Similarities in Terrence Malick's Films: An Iconography, Part I

Days of Heaven
The Thin Red Line

By Angela Havel and Aaron Snyder and T. Oates
Edited by T. Oates

In all Terrence Malick's films--Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line--similar images, symbols and themes recur. Havel, concentrating on Badlands and Days of Heaven, and Snyder and Oates, concentrating on The Thin Red Line, have identified these similarities in Malick's films in the list below, which is arranged in alphabetical order. The authors welcome comments via email. Angela Havel can be reached at and Aaron Snyder can be reached at

Ed's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part list. Part 2 can be accessed by clicking here.

Image Badlands Days of Heaven The Thin Red Line
  • A helicopter locates Kit on the prairie as his killing spree nears its end.
  • A plane takes Kit back to South Dakota to be executed.
  • The traveling circus troupe arrives on a plane.
  • The same plane takes Bill away from the farm for a time.
  • Japanese Zeroes buzz over the American troops as they approach Guadalcanal in the landing craft boats.
  • Staros leaves the island on an airplane, and the camera tracks its departure as Staros reflects upon his soldiers being "his sons."
  • There's a close-up of a bird figurine sitting in Holly's doll house that topples and burns during the fire.
  • A bird cage is seen in Holly's house.
  • A chicken is caged at Kit and Holly's campsite.
  • Holly tells Kit, "One of the chickens died" at the campsite.
  • High in a tree, Kit drops down to Holly what appears to be a bird nest at the campsite.
  • Kit makes a bird call as a warning to Holly when he sees the law approaching their campsite.
  • Kit gives a live chicken to Cato.
  • Before leaving the campsite, Kit throws down the bird cage, saying, "We don't need this."
  • A bird flies along the horizon in the scene immediately following Bill looking at a buffalo herd.
  • Wild turkey and quail are in the wheat field during the harvest.
  • Linda plucks a dead chicken during a meal break in field.
  • Linda and Abby follow small group of exotic birds in pasture.
  • A small group of ducks is at the Farmer's.
  • A small group of gulls lands in the Farmer's field.
  • A flock of blackbirds flies overhead in a shot immediately before the wedding.
  • A quail in grass is shown after the wedding.
  • A flock of geese flies over pond at the Farmer's before a thunderstorm.
  • The Farmer makes a bird call while hunting birds.
  • Bill and the Farmer hunt and clean pheasants.
  • There are many bird cries during fire in wheat field.
  • Three peacocks in silhouette when Linda says in voice over, "I think the devil was on the farm."
  • A heron is seen after the fire at the Farmer's.
  • Linda mentions that she hears owls "squawking away" during her time on the raft.
  • Two small birds are caged in the flashback scene of Witt's mother dying.
  • A male-female pair of parrots is seen during the voice over, "Who are you that lives in these many forms?"
  • A bird startles Dale during the assault on Hill 210.
  • A baby parrot crawls on the ground in the middle of a battle scene.
  • The Japanese officer who speaks to Dale in Japanese sees birds, possibly vultures, as he's about to die.
  • An empty bird cage is seen in the abandoned house where Witt and Welsh have their last conversation.
  • One of the very last shots of the film shows two parrots.
  • Kit walks among cattle at the feedlot where he works, and stands on a dead cow in one shot.
  • Bill observes a herd of buffalo at the Farmer's.
  • The film opens with shot of Holly sitting on bed with her dog.
  • A dead dog lies by a trash can near the beginning of the film (and Kit tells Cato, "I'll give you a dollar to eat this Collie").
  • Kit throws a ball to another dog he sees on his garbage route.
  • Holly's dad shoots her dog.
  • The man at the junkyard where Kit throws his keys in the barrel of oil tells Kit, "I've got my dog" when Kit threatens to fight him.
  • Holly sees a dog while she's out walking in the rich man's yard.
  • Dogs are shown swimming with people in the pond near the Farmer's house.
  • There's a dog running by a farm worker in one scene.
  • A dog follows the Farmer and Abby as they leave in a car for their honeymoon.
  • A dog plays in the snow with Abby and Linda.
  • A dog runs beside the Farmer in a scene during the locust invasion.
  • Bill says at one point to Linda: "I saved your life today. I killed a shit-eatin' dog."
  • When the American patrol boat first appears (prompting AWOL soldiers Witt and Hoke to run away), Melanesian children are seen running along the beach with a dog.
  • A dog, possibly a mastiff, accompanies the American soldiers while the company is having their break off the line.
  • Dogs can be seen eating the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers in one scene.
  • A character says in voice over,"War don't enoble men; it turns them into dogs."
  • Holly throws out a sick fish into a watermelon patch.
  • Kit tries to catch fish in the stream by their camp; he shoots into the stream twice, presumably at fish.
  • The opening credits music is "Aquarium", part of "Carnival of the Animals" by Saint-Saens.
  • A fish swims by the wine glass under water during Abby and Bill's midnight tryst scene.
  • Bill holds a fish up and says, "I got a three-pound carp" when he, Abby and Linda are on the boat fleeing the law.
  • Live shellfish squirm in a child's palms near the beginning of the film.
  • A naked boy who walks out of the sea carries a fishing pole.
  • Holly says at one point she "grew to love the forest...the hum of the dragonflies."
  • There are several close-up shots of grasshoppers before the grasshopper plague descends on the farm.
  • While Linda says in voice over, "I could be a mud doctor, checking out the ground underneath," there's a close-up shot of a locust on a leaf.
  • A blue butterfly crosses the screen as the first conflict between the Americans and Japanese on Hill 210 erupts.
  • When Witt is finally surrounded by the Japanese soldiers and the Japanese officer is speaking to him, white butterflies fly above the grass in the background.
  • An iguana on bare dirt is shown during Kit and Holly's flight.
  • A rabbit is in the wheat field; horses have snow on their backs as Bill and Abby try to sleep in a haystack; otters in river; a coyote is in the midnight tryst scene; a goat is in a campfire scene by the river; an elk in a field; pictures in a book of a tiger, caribou, elephant, and a huge snake.
  • Additionally, Linda uses animal references: "He [Bill] was tired of nosin' around like a pig in the gutter;" "He [the Farmer] didn't really go around squawking about it [impending death]."
  • A crocodile descends into duckweed-covered water in the very first shot of the film; a snake menaces American soldiers lying on their abdomens; a crocodile (possibly the same crocodile as in the opening shot) is tied up with ropes by the American soldiers and Queen beats it; fruitbats are shown when Witt holds Coombs in the river; an iguana gazes at Witt and Coombs in the river.
  • Before the wheat harvest, a priest reads from Psalm 90:4: "For a thousand days are but as yesterday when it is past."
  • Biblical verse is read at Abby's and the Farmer's wedding: "As you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed..."
  • The film's plot is similar to the Book of Ruth.
  • The film's title is from Deuteronomy 11:21.
  • Private Train has a Biblical chapter/verse reference tattooed on his arm: I John 4:4.
  • A boat appears outlined in rocks on the Farmer's pasture.
  • Bill, Abby, and Linda depart the Farmer's on a small boat.
  • Bill looks for several seconds at a man standing in a boat before he is shot and killed.
  • Witt is first seen paddling a canoe.
  • A beached boat is seen on the island.
  • Witt and Hoke are plucked out of their AWOL bliss after they spot an American patrol boat.
  • Welsh and Witt's first conversation takes place in the brig of a transport ship.
  • The American soldiers land on Guadalcanal by boat.
  • One of the very last shots of the film shows Melanesians in two canoes.
  • Holly's voice over: "Kit made me get my books from school so I wouldn't fall behind" as they leave town after Kit kills Holly's father.
  • Holly reads to Kit from the short story "Kon-Tiki" by Thor Heyerdahl.
  • Kit silently reads a National Geographic magazine while at the campsite.
  • Holly says that a train traveling in the distance looks like a caravan from The Adventures of Marco Polo.
  • Kit empties the contents of a suitcase into a gas station dumpster but retains a book, right before he's captured.
  • Linda looks at a book containing pictures of animals.
  • A soldier aboard the transport ship reads en route to Guadalcanal.
  • Tall refers to reading "The Iliad" in Greek at West Point.
  • While at a juncture in their flight, Kit spins a bottle to see where he and Holly should go.
  • Bill tells Abby, "See this bottle? I'm going to break it" during their midnight tryst. He swigs from a bottle of wine later in the sequence.
  • During their break off the line, the American soldiers drink liquor straight from the bottle.
  • Fired commanding officer Staros gives away bottles of liquor when he says goodbye to his men.
  • A suspension bridge is shown at the end of the river in one shot.
  • Holly's dad throws her dead dog off a bridge.
  • The train carrying Bill, Abby and Linda away from the city travels across a high suspension bridge near the beginning of film.
  • Teenaged narrator Holly behaves as a child in some ways and keeps dolls and a dollhouse.
  • Children are shown being led away from a school by a police officer in the documentary-style footage of the manhunt for Kit.
  • A baby is seen during a lunch break out in the field.
  • Children play in pond at Farmer's.
  • The film's narrator Linda is a young child.
  • Melanesian children playing with rocks and using rocks to break open nuts are the first humans shown onscreen.
  • Witt and Hoke play games with the children.
  • A Melanesian child cups wriggling crustaceans in his hands.
  • Melanesian boys swim underwater while Witt is seen in a canoe and later when he's treading water.
  • A young girl embraces Witt's mother when his mother dies in a flashback scene.
  • A young boy (possibly young Witt) watches an older man bale hay in Witt's flashback.
  • During the battle for Hill 210, Staros sees his soldiers dying and says in voice over, "Children," before defying Tall's order to sacrifice more of his men.
  • When Witt gets a break off the line, he visits a Melanesian village and extends his hand to a Melanesian boy, who refuses it.
  • After Witt dies, he's shown swimming underwater with Melanesian children,including the one who earlier refused to take his hand.
  • Kit and Holly are both shown smoking at various times.
  • Kit buries a pack of Camel cigarettes and other items in a bucket so he can retrieve them later.
  • Bill, Abby, and Linda are all shown smoking cigarettes. Notably, the Farmer is never shown smoking.
  • Tall and Quintard smoke cigarettes.
  • Gaff tells Dale to put a cigarette up his nose after Dale complains about the smell of corpses.
The Proletarians
  • Kit is a garbage collector. Later he works at a feedlot.
  • Kit sighs dejectedly as a clerical worker asks him what work he's qualified for, then answers: "Can't think of any at the moment." He sighs again when the clerk says he has feedlot work for him. It appears Kit feels belittled by this work, yet he's forced to take it.
  • Before leaving the rich man's house, Kit gives him a list of things he says he's "borrowed." By not simply seizing the items, Kit indicates he doesn't want to be thought of as a common thief, that he's aware of his low class position and wants to be thought of as better than that.
  • Bill and Abby work in the factory at the beginning of the film. Linda makes paper flowers, presumably for sale.
  • Bill, Abby and Linda become migrant labourers and work as field hands on the Farmer's land.
  • Linda says of Bill that he was "tired of nosing around like a pig in the gutter."
  • Linda says in voice over, "some people got more than they need, others need more than they got, it's just a matter of getting us all together."
  • Abby tells Linda that she used to wrap cigars all day, that she never saw the daylight.
  • Many of the soldiers come from a working-class background: Witt's family works on a farm. Train's (rather modest) ambition in life is to own an automobile and mentions that he's slept in a chicken coop.
  • The foot soldiers--Witt, Bell, Train, Ash, Tills--are from the poorer South.
The Bourgeois
  • The rich man in the mansion where Kit and Holly hide out for a few hours represents the other half, presumably whom Kit wishes he was (notice how he confidently speaks while recording himself, spouting aphorisms into the dictaphone at the rich man's house, as if being surrounded by wealth (even if "borrowed") has given him the right to be "heard." Contrast this with his hesitant, hastily-worded "suicide note" he records in the squalid bus station phonograph booth. Also note the respect Kit shows the rich man by not killing him.
  • The Farmer is wealthy (he is said by his accountant to be likely "the richest man in the Panhandle") and is the impetus for Bill and Abby's slide into deception and death.
  • The commanding officers are from the upper-class: Tall is educated in Greek at Westpoint and Staros was a lawyer in peacetime.
  • Carl Orff's "Musica Poetica;" Erik Satie's "Trois Poivres en Morceau."
  • Saint-Saens' "The Aquarium."
  • Arvo Part's "Annum Per Annum;" Gabriel Faure's "Requiem In Paradisum;" Arsenije Jovanovic's "The Prophecy from the Village of Kremnus;" Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question."
  • Malick uses a low horizon in his sky shots. The sky and cloud-filled skies, sometimes gray and threatening rain, make up three-quarters of the frame in many shots, including:
    • when Kit sends up the red balloon;
    • when Kit approaches Holly's dad while he paints a sign;
    • when Kit and Holly drive away from their home in the woods after Kit kills the bounty hunters (notably, the skies are gray);
    • a huge pink thunderhead is shown following the distinctive shot of Kit standing with his arms slung out over his rifle.
  • Clouds fill the frame in the dawn shot as Kit and Holly near Montana (and Kit exclaims "God, what a sight!").
  • Clouds and sky are also prominent when:
    • Kit shoots the helicopter police officer;
    • Kit stands on his car after deciding to surrender;
    • Kit is at the airport.
  • The final shot of the film is made up entirely of an airplane-window view of clouds, with the sun setting behind them.
  • Again, clouds and sky take up large portions of many shots, although none of the characters notice their beauty as Kit does in Badlands. Standouts include: when the train moves across the suspension bridge (shows puffy popcorn-like clouds in the sky, which take up at least two-thirds of the screen); shots during wheat harvest (especially the threshing scenes) feature a lot of sky and clouds; the shot of the sky over the pond at the Farmer's before Abby and Bill decide to deceive the Farmer features clouds that are dark and foreboding; a sunset shot includes clouds, on the river when Bill, Abby and Linda are on their flight to freedom.
  • Tall talks to Staros about the "eos rhododactylos," or rosy-fingered dawn, a Homeric reference.
  • Bead looks at the sky through the tree leaves before he dies.
  • Planes in the sky bomb the Japanese bunker on Hill 210.
  • The Japanese officer who tells Dale "Some day you too will die" looks at the sky before he dies.
  • Holly has a white lace tablecloth or shawl draped over her head as she leaves the rich man's house, recalling her voice over near the beginning of the film, when she says Kit dreamed of her coming towards him dressed in white.
  • Most characters wear black and/or dark colored clothing throughout the film (even the extras), although common sense dictates that farm workers in the hot sun would wear light colors to reflect the sun/heat. This may signify that black as a clothing color was a stylistic decision on Malick's part. The exception to the predominant use of black clothes is Bill's light-colored duster coat, Abby's wedding dress, and a few white or light-colored outfits she wears during her time as the Farmer's wife.
  • Holly makes a crystal glass "sing" at the rich man's house.
  • Bill sees two crystal glasses on a table in the rich man's house.
  • Bill and Abby drink from crystal glasses during their midnight tryst.
  • There's a shot of a glass underwater at the end of the tryst scene.
  • Kit and Holly dance to "Love is Strange" and to "A Blossom Fell."
  • Abby dances with the Farmer at the end-of-harvest celebration.
  • She dances for the Farmer right before he tells her he thinks he's in love with her.
  • Abby is dancing to piano music inside the Farmer's house when Bill returns.
  • Linda dances on a wooden plank, then cedes the "floor" to the middle-aged male dancer.
  • Girls are dancing at the boarding school in which Abby enrolls Linda.
  • Jack's voice over "We, we flow together like water" accompanies the flashback of him and Marty appearing to dance while kneeling on the top of their bed.
  • Kit, in describing killing Holly's father, says "he was provoking me when I popped him, and that's what it was like. Pop."
  • Holly says at one point about Kit, "At times I wished he'd fall in the river and drown, so I could watch."
  • Holly muses about her own mortality by saying, "I was just this girl who had only so many years to live."
  • She tells the rich man, "I never told him [Kit] to kill anyone."
  • While riding the train, Linda talks about the apocalypse and says, "People are going to be screamin' and hollerin'."
  • Bill tells Abby, "We're all going to be gone in a couple of years. Who's gonna care that we acted perfect?"(trying to persuade her to agree to marry the Farmer).
  • Linda says in voice over, "Sometimes I feel very old, like I'm not around anymore."
  • Witt tells Keck, "You'll be alright, even if you die. You didn't let your brother down."
  • The Japanese officer tells Dale, "Someday you too will die."
  • A total of eight people positively (or probably) die in this film (nine if you count Kit himself, whom Holly tells us is eventually electrocuted): Holly's dad, three bounty hunters, Cato, the two teenagers, and the person sent by helicopter to capture Kit (Kit fires at him and we see him fall).
  • Notable are slow deaths:
    the dying fish Holly throws into the watermelon patch is still breathing; after Holly's dad shoots her dog, its chest still moves, implying that the dog did not die quickly; Holly's dad does not die instantaneously; Cato dies slowly and "existentially" (he doesn't pray, he doesn't show emotion--death doesn't seem to matter much to him. It's as if he's entered a realm where he's beyond caring as his looking at himself without expression in a mirror graphically portrays.).
  • Bill, Abby and Linda flee the city after Bill injures and possibly kills the factory foreman.
  • The Farmer dies slowly after being stabbed by Bill.
  • Bill is shot by the police and dies quickly.
    Unsurprisingly in a war film, many people are shown dying, including:
  • All twelve of McCron's squad die, causing McCron to go insane; Dale shoots a Japanese prisoner of war in the back; Witt dies after luring the Japanese away from his company.
  • Notable slow deaths include: Witt's mother, who dies calmly in Witt's flashback; Tella, who is disemboweled and to whom Welsh delivers morphine after Tella's medic is shot dead; Bead, who dies with Fife and Staros at his side; Keck, who dies after pulling the wrong pin on the grenade; possibly the wounded Coombs, whom Witt floats downriver near the end of the film.
  • While at their campsite, Holly says in voice over, Kit said if the devil came at me I could shoot him with a gun."
  • During the traveling troupe's performance at the farm, Linda's voice over mentions the devil "sitting there laughing...he's glad when people does bad, then he sends them to the snake house". A few moments later she says, "I think the devil was on the farm."
  • Holly says in voice over that Kit dreamed about her coming towards him in white robes (during a shot of Kit laying awake in his bed).
  • Holly says, "I wish I could fall asleep and be taken to some magical land, and none of this [Kit's killing people] would've happened."
  • Linda says in voice over, "Sometimes the wheat field talked to me...they'd go in my dreams."
  • Both Bill and Abby wish/dream of a better life for themselves (he tells her "it's not always going to be like this" at the beginning of film, and later talks about moving to New York, where they can get "set up").
  • Holly eats some unidentifiable food out of a paper bag while she and Kit walk down the sidewalk.
  • As Holly's father paints a large roadside sign, Kit eats a peach while he tells the father how he cares about her.
  • Kit eats an apple while reading a National Geographic magazine.
  • The Farmer takes a bite out of an apple when he first surveys the newly-arrived harvest crew.
  • The harvest crew are served lunch out in the field (when Bill throws two plates of food on another worker).
  • The Farmer, Bill, Abby, and Linda eat a meal in the gazebo, which ends with Bill and Linda's food fight.
  • Melanesian children use rocks to break open nuts.
  • Melanesian mother and child cook.
  • Dogs are shown eating dead soldiers' bodies.
  • Staros eats with a fork.
  • Bell and Fife eat rice, papaya and mystery meat as Bell says, "I haven't touched a woman in months."
  • Holly lives with her father until his death and mentions her mother twice (how she died, and she says in voice over, "I wonder where'd I'd be right now if my mother had never died").
  • Bill and Linda are brother and sister.
  • Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister.
  • Family portraits hang in the Farmer's house.
  • Abby tells Linda about her lack of family--being "all alone in the world" when she was a child.
  • The Farm Foreman tells Bill, "he's [the Farmer] like a son to me."
  • A Melanesian mother and child cook; a father plays with a child as Witt looks on.
  • Witt's first words are, "I remember my mother when she was dying."
  • Staros in voice over says, "You [his men] are my sons."
  • The voice over when Witt visits the village that shuns him states, "We were all a family. How'd we come apart?"
  • New commanding officer Bosche at the end of the film tells the men the company is a family and, "I am the father. Guess that makes Sergeant Welsh the mother. Father is head, mother runs it."
  • Holly
  • Linda
  • Marty
(see also HOMMES FATALE)
  • Kit kills Holly's dad so he (Kit) can be with her.
  • Holly says to the rich man, "They say I have him [Kit] wrapped around my little finger..."
  • Mistaking Abby's farewell kiss to Bill as evidence of an ongoing affair, the Farmer attempts to kill Bill but is fatally stabbed by Bill instead.
  • After running away with Abby and Linda, Bill is pursued by the law and shot dead.
  • Abby is last seen boarding a train filled with soldiers going off to war.
  • Bell spends most of his time flashing back to he and Marty embracing. He motivates himself to do courageous deeds like scout the enemy's position on top of Hill 210 after remembering Marty wearing a sundress. After she ends their marriage, he is only shown once after that, expressing his fear to Lt. Band about being killed by the Japanese.
  • Kit sets Holly's house on fire, after which there's a long sequence showing the house and its contents burning.
    Fire appears:
  • in the mill foundry at the beginning,
  • at a camp when Bill tells Linda he killed a dog and that he's always looking out for her,
  • as a bonfire at end-of-harvest celebration,
  • in the wheat field, where buckets of locusts are thrown,
  • when the Farmer's crops are set ablaze,
  • residual scattered fires in field the morning following the burning of the wheat field,
  • on the river bank when Linda, Bill and Abby are fleeing on the boat
  • In voice over, Witt thinks that everyone's looking for salvation like "coals taken from the fire."
  • The American soldiers burn the Japanese camp. A close-up reveals a statue of Buddha and an orchid among the things in the Japanese camp that are set afire. Later, the jungle is ablaze.
  • The Japanese set fire to the American camp off the line.
  • Kit turns back as if to fight the man who tells him he's fired from his garbage collecting job, but doesn't fight.
  • Bill attacks the mill foreman; later he attacks a field hand at the Farmer's who asks him if Abby "keeps him warm at night."
  • There is a fistfight between Fife and another soldier during their break off the line.
  • A Texas state flag flies near the Farmer's house.
  • A white flag flies on the truck bringing in farmhands.
  • A red flag goes up pole at start of locust plague.
  • An American flag flies atop the patrol ship.
  • Kit and Holly.
  • Bill, Abby and Linda flee the city after Bill maims/kills the factory foreman. Later they flee the farm after Bill kills the Farmer.
  • Witt and Hoke, the AWOL soldiers, take refuge with some generous Melanesian villagers at the beginning of the film.
  • During the wedding of The Farmer and Abby, the priest says "Bless O Lord this ring, that he who gives it and she who wears it may abide in thy peace."
  • Pvt. Train says, "there are only two things permanent--dyin' and the lord."
  • Witt refers to his mother's death as "going back to God."
  • McCron leads his men in prayer as they're in the landing craft en route to the island.
  • McCron screams apparently to God, "Why? Why did you take all of them, while I can stand here with not one bullet? Not one bullet?!"
  • Staros prays to god to preserve his men before taking the Japanese bunker.
  • James Taylor's "Migration" plays as Kit's car is shown in a long shot being driven across a field.
  • Leo Kottke's "Enderlin" plays as the train comes into view about halfway through the film, signalling the coming of the harvest crew.
  • Francesco Lupica's"Sit Back and Relax" plays at the beginning of the conflict on Hill 210, when Whyte is shot dead.
  • Kit carries a pistol in his belt when he enters Holly's house to take her away (this is also the first time we see him with a gun).
  • He runs with a rifle in his hand at the camp site.
  • He sleeps with a pistol in the tree house (interestingly, it is aimed at Holly).
  • He shoots a pistol into the river, presumably at fish.
  • He holds a rifle propped behind his head, with his arms akimbo slung up around it, while looking at the horizon.
  • He holds a rifle while he throws a tantrum after killing Cato and stashing the body in a shed.
  • Both Bill and the Farmer hunt birds with guns.
  • The Farmer goes after Bill with a pistol when he mistakenly thinks that Bill and Abby are still having an affair.
  • Both American and Japanese soldiers carry rifles.
  • Doll steals a pistol while in the transport to the island.
  • Doll later uses that pistol to fire at the Japanese in their bunker.
  • The Japanese at the top of Hill 210 have a machine gun trained down below.

Go to Part 2

Revised January 27, 2001

Back to the main Terrence Malick page

Email me!