Days of Heaven (1978)

2009-05-15 16:57
Days of Heaven

"The sky at twilight, painted all tones of orange, purple and blue. The wind gently rustles through the fields as the labourers return from a day of work."

This description is typical of a scene out of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It can be said that many films of the post-modern era are complicated when it comes to plotline, character development, the representation of time and technology. By contrast, this classic is slow moving, elegant and sparse - telling a graphic story that is a powerful progression through an inner and outer landscape.

Notwithstanding the clear, strong narrative that blends the interaction of characters with the insightful and frank commentary of a young girl, much of the story of this beautiful film is told through striking visual and aural imagery. The passage of the seasons, the landscapes kissed by golden light, the passing of storms together with the bleak snows of winter blend with the sound of the swishing aerial generator and the grumbling of summer thunder.

Released in 1978 and winning an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Days of Heaven is the story of three migrant workers, Bill (Richard Gere), Abby (Brooke Adams) and Linda (Linda Manz). Set at the turn of the 20th century, these three characters find seasonal work with a shy, rich farmer (Sam Shepard) in the Texas Panhandle. Linda is Bill’s teenage sister and Abby his lover but they keep this fact hidden from the other workers. The farmer falls in love with Abby. When Bill hears that the farmer is ill and is going to die soon, he encourages Abby to marry him so that they can inherit his fortune.

The story is told mainly through the extraordinary visuals and enigmatic narration by Linda. A trademark of Terrence Malick is his use of voice-over narration. As the narrator is often a character in the story, this device draws the viewer into her inner world. Linda’s commentary is quirky and thought provoking and reveals a wisdom beyond her years. In her rather laconic and colloquial tone, she offers insights and observations to colour and grow the story, offering a window to an otherwise unseen psyche. 

The dialogue, as such, is minimal. It's body language, physical interactions and unspoken words that grant insight and understanding into the narrative. As in Malick's 1998 World War 2 opus The Thin Red Line, the relationship between the characters and the natural world is paramount. The ebb and flow of the story is mirrored in the transformation of the landscape, with relationships taking strain during the bleak mid winter, and spring bringing the promise of new life and opportunity.

A vivid scene that illustrates how nature heightens awareness of the human condition involves a locust swarm and the subsequent fire to fend them off. As locusts begin to invade not only the fields but also the farm house, we see how growth and hard work is eaten and stripped away by the invaders. When a fire is started soon after the swarm, the haunting and evocative images of flames signal even further destruction. At the same time, this disaster echoes the personal relationships that are rapidly fracturing.                                                               

Maximum effort has been put into making the right lighting choices for each and every shot. Most of the scenes were filmed specifically in a time the filmmakers called 'the magic hour'. As cinematographer Néstor Almendros puts it, "It is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it. Throughout the film, the sky with its cloud patterns and pastel colours is a prominent feature, evoking rich, various moods."

Days of Heaven may not be the easiest film to watch in a 21st century context that has been pervaded by fast cars, hot babes and rip roaring technology. But if we hold true to the idea of film as an art form then Days of Heaven is an absolute masterpiece. It is an opportunity to surrender to the power of sensory storytelling and be spellbound. As the film’s tagline so succinctly puts it: "Your eyes... Your ears... Your senses... will be overwhelmed."

A bit of trivia:

•    According to casting director Dianne Crittenden, director Terrence Malick originally wanted John Travolta to play Bill because he felt Travolta had a blue collar attitude appropriate for the role. Travolta reportedly turned down the role because scheduling would have been too difficult given his commitment to the television show, Welcome Back, Kotter. Malick eventually cast Richard Gere, who was a great admirer of Badlands and eager to work with Malick.
•    Malick won the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director award) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
•    The film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
•    It was also nominated for Academy Awards for Costume Design, Original Score, and Sound.
•    Days of Heaven was Malick’s second film. He did not direct another one for twenty years. His World War 2 epic The Thin Red Line followed in 1998.

Memorable quotes:

Linda [voice-over]: "I'm been thinkin' what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor, checkin' out the earth underneath."

Bill: I never wanted to fall in love with you.
Abby: Nobody asked you to.
Bill: A minute ago, you said I was irresistible. I still am.
Abby: Your hair's still the same.

Bill: One day, you wake up, you find you're not the smartest guy in the world. You're never gonna come up with the big score. When I was growin' up, I thought I really would.

Linda [voice-over]: Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just got half-devil and half-angel in ya. She promised herself she'd lead a good life from now on. She blamed it all on herself... She didn't care if she was happy or not. She just wanted to make up for what she did wrong...

Linda [voice-over]: 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.
Elegant, sparse, yet powerful, Terrence Malick’s pastoral romance lives up to its tagline, "Your eyes... Your ears... Your senses... will be overwhelmed".

Jimmy Lithgow 2009/05/17 9:43 AM
I'm thrilled you chose "Days Of Heaven" to review, as it's always been on my personal 10 Best Movies of All Time list. As you so rightly say, a masterpiece, which should serve as an object lesson for all young filmamkers in creating mood through images and music (mostly Saint Saens). Fortunately, I have a treasured DVD copy.
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