One of the most visually attractive moodily haunting American films ever made, “Days of Heaven,” a follow-up to the brilliant “Badlands,” demonstrated that Terrence Malick is a major talent to watch, that he is a poet of cinema rather than a storyteller.
Unfortunately, it would take Malick two more decades to make his next feature, the poetic WWII film, “The Thin Red Line” (1998), which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Set in the pre-industrial revolution of America of the early 1900s, “Days of Heaven” chronicles the life of a rootless migrant laborer, Bill (Richard Gere), his little sister, Linda (Linda Manz), and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), as they flee the industrial blight of the city for the harsh, sanctuary of the Heartland.
When the impulsive and hot-tempered Bill kills a steel mill foreman in anger, the three jump a train and head for the plains of Texas, where they join many homeless immigrants looking for work.
Their journey brings them to the land of wealthy, self-made wheat man farmer (Sam Shepard, then better known as a playwright), who offers them employment during the harvest. An enigmatic, if also kind and appealing man, the farmer lives alone in a huge Victorian mansion, but he is slowly dying from some illness. Watching Abby works in the fields, he not only falls for her, but also sees private salvation in making her his “queen.”
Bill learns of the farmer’s illness and, reasoning that the powerful farmer will be dead soon, pretends to be Abby’s brother, thereby allowing the farmer to marry her. For a while after the marriage, the four live together in what could be described as a ménage a quatre, forming a bizarre extended family, one that exists in a state of grace and false happiness/ Then tragedy strikes when Bill kills the farmer.
Like “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” is narrated in a quirky way by a young girl (here the terrific Linda Manz doing what Sissy Spacek did in “Badlands”). And like that 1974 picture, the new one is also defined by a moody, elegiac narrative and the kind of pictorial beauty seldom seen on the American screen.
Rumor has it that Malick had deliberately set out to create the best-looking picture ever made. To a large extent he succeeds, with the help of ace Cuban lenser Nestor Almendros, who shot many scenes at the “magic hour,” that is, just after sunset. Other astonishingly pretty scenes were filmed with natural lighting, attesting to Malick’s perfectionism and attention to detail.
Like all great films, ”Days of Heaven” is at once particular and universal in its story and themes. Though grounded in a specific time and place in American history, the movie bears strong mythic, allegorical, and even biblical meanings. The text is ambiguous and open enough to allow for various readings by its viewers.
The most impressive sequences in the film are dialogue-free, and certain images (such as that of harvest) will linger in your memory long after the movie is over.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Cinematography (Nestor Almendros)
Sound: John K. Wilkinson, Robert W. Glass, John T. Reitz, Barry Thomas
Score (Original): Ennio Morricone
Costume design: Patricia Norris
Oscar Awards: 1
The sound award went to “The Deer Hunter,” which swept most of the 1978 Oscars. Giorgio Moroder won the score Oscar for the thriller “Midnight Express.” Brit Anthony Powell won the costume award for his work on the all-star Agatha Christie thriller, “Death on the Nile.”
Nestor Almendros had directed a number of documentaries during the Castro era. When he moved to Paris, he shot films by Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut. He died of AIDS in 1992.