DAYS OF HEAVEN

 (Terrence Malick, USA, 1978) 95 minutes

DAYS OF HEAVEN

Director: Terrence Malick
Producers: Jacob Brackman, Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Photography: Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler
Editor: Billy Weber
Music: Ennio Morricone, Camille Saint-Saens
Richard Gere (Bill)
Brooke Adams (Abby)
Linda Manz (Linda)
Sam Shepard (Farmer)
Robert J Wilke (Farm Foreman)
Jackie Shultis (Linda's Friend)
Stuart Margolis (Mill Foreman)

Reviews and notes

The first thing to be said is that DAYS OF HEAVEN is a work of great visual eloquence, virtually a celebration of cinema, using the screen as a painter uses a canvas. From the beginning one is enraptured by the very look of it, and remains so through to the end. Indeed, the visual strength of the film is what lures us to take a deeper interest in the characters than otherwise we might; for while DAYS OF HEAVEN, like its director's previous film Badlands, merges its aesthetic values with character study and social observation, the people under consideration in the present case have nothing like the instant dramatic charge of the compulsive young murderer in the former. Yet through the power of the images themselves, strong thematic elements impinge, and human virtues and weaknesses are examined, especially the tugs of desire and of avarice and the inevitable workings of conscience, along with the abiding sovereignty of the earth.

This director, Terrence Malick, has written his own screenplay, as he did for Badlands. Again he exhibits a profound sense of Americana, but expands it so that the movie takes on a universality. The passions and tribulations that are shown can be recognised anywhere. Couple this talent with his vibrant sense of cinema and you have a director who must rate among the finest of the new American bunch that has emerged in recent years. This was already evident from Badlands. which took the films and filming award as the best film of 1974. DAYS OF HEAVEN not only reinforces that impression but enhances it to such a degree that, if one balances his less than prolific output alongside the considerable if variable achievements of the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, one begins to wonder if he is not the best of the lot.

Where Badlands related its strange central figure's behaviour to the society from which he sprang in the late 1950s and early 1960s, DAYS OF HEAVEN delves further back in time, to 1916. It treats lives dominated by fate, the human frailty overwhelmed at last, and the future shaped by the onslaughts of a plague of locusts and a ferocious fire, and by America's entry into the First World War. Leading up to this fatalistic triple-pronged conclusion, the narrative concerns migrant workers, Bill (Richard Gere), Abby, his girl (Brooke Adams) and Linda his young sister (Linda Manz), who journey from Chicago to the Texas Panhandle where they toil in the wheat fields.

By way of a change from so many socially-conscious studies, DAYS OF HEAVEN eschews a leftish bias by arousing much consideration for the employer, a wealthy farmer portrayed, interestingly, by the playwright Sam Shepard (author of The Tooth of Crime). When Bill learns that the farmer is said to be dying, he urges Abby to entice this potential goldmine to marry her, an operation that gives her no trouble at all; however, Bill's idea that he and Abby should later share the farmer's money is complicated by the fact that Abby herself falls in love with her husband, and that he doesn't die as soon as had been anticipated. The contrivance of this plot is well disguised by the aforementioned splendour of the visual form. It is elevated, moreover, by the apocalyptic power of the threefold climax.

The central figure of Bill is by no means entirely sympathetic (although he is a good deal more so than Kit, who was intelligently played by Martin Sheen in Badlands). Yet Bill's sins of greed and expediency, and his jealousy over the ironic outcome of his machinations, are readily understood; and the character is personably inhabited by Richard Gere (who was so good in the Richard Brooks movie of Looking for Mr Goodbar and is also in Robert Mulligan's Bloodbrothers and John Schlesinger's forthcoming Yanks). The cast altogether is a fine one, and especial credit is due to young Linda Manz, a schoolgirl new to cinema, who endows the role of Linda with an unsentimental credibility, her vision of the days of Heaven shading into a worldly wisdom that comes with grim experience. For her, as for Sissy Spacek's fifteen-year-old Holly in Badlands, Malick has written, with manifest care, a simplistic off-screen narration which is outdone in poetic appeal by the pictures he sets before us, yet Linda Manz delivers the words tellingly.

DAYS OF HEAVEN, for all its American redolence, reminds one stylistically of a European film, not least on account of the potent contributions of Italy's Ennio Morricone, whose score is a magnificent match for the images, and Nestor Almendros, whose cinematography has distinguished a number of French movies. The consistency and power of the visuals in DAYS OF HEAVEN, however, must indubitably stem from Malick's concept and control, since the style remains the same even through Almendros, departing to fulfil another engagement, handed over before shooting was completed to Haskell Wexler.

Long after one leaves the cinema, these images haunt the mind's eye.

The roar of furnace flames in the Chicago steel mill, from which Bill retreats at the beginning, is replaced by the sun-gilded wheat fields, rippling in welcome but calling for renewed hard work. The train, a vivid silhouette, that carries the workers from city to country, gives a lift to the heart, which proves deceptive, but even so there is much beauty in what follows to fortify young Linda's beguilement: landscapes beneath sunlight or snow; the plucking of a chicken or the labouring for harvest, the green foliage and the brown trunks of trees; the farmer's grand Victorian house whose Gothic bulk, bold against the sky, is a cross between the dwellings occupied by Jane Fonda in Comes a Horseman and Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

The arrival of the locusts, overpowering in longshot and compelling in close detail, survives and arguably overcomes comparison with the cinema's outstanding earlier exercise in this vein, in Sidney Franklin's The Good Earth (1937): as a token of fate, or even of God's wrath, it makes an awesome spectacle - as does the fire which follows. Fire, clearly, is a thing of poetic terror for Malick, and his conflagration here outdoes the fearful splendour of the burning of the house of Holly's father (Warren Oates) in Badlands. Locations in Alberta, serving to represent 1916 Texas, have proved invaluable.

We have waited a long time to see how Terrence Malick would follow the idiosyncratic richness of Badlands: the answer, at last, is no disappointment, for DAYS OF HEAVEN is in total richer and rarer, a movie to see more than once, and one that must take its place, consequentially, in the history of world cinema.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, June 1979

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