Terrence Malick’s “Days Of Heaven” (1978)

Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best Director)

Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2007

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2007

Many films lay claim to the honor of “The Most Beautiful Motion Picture Ever Made”, but the fact of the matter is that only a scant few are truly worthy of this superlative status. To my mind, the pinnacle of cinematic beauty is a draw between two iconic films: Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975) and Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).  There’s a good reason why I can’t decide between the two, and it owes mostly to the observation that they share an impeccably sumptuous visual style despite their immediate differences.  Both films were produced in the heyday of the auteur-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970’s, and made evocative use of new stylistic techniques as well as radical innovations in film craft.  Both tell a relatively small story on an epic scale, elevating the respective plights of a shameless social climber and a deceitful farmhand into the realm of myth.  Even in their differences, the two films complement each other quite harmoniously: BARRY LYNDON’s stately and cynical portrait of an ineffectual elite class and the European Old World balances against DAYS OF HEAVEN’s majestic romanticism of The New World and the endless bounty availed of those willing to work hard for it.  If push were to come to shove, however, my personal opinion is that DAYS OF HEAVEN wins out over Kubrick’s masterpiece as far as cinematic beauty is concerned.  As the film’s fortieth anniversary rapidly approaches, it’s clear that DAYS OF HEAVEN continues to inspire and influence emerging filmmakers all over the world (myself included)– the cinematic equivalent of a beautiful, enigmatic flower still in bloom, revealing itself anew which each viewing.

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One of the biggest challenge facing any burgeoning director working within the long-form narrative space is the sophomore feature, especially if the director’s debut film was well-received.  If the second film succeeds, then the path forward becomes clearer and more open.  If it doesn’t, then that path can become a confusing maze that could take years to navigate– that is, assuming one is able to even emerge in the first place.  The troubled creative process for DAYS OF HEAVEN is well-documented, suggesting that Malick routinely flirted with professional and artistic disaster during the making of his second feature film.  In the end, however, his unique artistic worldview pulled him back from the brink to deliver a film that would go on to become one of the shining beacons of 1970’s American cinema.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a film like DAYS OF HEAVEN being made within the studio system today; it is undeniably a product of its time– a time when ambitious auteurs drove the course of the industry and made intensely personal works that challenged our most fundamental notions of what a movie could be.   

One of the most prominent personalities in this scene was producer Bert Schneider, the co-founder of BBS.  BBS essentially spearheaded the New Hollywood zeitgeist, producing groundbreaking independent films like Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969) and Bob Rafelson’s FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), amongst others.  Malick’s 1973 debut with BADLANDS made a big impression on Schneider, and he reportedly sought out Malick in Cuba to discuss the director’s idea for the project that would ultimately become DAYS OF HEAVEN.  Schneider’s producing clout would prove instrumental, setting up DAYS OF HEAVEN with a sweet deal at Paramount that gave the filmmakers $3 million in financing and complete creative freedom (4).  This early achievement is all the more impressive considering the historical context in which it happened.  The auteur-driven era of filmmaking wouldn’t completely collapse for another few years, when Michael Cimino’s outlandishly expensive HEAVEN’S GATE opened in 1980 and performed so poorly that it forced its studio, United Artists, into bankruptcy.  However, studios in the mid-70’s were already evidencing signs of a shift away from artistic excess, bringing in a growing pool of network television executives who pursued the sort of middle-brow fare that routinely blared from the small screen.  Schneider’s involvement was prestigious enough that Paramount was willing to go for broke on a young, relatively untested director’s sweeping vision, but even then this came at a high cost– Schneider would have to personally answer for any cost or time overruns.  Nevertheless, Bert and his producing partner/brother Harold Schneider had faith in Malick, and in short order, the creative team had boots on the ground in Alberta, Canada– an idyllic, pastoral landscape of sprawling wheat fields and low-sloping hills that, knowingly or not, they would soon make iconic.  

DAYS OF HEAVEN is set on the eve of the First World War, opening in the smoky industrial centers of Chicago to find a poor worker bee named Bill (Richard Gere) killing his employer after a particularly bitter argument, the details of which are obscured by the deafening clang of the surrounding machinery.  Rather than face justice for his crime of heated passion, he runs away instead, hopping a train with his quietly-elegant girlfriend and tomboyish kid sister.  They whisk themselves away to the foreign landscape of the Texas Panhandle, where they quickly find work as farmhands for a wealthy local farmer, posing as brother and sisters so as to throw off any would-be pursuers.  When the terminally-ill farmer, played by the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard in one of his most classic and compelling performances, expresses a romantic interest in Bill’s girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), she and Bill hatch a conniving scheme to marry her off to the Farmer in the expectation that he’ll die soon and leave his sizable fortune to her.  As the central pair of deceitful lovers, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are confronted with the unenviable challenge of preserving a baseline of likability despite their craven misdeeds.  Malick had already walked this line rather well with Martin Sheen’s murderous James Dean-wannabe in BADLANDS, and manages to direct Gere and Adams to similar effect here.  Like Sheen and Sissy Spacek before them, Gere and Adams were relative unknown when they joined Malick’s cast– DAYS OF HEAVEN was technically Gere’s first role in a motion picture, but the film’s delayed release would find the actor already well-known from his breakout performance in a subsequent project, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.  Gere’s natural charisma and good looks allow him to quite literally get away with murder in the eyes of the audience; indeed, Malick refuses to judge the moral character of either Bill or his earthier accomplice, Abby.  Their criminal calculations read as hungry passion, and their murderous offenses play instead as defense.  They are simply, like so many of the other weathered, faceless forms that populate the farmer’s wheat fields, trying to play the bum hand that life has dealt them.  As the runaway trio ingratiate themselves deeper into the lap of rustic luxury and the farmer’s good graces, the farmer ironically finds his health improving.  The more time passes, the more reckless Bill and Abby grow in their concealment of the true nature of their relationship from The Farmer.  The Farmer inevitably becomes suspicious, and thus the stage is set for a slow-burning confrontation with irrevocable consequences for not just all involved, but also for the romantic era of the agrarian frontier itself.  

Like BADLANDS before it, the production of DAYS OF HEAVEN was a rocky, arduous slog marked by severe creative frustrations, Malick’s complete devotion to the fickle whims of nature, and a rebellious crew unaccustomed to their director’s unorthodox style of shooting (2).  Indeed, Malick’s insistence on the integrity of his vision was so total that he inevitably ran afoul of his own producers, forcing Bert Schneider into multiple confrontations about cost overruns and missed deadlines that put the cost-conscious producer in the loathsome position of having to ask Paramount for more money (5).  Stories abound about vaguely-specified call sheets that left each day’s work up to total improvisation, or wasting days of valuable shooting time waiting for the weather to provide an elusively-exact quality of light.  At one point, Malick was so disappointed with the footage he’d obtained that he threw out his carefully-crafted script altogether, and started shooting untold miles of film with which to find the story in post-production (5).  This was a desperate move, to be sure, but also an extremely formative experience whose ultimate success encouraged him to adopt the technique in later works as part of his routine creative process.  

Whereas BADLANDS’ production woes centered around a revolving door of cinematographers, DAYS OF HEAVEN finds Malick benefiting from a collaboration with two sympathetic cinematographers who were willing to indulge in his artistic whims.  After seeing Nestor Almendros’ camera work in Francois Trauffaut’s 1970 film, WILD CHILD, Malick wanted to hire the seasoned cinematographer so badly that he willingly contended with the fact that Almendors was actually going blind (2) (3).  This arguably makes the film’s visual accomplishments all the more staggering– in a sublime moment of technical harmony with Malick’s fascination with the beauty of  life’s ephemerality, DAYS OF HEAVEN’s luminous, unforgettable images reveal themselves as the creative product of a degenerating eye, quickly losing its ability to absorb the light so crucial to capturing these fleeting moments on film.  Malick had intended to shoot the entire picture with Almendros, but found himself caught in a situation of his own making, with the numerous shooting delays causing Almendros to depart fifty days into the production and fulfill a prior obligation to shoot Truffaut’s upcoming project, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN.  His uncredited replacement was maverick independent filmmaker Haskell Wexler, at this point perhaps best known for his incendiary countercultural rallying cry of a film, MEDIUM COOL (1968).  After observing Almendros’ technique for a week, Wexler subsequently took over for the final weeks of shooting, generating so much footage that he would later claim as much as half of the finished film as his handiwork.  It speaks volumes towards Wexler and Almendros’ professionalism and creative commitment to their director that the finished product is virtually seamless in its visual cohesion.  It also speaks magnitudes about the strength and consistency of Malick’s vision for the film as a whole, which drew major influence from the iconic paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth (2) in the conveyance of a world both profoundly entwined in, and yet entirely removed, from time.  One of the film’s centerpiece images is that of the Farmer’s imposing Victorian mansion, sitting alone amidst an endless wheat field– an image ripped straight from the canvas of Hopper’s “The House By The Railroad”.  Most films of the era would have built only the facade of the house and captured it from a limited number of angles, but Malick’s returning art director Jack Fisk built a whole house, inside and out, for Malick to move freely through and capture to film as he pleased (2).  The surreal image of the lone house rising from the sprawling, flat horizon echoes the Farmer’s own social isolation from an increasingly-modern world, and immediately projects a mythical stature upon Malick’s vision.

Indeed, DAYS OF HEAVEN plays as something of a creation myth, leaning heavily into majestic compositions, monumentally-minded camerawork and even biblical iconography to become a poetic allegory for Man’s remaking of the natural world in our image via the transformative innovations of the Industrial Revolution and the larger anthropological sweep of the twentieth century.  To achieve this mythic tone without falling prey to delusions of grandeur, Malick and company looked to the model of silent films, emphasizing pictures over dialogue and harnessing the power of natural light to expose the 35mm film image.  Much like it did during the actual time and place the filmmakers were depicting, natural sunlight served as the chief lighting source throughout the production of DAYS OF HEAVEN.  With the exception of most interior and nighttime sequences, the filmmakers pushed the use of natural light well beyond their established limits.  The decision to expose most of the film with the intention of gaining an additional stop or two via push processing enabled Malick to capture usable images even after the sun had sunk below the horizon, exposing only off of the ambient glow of twilight during that short window of shooting time fondly known as “magic hour”.  At the risk of adding nothing new or valuable to the endless heaps of writings about DAYS OF HEAVEN’s innovations in magic hour photography, Malick makes extremely effective use of the technique’s dim, golden glow at every possible juncture.  As such, nearly every frame of DAYS OF HEAVEN is bathed in a romantic, sepia-tinged aura that perfectly evokes the film’s aspirations as a new kind of American myth as well as a nostalgic snapshot of an era now lost to the ravages of time.  Malick casts his actors as stark silhouettes against the bright landscape, using a variety of classical formalist camera movements to project a sweeping scope.  Befitting his New Hollywood roots, Malick also incorporates newer techniques like emotionally-immediate handheld photography and rock-steady tracking shots that go where no crane or dolly dare to tread (thanks to the fluid mobility of the Panaglide rig, a contemporaneous competitor to the Steadicam).  While it’s a common refrain in industry circles that Oscar wins are political and don’t always go to the most-deserving party, it’s very difficult to argue that the Academy got it wrong when it bestowed the Oscar for Best Cinematography to Almendros.  Indeed, Almendros and Wexler’s cinematic innovations have only grown more beautiful with age, having gifted the medium with several unforgettable images that continue to shape and influence the art form today.

While DAYS OF HEAVEN’s cinematography is rightfully celebrated, one would be remiss not to mention the profound effect that Billy Weber’s edit or Ennio Morricone’s score had in shaping the presentation of these timeless shots.  After his uncredited services on Malick’s BADLANDS, Weber gets a proper cutting credit on DAYS OF HEAVEN— one that he most definitely earned.  The post-production process for DAYS OF HEAVEN was almost as arduous and complicated as its shoot, stretching on for nearly two years while Malick and Weber labored to make narrative sense of the mountains of unscripted footage the director had acquired in the wake of his decision to toss the script altogether (1).  Most filmmakers would grow utterly discouraged, if not throw their hands up and quit  altogether, to learn that their footage could not be assembled in any manner resembling the shooting script– but Malick was not most filmmakers.  A complete, radical reworking of Malick’s original vision was needed if disaster was to be avoided, but this moment of realization wasn’t just a creative opportunity; it was an artistic Big Bang that marked the genesis of Malick’s defining aesthetic as a film director.  The influence of the French New Wave is pivotal in this regard, with Malick’s resulting style sharing a strong similarity to the evocative reflections on memory that French director Alain Resnais brought to his groundbreaking works, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959) and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).  Both films are marked by a ruminative, introspective voiceover that doesn’t as much narrate the plot as it does communicate the story’s interior themes.  Like he did on BADLANDS, Malick turned to the conventions of voiceover as a way to string along a series of disparate images onto a single thread of meaning, giving DAYS OF HEAVEN a narrative form punctuated by ellipses– in other words, fleeting moments instead of fleshed out scenes with a beginning, middle, and end.  DAYS OF HEAVEN follows BADLANDS’ precedent of adopting an oblique perspective for its narration, delivering folksy, off-the-cuff commentary on the larger cosmic plight of the films’ respective leads as they observe from the sidelines.  DAYS OF HEAVEN’s voiceover is delivered by Linda Manz in character as Bill’s rough-around-the-edges kid sister.  Manz’ words feel natural and unplanned because they are precisely that– improvised in the recording studio over the course of untold hours in the hopes of capturing unpolished nuggets of profound observation (4).  This proved to be the key in breaking Malick’s editorial logjam, enabling him with the confidence to jettison almost all of the film’s recorded dialogue, reducing a substantial number of scenes down to their central idea or purpose with just a single line, an evocative cutaway, and a lingering, atmospheric master shot.  Morricone, the Italian composer best known for his innovative work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, cements the elliptic, mythical vibe of DAYS OF HEAVEN with a quietly majestic orchestral score.  The moody, romantic theme seemingly inverts the melody of Camille Saint-Seans’ iconic classical work, “Carnival Of The Animals”, which Malick uses for the film’s opening titles.  Beyond simply giving the film a musical cohesion and uniformity, this approach further echoes the stunning vistas seen throughout the film in a manner that several critics and scholars have described as a mirroring effect; the musical equivalent of the land reflecting the sky above it and vice versa, with the horizon line bisecting Malick’s 1.78:1 frame into two complementary, yet opposing planes.  

Beyond a shared mythic tone that often blurs the line between history and fairy tale, DAYS OF HEAVEN builds upon the core thematic conceits that Malick introduced in BADLANDS, thus cementing them as key signatures of his artistic identity.  The director’s fascination with the clash between industrial and agrarian lifestyles is never more immediate than it is in DAYS OF HEAVEN, which initially presents an industrial cityscape as a veritable hell full of fire, brimstone, and the endless, deafening clang of machinery.  Bill and company’s subsequent escape to the pastoral fields of the Texas Panhandle, then, is depicted not as self-imposed exile but as cleansing refuge– a chance to start over and reinvent oneself in an untouched paradise.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time until “the city” finds them, personified by the likes of a traveling circus troupe or the police.  Malick also uses the increasing mechanization of the Farmer’s equipment to reinforce this idea of the impersonal urban forcefully intruding on the intimate pastoral.  As DAYS OF HEAVEN unspools, the farm’s workers labor with only their hands and raw, literal horse power,  and end by manning gigantic, terrifying machines that plunder the landscape.  One of the film’s most memorable images can be found during a dramatic wildfire sequence, with animals scattering for their lives as a lumbering mechanical behemoth emerges unscathed from behind a wall of flame– a fitting visual metaphor for the industrial realm’s wanton disregard for nature that becomes all the more curious considering the man driving the vehicle in that shot is supposedly Malick himself.  In this light, Malick’s frequent use of atmospheric cutaways– usually of serene landscapes or members of the animal kingdom– become so much more than a practical way to hide the chaotic discontinuity of his shooting style; they actively enhance and reinforce his artistic exploration of civilization’s fundamental disharmony with nature.  

Despite this profound disconnect between Man and the natural world, Malick nevertheless uses the language and iconography of spirituality and religion to illustrate a shared desire for harmony.  Malick’s lingering cutaways and frequent use of magic hour photography go a long way towards communicating his characters’ longing to be one with their environment, but he also employs rather overt religious symbolism towards this end– be it the devastating, godly wrath of a massive wildfire, a plague of locusts ripped straight out of the pages of the Old Testament, or even the murderous Cain & Abel dynamic shared between Bill and the Farmer as they tangle for the affections of Abby.  Indeed, if one were to try and succinctly sum up the unifying conceit of Malick’s entire filmography to date, the phrase “Paradise Lost” just might do the trick.  His protagonists are exiles from a psychological Garden of Eden, even while they often traverse landscapes that could be described as a literal paradise in and of themselves.  One gets the distinct impression of a thematic loss of innocence when watching Malick’s work– BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN both adopt an evocative fairy-tale tonality in telling similar stories of lovers on the run.  DAYS OF HEAVEN even echoes BADLANDS’ particular narrative structure, like orienting its perspective to that of a young girl losing her childlike sense of innocence when confronted with mankind’s effortless capability for sin.  There’s even a similar sequence shared between the two films where a makeshift hideaway in the wilderness gets ambushed by the authorities– an image not entirely dissimilar to angry parents stomping into their children’s treehouse to enact some righteous discipline.  

Still other ideas and images connect DAYS OF HEAVEN to BADLANDS as companion pieces indicative of Malick’s first wave of film work.  Quaint Victorian architecture can be glimpsed in both films, be it DAYS OF HEAVEN’s iconic mansion all alone amidst the endless fields or the rich man’s house in which BADLANDS’ protagonists take brief refuge during their time on the lam.  Considering that Sissy Spacek’s character in BADLANDS begins her own journey of lost innocence in a small Victorian home, one could make the argument that Malick views this particular type of architecture as emblematic of a simpler, more romantic time that’s been lost to the rapid and rapacious modernization of the twentieth century.  DAYS OF HEAVEN also continues Malick’s inspired use of music as a form of commentary on the story, made manifest in the sequences of laborers playing and dancing to energetic folk music during their off hours.  There’s a strict separation between Morricone’s romantic score and the diegetic music sequences, naturally, but there’s a further division in the latter category: one that mostly falls along a racial line separating country folk music and early blues or ragtime that reinforces Malick’s larger exploration of the clash between agrarian and urban lifestyles.  

Despite its troubled production and overlong editorial process, DAYS OF HEAVEN finally debuted in 1978 to a glowing critical reception.  Its run at the Cannes Film Festival proved particularly fruitful, with Malick’s first nomination for the prestigious Palm d’Or and a well-deserved win for Best Director.  Despite a fair share of detractors, many critics were quick to praise its aesthetic beauty and unconventional, yet evocative narrative style, with some even going so far as to call the film an outright masterpiece.  These plaudits did not translate to box office success, however– the film was written off as a commercial failure after barely breaking even.  Despite its inability to perform financially, DAYS OF HEAVEN nevertheless continued to steam ahead off the momentum of its critical praise, benefiting from the art-friendly atmosphere of the industry in the late 70’s.  A slew of Oscar nominations followed to complement Almendros’ aforementioned win, highlighting DAYS OF HEAVEN’s technical achievements in the score, costume design and sound categories.  Time has only bolstered those early reviews proclaiming DAYS OF HEAVEN a bonafide masterpiece, with Malick’s second feature now universally regarded as a capstone of 70’s cinema– itself arguably being the capstone to a century of American cinema in general.  Watching DAYS OF HEAVEN today, it becomes clear that the film marks a pivotal point in Malick’s development as a filmmaker– an end, as well as a beginning.  It’s the end of his early period, to be sure, but it’s also the beginning of a fully-formed artistic voice that would remain consistent through his subsequent pictures over the ensuing decades.  

The critical success of DAYS OF HEAVEN positioned Malick for optimal circumstances in the event of a follow-up.  Thanks to the enthusiastic reception of an early cut screened for studio executives, he had been set up at Paramount with a one-of-a-kind deal to do whatever he wanted.  For a while, he would develop an ambitious project about life, death, and the cosmos that he called Q, which eventually made its way to the screen in the form of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE as well as 2016’s VOYAGE OF TIME.  In 1978, however, Malick found himself burned out by the process of making DAYS OF HEAVEN in addition to his 1976 divorce from his first wife, Jill Jakes.  Indeed, he was so exhausted, he decided to abandon Q altogether and move to Paris with a girlfriend (5), presumably giving up on a promising film career before it had truly begun.  Malick would fall absent from cinema for the next twenty years, with his extended hiatus and artistic silence slowly cultivating an air of mystery around him that eventually took on the same sort of mythic tone that marked his films.  

DAYS OF HEAVEN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.

Credits:

Produced by: Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider

Written by: Terrence Malick

Director of Photography: Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler (uncredited)

Art Director: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Billy Weber

Music by: Ennio Morricone

References:

  • “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” by Adrian Martin.  Printed in 2007 by The Criterion Collection
  • “Shooting Days of Heaven” by Nestor Almendros.  Printed in 2007 by The Criterion Collection
  • IMDB Trivia Page