The ability to observe films retrospectively is, in my opinion, a very useful tool. If I was to view Days of Heaven in 1978, I would have had no clue as to what the future for its director Terrence Malick beheld. However, I do know what happened to him. After making Days of Heaven in 1978, only his second feature film, Malick went into hiatus for twenty years, until the release of his war drama The Thin Red Line in 1998. I like to think that Days of Heaven drained every drop of filmmaking ability out of Malick, and he had to spend the next twenty years trying to find something that he didn’t already say or show in Days of Heaven.
This is such an assured film from a director who, as time has told, has proven himself to be one of the greatest visual stylists in the history of cinema. It evokes a beguiling, trancelike mood wherein the story is told not through plot or dialogue, but rather by the tools that make film a unique art form – cinematography, sound and editing. Days of Heaven is a film of striking visual beauty. It washes over you until you are left in mystified awe.
In 1916, steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees to rural Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who masquerades as Bill’s sister, and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) after killing his boss in a fit of rage. The three work the Texan harvest with hundreds of other labourers, until the wealthy wheat farmer (Sam Shepard) falls in love with Abby. Believing the farmer to be terminally ill, Bill encourages Abby to marry the farmer in order to inherit his wealth, but all the while the love triangle intensifies.
It is impossible to write about Days of Heaven without first mentioning its visual magnificence. I recently had the opportunity to see Days of Heaven on the big screen, and the imagery is breathtakingly powerful. On the big screen, the visuals not only create an aura of awe that overwhelms everything that’s clouding your mind; on the big screen, you’re able to study every minute detail of Nestor Almendros’ Academy Award winning cinematography.
The film is overflowing with extraordinary panoramic shots of the bucolic landscape, emphasising the warm, muted colours of the layered land, sky and clouds. The film’s iconic use of shadow is coupled with Malick’s decision to shoot as much as possible in the ‘magic hour’, or dusk, when the natural colours of pink, yellow and orange are on display without any manipulation. There are constant images of the wind whistling through the wheat; of the shadowy farmhands bagging the wheat; of trains and carts travelling through the setting sun. While, undoubtedly, the length of these shots affords the film a very slow pace, the sheer beauty and detail of the images ensures that, even if each shot was an hour in length, your captivation would never waver.
What characterises Days of Heaven is its masterful juxtaposition of the grand and the minute. For all the sweeping long-shots, there are almost as many extreme close-ups of locusts and wheat. We see this mirrored in the naïve voice-over narration of Linda. Despite the film’s large scale, the permeating voice of a child throughout the film means that the grandiose imagery is not cold and distancing, unlike, say, a Stanley Kubrick film, but rather is intimate and personal. What Malick does so brilliantly in Days of Heaven is synthesise the grandiose sensory themes with the personal narrative so that they feed off each other, and neither is more important than the other. Linda’s narration feeds off the visuals, as she is a surrogate for the audience: we too are strangers amidst the harsh beauty of this landscape. But the visuals feed off Linda’s narration as well, filling every frame with a sincere emotional core.
Linda is more than just our portal into this world; she is the only character who we can unequivocally sympathise with. Though character is clearly secondary to the film’s visual grandeur, it is an important element in forming the complete masterpiece that is Days of Heaven. Though positioned as the antagonist, and is undoubtedly awkward and sleazy, Sam Shepard’s farmer is a sickly man who shouldn’t really be manipulated by Bill and Abby in the way that he is. Though positioned as our hero, Richard Gere’s Bill is someone whose taciturn, unhinged nature – as well as the moral suggestibility seen when he forces Abby to marry the farmer – is hard to sympathise with, though his ambition and undying affection for those close to him overwhelms his dubious characteristics.
Days of Heaven is an allegory told exactly how an allegory should be told. Bill’s aspiration for a better life allegorises the American Dream, but this ambition, this dream, drives him to drastic measures. The film itself is a dream, with perfect images that are somewhat detached from reality, serving not so much as a sensory overload but more of a sensory enticement. Ennio Morricone’s score wilts and wanders when the characters slowly roam the field in a trancelike state, but jangles with excitement whenever the characters are on the move. It complements the film’s oscillating pace perfectly.
Though not as ambitious as Malick’s later films – insofar as Malick is not trying to explore the origins of the universe and the ‘human condition’ like in The Tree of Life – Days of Heaven established him as one of the most important filmmakers ever. Above all else, it exemplifies the power of images to tell a story, and if that’s not what cinema is about, then I’m not sure what is. Days of Heaven will blow you away, leaving you speechless as you try to understand how so much beauty could be encapsulated in just a single film.