something to come back to, some kind of foundation...." Then, we see Train himself, continuing on, expressing his determination to start living life good after having gone through "the thick and thin" of battle. As he ends his pronouncements with "I'm getting older now. By no means old, but older," the sound of his voice lessens and the music rises, and there is a brief cut to a shot of men milling about on desk as his final voiceover starts. No time elapses between the sound of his diegetic character speaking and the start of his voiceover, which prompts certain recognition that it is Train's voice we are hearing--and that we have been hearing previously throughout the film. This voiceover is aurally and visually yoked to the corporeal body of Train's character (and a few shots later we also see a brief image of him standing silently beside Sergeant Welsh as the voiceover continues), and at this point it should become "confined" (Chion, Audio-Vision 130) by that body, as usually happens with de-acousmatization. As Chion explains, "An inherent quality of the acousmetre is that it can be instantly dispossessed of its mysterious powers when it is de-acousmatized, when the film reveals the face that is the source of the voice. At this point, through synchronism, the voice finds itself attributed to and confined to a body" (Audio-Vision 130). Yet this moment creates greater, not lesser, mystery, because of the indeterminate time period in which the voiceover seems to take place and the radical differences between what the voiceover Train and the diegetic character Train think and speak about. While the diegetic character Train is speaking in the present tense, thinking about the future, his voiceover begins in the past tense: "Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with, walked with?"--suggesting that it's being spoken from a time beyond the events shown on the screen. As with his other voiceovers, the content--philosophical, poetic, abstract--doesn't correspond with what his diegetic character is saying at the time of the events shown on the screen. Even so, at the end of the film, his character seems much less scared than when we first met him beneath deck, before the battles; he has changed somewhat from being nearly panicked, to being "determined," even seasoned in a way; he says he is "ready to start living [life] good." If we interpret the voiceovers as being spoken by Train at a time later than the events within the narrative, somewhat like Wordsworthian "recollections in tranquility," they represent a powerful transformation in perspective on Train's part, as it's still difficult to imagine the character we see on the screen, within the narrative, engaging in the type of philosophical, poetic, broad speculations that we hear in his voiceovers.


The radical shift in Train's perspective, as demonstrated by the difference between what his character says within the diegesis and what he says in voiceover, serves, in part, to call attention to the far less dramatic changes the other characters undergo. The film's main characters are "striving," as Rybin suggests--using their various perspectives and desires to seek significance in their experience, and when "the meanings [they] use come under duress ... each must reframe or rebuild the truth he has assigned to his existence" (Rybin, Terrence Malickand The Thought of Film 108). Rybin is right--each of them does alter his perspective in some way after experiencing its ineffectiveness or inaccuracy. Yet it's important not to ascribe to them too much change, since ultimately they each remain caught in the metaphorical "moving box" Welsh refers to near the end of the film--even their changed perspectives remain enmeshed within the confines of the military world they inhabit; they are still "stuck" in its "lie." Rather than reframing or rebuilding their truths, what we see happening with the film's main characters is more a disturbance of their "horizons," another concept from Heidegger and Husserl that Malick uses. Malick completed his undergraduate thesis on The Concept of Horizon in Husserl and Heidegger, and in it, he acknowledges the difficulty in understanding the concept of horizon, explaining that those who have read Husserl or Heidegger know that their discussion of the idea of horizon is "vague and desultory" (2). He argues, however, that "the concept represents something telling and formidable in their work, perhaps something pivotal, since it is only in terms of this concept that their work can be understood and the questions they leave us with can become legitimate problems" (2). Malick acknowledges that the concept "may be the least accessible point of departure" for a study of each philosopher's work, but he says, "it seems to me the most illuminating" (2). For Husserl, says Malick, a horizon is somewhat like, yet broader than, a point of view; a horizon becomes evident when we see its limits, and that "like rules, limits reveal themselves for what they are only when they are transgressed. We can get a fix on a limit by violating it in different ways. If we conceive the limit of a world (or horizon) as a border, then it is an unmarked border.... We only know we have trespassed beyond it when we find ourselves talking nonsense or at a loss or deserted" (Malick, Concept 21). Malick further explains that Heidegger, too, emphasizes the importance of the disclosure of horizons, which he argues can be understood by seeing what happens when the things in our everyday world, which we treat as instruments or "implements" designed to meet our ends, are "disturbed":

   The horizontal character of things reveals
   itself when their systems of reference
   are disturbed. Things "ready
   to hand" (things with horizons) seem
   to become "present at hand" (lose
   their horizons). The assignments that
   define an implement emerge from
   their inconspicuousness within its
   horizons and become explicit. We no
   longer know what to do with the implement
   because for a while it lacks
   the horizon that would make it possible
   to do anything with it at all. (36)

A horizon is disclosed--or the "horizonal character of things reveals itself" (36)--when we learn that an implement is not properly adapted to the use we had for it; it becomes useless. Or, we may discover that an implement we want to use is not there for our use. As a result, the uselessness or the absence of the implements in the system of reference renders the other implements "in the way"--they cannot be used according to their purpose, thus revealing their horizons. Using this concept, we can interpret the shifts in the characters' perspectives as resulting from disturbances of their horizons, their worlds, when they find themselves "talking nonsense or at a loss or deserted" (Malick, Concept 21)--when they experience the perspectives they'd been using as being unsuited to the situation they're in, or as lost.

We see the disturbance, cracking, or crumbling of the main characters' horizons at several moments. For example, Colonel Tall appears empty and isolated following the battle in which his lack of compassion is exposed by Staros's refusal to follow his command; his choice to advance his own ambition while abandoning care for the soldiers comes under duress. At one point Tall talks with Captain Gaff (John Cusack), who has emphasized the men's urgent need for water. Tall engages in an earnest speech about soldiers and water and winning, saying, "You're like a son to me," as Gaff looks at him blankly; at this point, Tall recognizes his own failures and motives; it's a devastating moment. Another such moment occurs shortly after the battle, when he tells Staros that he's "too soft-hearted," and Staros poignantly asks, "Have you ever had a man die in your arms? Have you, sir?" Following this, we see a slightly changed Tall--he spares Staros from the dire consequences that might normally follow failure to follow a direct order, instead simply relieving him of command and ensuring he'll get a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, bestowing honor rather than punishment and shame. However, Tall will still get the recognition he sought for the successful capture of a strategic enemy post, and he'll appear generous at least after the fact by giving the men plenty of water and a week's leave time after their ordeal. His more compassionate actions towards Staros and the men signal a slight shift after recognizing how unsuited his single-minded insistence on capturing the hill was to the realities of the battle situation--the great cost of lives that resulted from his quest for glory. Yet there is no major transformation within him--he's still in command, but he is alone: the final shot of him shows him sitting by himself, isolated, mute, still "shut up in a tomb."

Similarly, other characters also slightly change their actions and perspectives after they encounter a reality that exposes the inadequacy of the world they imagined or desired. From Bell, we hear nothing in voiceover after he receives his wife's "Dear John" letter, yet we see at least a slight change in him in terms of how "present" he is within the following battles, more attuned to and taking a lead role in the action, no longer staring off into the distance, calling to mind his memories. Staros's perspective shifts away from a private quest for a fatherly God's guidance, of whom he asks in the dark of night, "Are you there?" After having been relieved of his command, we hear him in his final voiceover as he leaves the camp, and his men, behind: "You are my sons. I'll carry you wherever I go," indicating that he has brought his care for the young soldiers' lives into himself as an internal principle by which he'll be guided going forward. And yet he'll do so separated from the soldiers he cares about, and one must wonder what opportunities he'll actually have to "carry them with him" in the new bureaucratic job as a lawyer that he's going to. Sergeant Welsh's reframed perspective is especially poignant, since after Witt's death he finally admits the possibility of the "other world" he so confidently denied in conversation with Witt. Whereas previously he asserted, "There ain't no world but this one," by the end of the film he expresses at least a private sense of openness to another world. In voiceover, while Captain Bosch (George Clooney) establishes his command, we hear Welsh's inner thoughts: "Everything a lie. Everything you see, everything you hear." Yet he feels trapped: "You're in a box, a moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie." His choice is to isolate himself: "Only one thing a man can do," he continues, "Find something that's his, make an island of himself." And, finally, he says, as we see soldiers filing past a graveyard, "If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours." (7) Striving to feel at least the lack of some other world, some other presence, is very moving, yet he still is dearly caught in the world of the military chain of command--he is the "mother" who runs things in the battalion, with the same cynicism towards the Army that he felt all along. Outwardly, within his world, nothing has changed--and despite the shifting within his perspective to admit the possibility of "another world," he ends up as isolated as Tall, Staros, Bell--and Witt.

The disturbance of Witt's horizon is shown over the course of several scenes. At the start of the next to last battle scene of the film (chapter titled "This great evil") we see praying Japanese soldiers then a low-angle shot looking up at Witt with troubled face and eyes, then a cut to a shot of a dead Japanese soldier, whose voiceover can be understood as what Witt imagines the soldier to be saying to him. It asks, "Are you righteous, kind? ... Were you loved by all? Know that I was, too." Here, Witt recognizes that this other man, the enemy, may also have believed himself to be kind, like Witt himself, yet his life has just come to a brutal ending. And in the following battle preparation, we see Witt breathing deeply--the first moment in the film that he appears somewhat shaken. In the battle that ensues, we see Witt doing things far different than anything we've seen him do before: he jabs his bayonet into a Japanese soldier and, as the battle continues, we see him raise his rifle and shoot four soldiers. Clearly, he has become enveloped in the senselessness of war. At battle's end, we see Witt washing in some muddy water; strangely, he pours some water over the surface of a large plant--a perplexing act. This seems the equivalent of "talking nonsense" (Malick, Concept 21) when one's horizon is disturbed, a moment when one no longer knows what to do with an "implement" (in this case, a plant, symbolic of Witt's relationship with nature) one previously seemed to understand. He slips into a brief reverie of idyllic water scenes and harmonious Melanesians, yet the sequence ends with him leaning over the muddy waters again. The next scenes with Witt show him walking alone through a village during leave. He gazes at the Melanesians there, finally taking in a completely different view of their lives than that which he saw in his reveries. Now, he sees mistrust on the face of the young boy to whom he extends his hand in friendship, fighting among the men in the village, a young child covered in insect bites, and a collection of skulls. We are seeing, here, the disturbance and limit of Witt's horizon--the image of an idyllic world he has tried so hard to maintain no longer coheres with the reality of his experience. The change he makes in response is subtle, but important; rather than going AWOL, as we know he did previously when the Army became too much for him, he chooses to take a more directly caring role towards his fellow soldiers, even if those efforts, too, are unsuccessful: the soldier sitting alone in the field turns down his offer of help, and Welsh, whom he encounters at the broken-down plantation house, receives very skeptically Witt's assurance that there is still a spark in him. Soon thereafter, his death closes off all possibilities for further acting differently in the world, though we can interpret his choice to sacrifice himself in an attempt to protect the company as an ultimate enactment of his care for others. Like Tall, Staros, Bell, and Welsh, Witt shifts his perspective following the cracks that open in his horizon, yet while his resulting action is more drastic than theirs, a major transformation in his worldview is not implied, since the last images of him show him in his idyllic world, swimming happily among the Melanesians as he always wished to be, in the world that has always been the focus of his desire. Witt, Tall, Staros, Bell, and Welsh make changes in their perspectives, indicating an opening towards a view or possibility they'd previously resisted, or some change in their way of acting in the world--yet we see them nonetheless remaining isolated, limited in their ability to articulate or enact that new perspective within the world, still caught in the encompassing reality of the destructive military world.


As we noted previously, Train's voiceovers suggest that a far greater transformation has taken place in his worldview compared to those of the other characters. By the film's end his character within the narrative has made some shifts--he's less scared, more forward-looking. But his voiceovers, which seem to come from a time well beyond the events of the narrative, suggest an almost completely different perspective. Significantly, Train's character within the narrative is one of the only ones who actually voices the abject fear that he feels; this takes place early on when he's talking to Welsh: "I can't help how damn scared I am, Sarge," he says, and goes on to exclaim about the ship being "one big floating graveyard" and his fear that they might all get killed before they get off the beach. According to Heidegger, as Malick explains in his undergraduate thesis, one way that the horizonal character of things is revealed to us is through the feeling of "dread" (38), a feeling that suggests the "collapse of the world" and demonstrates that things within the world are withdrawing or pulling away from us. As Malick says, "only because we realize that we have a world do things within it have claim and significance to us" (39). In other words, when the world breaks down for us, we feel dread, and, as a result, horizons are disclosed to us. Unlike what happens to the main characters upon the disturbance of their horizons, Train's voiceovers reveal that he is on a new path that none of the characters achieves within the narrative, one that moves beyond the limitations we've witnessed in the conflicts negotiated within the film's world. They hold a special quality that separates them from the voiceovers of the other characters, and they enact a greater power, weaving in and out of time, space, and other characters' inner worlds. They reveal the limits of the differing horizons of the film's primary characters and, in their blend of a larger, all-encompassing both subjective/objective perspective, point toward the possibility of achieving a kind of unanimity, a more universal horizon that surpasses individual and group differences.

For example, Train's second voiceover weaves in and out of time, space, and other characters' inner worlds. In the moments before we hear Train's voice, Malick establishes shots of the frightened soldiers trudging through a mucky, twisting, root-filled stream. We cut to an ominous-looking stone native idol and then to a tracking, worm's-eye view shot looking up through a lush green canopy of trees--a shot, based on the flora, clearly taken from a different location than where the men are, indicating Train's ability to cross time/space. In addition, the shot, stylistically, evokes the worm's eye view nearly identical to the one in the film's opening, cueing us, however indirectly, to Train's upcoming voiceover. Then, we hear the whispering voice of Train ask: "Who are you to live in all these many forms?" Having seen the men's fear, the natives' religious idol, and the heterogeneous environments, the content of this question seems relevant to what we have seen. However, the question's tone indicates a calm at odds with the advancing soldiers' inner fear and their struggle against nature's force (both fearsome and beautiful). As a complement to the voice's soothing tone, the song "Silence" begins, a song that is easily the film's most emotional and heart-wrenching, foreshadowing a touching moment with Bell, one that makes Train's voiceover all the more powerful.

Malick cuts from the worm's eye shot of the canopy to a closeup of beautiful, brightly colored birds--again from a different time/place (and these appear to be the same species as the two birds at the end of film--after "all things shinin'"). Train's question resonates within us for 33 seconds, then, again, Train says in a low, whispered tone: "You're death that captures all." Seven seconds pass, then, "You, too, are the source of all that's gonna be born." The camera finds Bell--now climbing a hill with C-Company--and pans along with him. Then, after 25 seconds, Train's voiceover continues, "You're glory ... mercy ... peace ... truth." Malick cuts to the hillside and Bell's face and the voiceover says, "You give calm a spirit." Bell looks down as Train's voice continues, "understanding." As "Silence" continues and rises in volume, the camera cuts into Bell's mental subjectivity with a closeup of his wife's hand clasping his in a gentle, loving embrace. In voiceover, Train says, "courage ..." and the camera tilts up to see Marty's sweet, smiling, content face as Train's voiceover concludes with "the contented heart."

The combined effect here establishes the special role of Train's voiceover (which, in its pauses covers great time and space) and its powerful ability to both interact with the images of nature and blend into Bell's mental subjectivity--all the while pulling at our hearts. Completely at odds with what the men are experiencing--nervousness, anxiety, dread--the whispered, intimate voiceover interjects, in concert with beautiful nature images, earnest questions and answers offered with a gentle, knowing tone. As Whalen says, such speculations couldn't possibly be forming in the minds of the soldiers at this point in the narrative (165), and as the viewer we must wonder about the voiceover speaker's perspective and point of view, which comes from a different time and place yet still connects by association with what we see on-screen. And, as the voiceover speaker's abstractions suddenly shift away from naming the powers of the indeterminate "you" he is addressing (is it nature, the world, a god?)--and his words converge with images that arise from within the subjective mind of Bell, another oddity about perspective must be recognized by the viewer, since Bell's imagining of moments with his wife is doing something very different for him than what Train's words are doing with the film. That is, Bell is reaching within to comfort himself, to allay his fear, perhaps as well to pull himself away from the drudgery, just as he did earlier on the patrol boat when he called up images of his wife to be with him as he prepared for battle. But, while Train's voiceover says "You give calm a spirit" and is naming one of the powers of some larger force that holds sway over all, Bell is simply trying to use his image of Marty to calm his own spirit. Thus as the voiceover blends emotionally with Bell, it paradoxically establishes its difference and separateness from the narrative, "its radical otherness with respect to the diegesis" that Mary Anne Doane says endows the voiceover "with a certain authority" (341).

Unlike the ironic distance that Holly's voiceover creates in Badlands, in The Thin Red Line the Train voiceovers function both to keep the viewer at a reflective/aesthetic distance from the narrative yet also to plunge us into sympathetic connection with the inner worlds of the characters. Train's voiceover is both detached from the time of the narrative and accompanies non-diegetic images, yet parallels some events, and, strangest of all, enters the inner worlds of other characters, seeming almost to present them to the viewer. His voiceover words produce a tension that the juxtapositions of images and events in the diegesis could alone never evoke. The juxtaposition of "opposing" voice to image or event, here, is intensified by it, as the ambiguity about the voiceover speaker's point of view only gives rise to a crescendo of questions.

This is not the only time we see Train's perspective subsume, embrace, and oversee that of the other characters. For example, Train's third voiceover, a full 1 hour 20 minutes after his previous one, begins while we witness the film's most brutal battle and killings from both sides. Over a montage of atrocities that includes the horrified faces of Witt, Bell, and Staros, and point-of-view shots of screaming and pleading Japanese soldiers, we hear Train ask, "This great evil ... where's it come from?" "How'd it steal into the world?" As Train asks this, the camera shows Doll running through the Japanese camp, frantically stealing from a hut and stuffing the booty into his shirt. As the camera follows Doll, he points his gun at a downed Japanese soldier, and Train's voiceover asks (to muted natural sound that only emphasizes the importance of Train's questioning and demonstrates his ability to hover and transcend time and space), "What seed, what root did it grow from?" Train continues: "Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us?," and ironically, as he asks this question, we see the armed U.S. soldiers rounding up horrified, injured, bloodied Japanese. Train continues, "Robbin' us of life and light?" and on "light," we see Witt, immersed in the moment of war, directing with a serious face, pointing to where they need to take the Japanese prisoners. However, as Train asks, "Mockin' us with the sight of what we might have known?," Witt, unlike in the previous moments, comforts a Japanese soldier and gently holds him by the back of his head as the soldier pleads, horrified. Witt actually puts his gun down and we hear the natural sound--though muted--of the gun hitting the ground (this is the first natural sound we've heard since Train began to speak--showing, again, the extent to which Malick privileges Train's voiceover). However, we immediately cut to the loud natural sound of another soldier, Dale, shooting a defenseless Japanese soldier in the back. We hear Train ask, "Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?" As Dale hits a pleading Japanese with his gun, Train asks, "Is this darkness in you, too?" Natural sound returns: a Japanese soldier weakly points a pocket knife at Dale; we see a mound of corpses; Dale pulls teeth from the corpses; and, as Dale walks up to a dying soldier on a mound of bodies, he shows the soldier his collection of teeth. Train concludes, "Have you passed through this night?" In this montage of the American soldiers taking the Japanese soldiers and destroying their camp, Train's voiceovers show his ability to cross space and time, commenting on the action ironically and encompassing the emotional responses of both the American and Japanese soldiers. Here, and in other sequences, Train is a spectral presence that has the powers of ubiquity (being everywhere), panopticism (seeing all), omniscience (knowing all), and omnipotence (being all-powerful) (Chion, Glossary 48). As an acousmetre, he is "defined by the edge of the frame, a space where [he] could appear at any moment, but whose position outside that frame seems to confer on [him] certain powers over what's within the frame (Chion, Glossary 48). Train is "'offscreen,' outside the image, and at the same time in the image ... as if the voice were wandering along the surface, at once inside and outside, seeking a place to settle" (Chion, Voice 23). As an acousmetre, his power derives, in part, from having, "even if only slightly, ... one foot in the image, in the space of the film; he haunts the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage nor the proscenium" (Chion, Voice 24). This is exactly what Train, functioning in voiceover as an acousmetre, does--he haunts the borderlands of the film. In doing so, he possesses powers far greater than those of the film's main diegetic characters, fulfilling what Chung describes as one of the key roles of the acousmetre: he opens "a liminal space in the filmic text that evokes the simultaneous existence of other temporal and spatial planes" (107). As an acousmatic presence, Train provides "additional knowledge [that] not only deepens the spectator's understanding of the characters beyond the personas constructed by their words and actions, but ... also broadens the scope of our experience beyond the events that transpire onscreen, both temporally and spatially" (Chung 110).

We agree with Steven Rybin's argument that Malick's poetic cinema strives, just like his characters, to imagine--in Heidegger's terms, to "world a world"--and that one of its goals is one that Heidegger envisioned for artworks, which is "not to settle questions of Being for us, but to open up those questions" ("Voicing Meaning" 25), and we think that Train's acousmatic voiceovers in The Thin Red Line provide one of those openings, provoking questions about how to be rather than offering settled or definitive understandings. As Millington suggests, just noticing the strangeness of Train's voiceovers "should demand an admission of uncertainty" from viewers (33), and recognizing the difference between the film's first and second speakers (Train and Witt) is a signal to viewers "to pay close attention to this ambiguous system of reference" (33). Millington laments, as we do, that "few investigate the ambiguity as an integrated device of the film's content" (33). We see Train's voiceovers as establishing a more distinct point of view even than Millington gives them credit for--one that enframes, enters into, and comments upon the narrative. If, as Chion says, "an entire story, an entire film can ... hang on the epiphany of the acousmetre" (Voice 23), recognizing Train as the source of many of The Thin Red Line's voiceovers is more important than previously has been discussed. His voiceovers constitute an unusual type of pasttense narration from a character whose way of experiencing the world transforms from that of a deeply scared young soldier during the time of the events shown on the screen to that of a mature being who enacts, at some later time, a much different way of experiencing the world. As an integrating film device, Train's voiceovers have, as McLeod points out, a destabilising effect (74) that prompts viewers to engage in a similar experience of asking questions and embodying multiple points of view. Chion, speaking of the acousmetre's powers, says that "[bjeing in the screen and not, wandering the surface of the screen without entering it, the acousmetre brings disequilibrium and tension. He invites the viewer to go see ..." (Voice 24). Train's voiceovers disturb our horizons, our ways of viewing film, and invite us to "go see," to consider what's wrong with war and with ordinary responses to war that unsuccessfully try to evade war's encompassing and destructive power. Train's voiceovers help to establish The Thin Red Line as an anti-war film that suggests that the way to redeem ourselves from the destruction we create through war is to change our way of being--our way of participating in the world. After all, the film's answer to Train's question "Who's killin' us?" is "We are." Rather than capitulating to or remaining enmeshed within a worldview that is dominated by military power, we must try something else--to look at the world through a different lens. That lens is Train's--it's his perspective, whispered intimately to us throughout the film, that we are invited to share, enter into, try on. He embodies (even more than he tells us about) a way of thinking and being that has the potential to make a new, and better, world.


We thank John Dee Smith, Phil Harrison, and the anonymous readers for their contributions, and we express our gratitude to Professor Charles Maland at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for his insightful comments on previous drafts.


(1) We will discuss "horizon" more directly later in this article.

(2) In "Critical Voices: Points of View in and on The Thin Red Line," Jeremy Millington provides a review of the varying interpretations of the main characters' voice-overs, noting that many critics have not considered them as separate from one another (29-31). We argue that the voiceovers of Tall, Witt, Bell, Staros, Chaplin (and others, such as Doll) are quite distinctly theirs and are always unified with an image of their character.

(3) By noting the relative straight forwardness of the relationship between the main characters and their voiceovers, we do not intend to diminish the complexity of the film's other narrative, stylistic, and thematic elements.

(4) The following is a list of Private Train's eight voiceovers. Throughout, all time references are to the Criterion edition of the film.

1 MINUTE 58 SECONDS: "What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?"

31 MINUTES 3 SECONDS: "Who are you to live in all these many forms? You're death that captures all. You, too, are the source of all that's gonna be born. You're glory ... mercy ... peace ... truth. You give calm a spirit ... understanding ... courage. The contented heart."

1 HOUR 50 MINUTES 43 SECONDS: "This great evil ... where's 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? Robbin' us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might have 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?"

2 HOURS 2 MINUTES 3 SECONDS: "Hours like months, days like years. Walked into the golden age ... stood on the shores of a new world."

2 HOURS 6 MINUTES 9 SECONDS: "Can't nothin' make you forget it. Each time you start from scratch. War don't ennoble men. Turns 'em into dogs. Poisons the soul."

2 HOURS 17 MINUTES 4 SECONDS: "We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart ... so that now we're turned against each other ... each standing in the other's light? How'd we lose the good that was given us ... let it slip away, scattered, careless? What's keepin' us from reach-in 'out ... touchin' the glory?"

2 HOURS 23 MINUTES 24 SECONDS: "One man looks at a dyin' bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain ... that death's got the final word. It's laughin' at him. Another man sees that same bird ... feels the glory. Feels somethin' smilin' through it."

2 HOURS 41 MINUTES 11 SECONDS: "Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workin's of one mind, the features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made--all things shinin'."

(5) In Harrison's analysis, words in capitals indicate a word class, while words in double quotation marks are examples of words from the speakers.

(6) Train appears in character seven times during the film:

17 Minutes 49 Seconds: Gazing out to sea on deck of the ship transporting the troops to Guadalcanal

20 Minutes 19 Seconds: Nervously talking below deck to Sergeant Welsh

2 Hours 2 Minutes 38 Seconds: Yelling at other soldiers in a truck during leave

2 Hours 39 Minutes 32 Seconds: Walking in a procession of soldiers past a graveyard on the way to the ship to leave the island

2 Hours 40 Minutes 34 Seconds: Talking to Private Carni on deck of the departing ship

2 Hours 41 Minutes 47 Seconds: Standing amongst other soldiers on deck

2 Hours 41 Minutes 57 Seconds: Standing silently beside Sergeant Welsh on deck

(7) Interestingly, a brief image of Private Train looking at the graveyard appears as Welsh says, "A glance from your eyes...." Later, in voiceover, Train states, "Look out through my eyes.."


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--. "What Are Poets For?" Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 87-139.

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Caption: Private Bell steadies himself for battle by imagining his wife and wishing her to "Be with me now."

Caption: In the second of his eight voiceovers, Train asks, "Who are you to live in all these many forms?"

Caption: Bemused, Sergeant Welsh asks a scared Private Train, "What's your name, kid?"

Caption: The moment of de-acousmatization: the diegetic character of Private Train is linked visually and aurally to his ethereal voiceover.

Caption: Colonel Tall sits isolated, alienated, and empty following the battle.

Caption: Strangely, Private Witt pours water over the frond of a plant.


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Author:Stivers, Clint; Benson, Kirsten F.
Publication:Post Script
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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