Days Of Heaven is a 1978 film by director Terrence Malick that, in a way, typifies his small oeuvre (which also includes Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) even as it stands alone and apart (and many critics would add above) from the others. There is no doubt that the film is great. The only real question is: just how great a film is it? Merely great, or one of those works for the pantheon? Is it a work of the cinematic art form that transcends that art form and becomes one of the great works of art, period? Is it one of those works that becomes one of the great achievements of the species? I say yes to both of the last two questions, even though I will state that it is not Malick’s greatest film; The Thin Red Line is.
Days Of Heaven is an indisputable masterpiece, and one of the few sound era films that could have worked in the silent era as that desideratum of cineastes, a work of ‘pure cinema’ (along with 2001 & Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr). Written by Malick, alone, it is also a film that exemplifies a great narrative or plot, but done in a wholly different way. In this way. although wholly different in scope and approach, it resembles Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. The film was lensed by cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, and won an Oscar for cinematography that year; while the sumptuous yet apt musical scoring was done by Ennio Morricone. But, more than anything else, this film is visionary - not in the grand sense of a 2001, but in the sense that no other artist could have done a film like this. The plot is pushed along by two major modes - the first being the cinematography, wherein natural shots and shots of human beings among the landscapes evokes the best of the old Hudson School painters of the 19th Century, most notably Frederic Edwin Church. The second tack is narration, done in a seemingly tangential offhand way by the young girl who is the emotional center of the film, Linda (Linda Manz). While Malick’s use of narration has become the stuff of legend, what is noticeable here is how off-the-cuff and unpretentiously it is here deployed. There is a poesy of the real, however, and one of the most valuable assets that The Criterion Collection DVD’s audio commentary details is how Malick did not script the voiceover, but rather let the young actress (a waif literally off the mean streets of New York) watch scenes she’d acted in, and then express back to the director what it was she thought was going on with the characters in the scene. From over 60 hours of such commentary by the actress, Malick used about 15-20 minutes’ worth in the film. Things such as this explain why Malick won the Best Director award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, for only great artists challenge themselves to find new modes of expression in older arts, and subsequently channel that challenge to their audience, without fear of abandonment, and in hopes of expansion of that audience
The tale, itself, is very basic: set in the years just before America’s entry into World War One, mostly 1916 (according to a newspaper article), a laborer named Bill (Richard Gere) flees from Chicago when he accidentally kills his boss (Stuart Margolin) during an argument at the steel mill where he works. He takes his little sister Linda, and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and they hightail it on a freight train down to the Texas Panhandle, to do migrant wheat fieldwork. Abby and Bill pretend to be siblings, as to not arouse suspicions of indecency, and are soon hired on at a ranch owned by a rich young farmer (Sam Shepard) - who remains nameless throughout the film, and who has a terminal illness of some sort. Ever the grifter, Bill encourages Abby to allow the Farmer to court and marry her so that they can share in his riches when the farmer dies. The farmer’s old foreman (Robert Wilke), however, is wise to the scam, but is sent away by the farmer for doubting the motives and loyalty of Abby, after they have married. Eventually friction occurs between the two men, when the farmer suspects Bill of unhealthy feelings for his "sister."
Naturally, in a film like this, the what that happens is not as important as the how. And this makes all the difference, as nothing I could describe to the viewer could resonate as deeply as what is seen. There are numerous camera shots that establish mood (most notably the famed "magic hour" landscapes, and scenes wherein words are not spoken, but glances tell the tale. There are great scenes - such as when locusts swarm the fields, and when a fire breaks out at night as Bill and the farmer fight. The audio commentary by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden, lends great insight into how these scenes were achieved without special effects, and with some danger. The locusts were really peanuts shells tossed from a helicopter, as the actors walked backward, to give the effect that the shells/locusts were rising upward, and the fire scenes were not as well-controlled as thought. Also, there is quite a revelation as to the extent that Malick changed the film in two years of postproduction, cutting much filmed dialogue, and replacing it with the Manz narration. Another bit of trivia is that John Travolta was the initial choice for the role of Bill, but the ABC television network would not let him out of his contract for the series Welcome Back, Kotter.
There are a few other nice features on The Criterion Collection DVD. There are interviews with cinematographer Haskell Wexler and cameraman John Bailey, and an interview with Richard Gere, plus a booklet that has an essay on the film by film critic Adrian Martin, containing rather rote observations that many others have made before, and a piece from the autobiography of cinematographer Nestor Almendros that deals with the film. The 95-minute film is shown in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and is superb. There is one puzzling oddity in the Criterion release vis-à-vis an earlier 1999 Paramount Pictures DVD version of the film, and that is the lack of the original theatrical trailer that the Paramount release included.
Of course, given the high and truly transcendent quality of the film, it is little wonder that few critics praised it upon its release, and even those who appreciated the film still did not fundamentally get it. As an example of the former claim, I give you the stolid Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker, who wrote that 'the film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on." Of the latter claim I give you the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, who in re-reviewing the film decades later, wrote, "We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her (Linda’s) passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end." This is an excellent observation that explains why much of the film’s ‘passion’ seems to be missing, considering the center of the story seems to be a love triangle, that oldest of motifs. This is because the whole film is Linda’s tale, and she was not directly involved. But, just as one feels that Ebert may have gotten a grasp of the film, he shows his readers that his insight was just another case of a hundred darts being tossed blindfoldedly, with one lucky sucker hitting the bull’s-eye, for he later writes: "This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again - and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt." Well, no. The reason the film is constructed the way it is, is not because it is emotion-based, as Ebert and a plethora of lesser critics claim (despite writing of the claim in a convincing way - the man did win a Pulitzer for his wordsmithing, after all), but because it has a fantastic screenplay, constructed in postproduction, which chooses a very unique narrative form, one based upon inferences and implications (they are different beasts) and told through emotional snippets. It is not because emotion has replaced narrative, but emotion has been tamed to a narrative tool, along with a purely visual anecdoture cribbed from the silent era.
In this way, as in 2001, Days Of Heaven does not prove that a great film can succeed without any story, but shows the essential need for a great story to make great cinema. Malick simply went beyond the scope of most critics’ rudimentary understanding of what a narrative looks like and how it should be conveyed, in emotive threads or in silent fenestration of images. Add to that the revolutionary use of voiceover to act as both tangential relief and ironic commentary, and, even were the acting mediocre (it is not, for it is truly acting when dialogue is superfluous) or the camerawork pedestrian (it is not), the film would be great anyway. But given the quality of all the other elements, Malick’s daring makes this film one for the ages. Perhaps our descendants will feel for it (and the film that conveys it to them) the way Linda feels for an anomic friend she reacquaints with at film’s end, when she opines, in a Huckleberry Finn sort of way, "This girl, she didn’t know where she was goin’ or what she was goin’ to do. She didn’t have no money on her. Maybe she’d meet up with a character. I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine." Here’s hopin’.