Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle. Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.
Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character. The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight. Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest. Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer. To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer. When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune. He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses. All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious. With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.
Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make. For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget. Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue. Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew. Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation. In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments. To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room. When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.
Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us. It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm. Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness. For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer. It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved. Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax. It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.
Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven. He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically. Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot. Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments. The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film. Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven. This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.
The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative. The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out. This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close. It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning. Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked. Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process. All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill. Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.
Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham. The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films. For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven– especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master. The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later. Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem. Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions. Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion. As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time. I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.