Cornerhouse Chief Projectionist Garry Watson reviews Days of Heaven
Arriving a mere five years after his violent but mesmerising debut feature Badlands, Terrence Malick’s astonishingly beautiful Days Of Heaven earned the reclusive film maker a best director award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
Set in the Texas Panhandle of 1916 (though shot in Canada) this slightly plotted tale of love and deceit in a rural working community was photographed by the great Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (though Almendros alone received the Academy Award that year ).
The cinematography is ravishing to behold. Shot almost exclusively during ’magic hour’ (the last moments of evening sunlight), an authentic atmosphere pervades. Nature and landscape are vividly captured alongside the encroaching presence of industry and machinery. There’s a great cast too. Brooke Adams, Richard Gere (his screen debut) and Sam Sheperd are all superb. Not forgetting Linda Manz as the young narrator (where is she now?). Days of Heaven is completed by a wonderful score by Morricone – really, what more could you want?
We had to wait 20 years for Malick’s next film The Thin Red Line, and the recently released Tree of Life continues to polarize audiences. I love both of those films but Days of Heaven remains definitive and is a key film of the 1970s.
Cornerhouse Front of House Manager Marshall Trower recommends Days of Heaven
“And one day you wake up, you find you’re not the smartest guy in the world…”
The quote above comes from Richard Gere’s character Bill, and for me it underlines the central theme of Terrence Malick’s second film Days of Heaven, which is to understand your place in the wider world and to know that you’re not central to it. As with any Malick film, I was left wondering if the characters’ emotions and problems are insignificant in their importance or universal in their occurrence. The film opens with a montage of old photographs that depict working people at the beginning of the 20th century. These photographs not only emphasise a feeling of time gone by and root film’s action within the past, but they also lead you to feel that eventually, these events will be our own.
Days of Heaven follows the carefree life of Bill (Richard Gere), his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and Bill’s younger sister Linda (played by a young Linda Manz, who went on to have her own very unique film career) as they travel across the Texas plains at the start of the 20th century. A complex love triangle develops involving a wealthy land owner (Sam Shepard) Bill and Abby. As is typical with Terrence Malick’s films, events between the characters are placed against the wider context of nature and the continuing world around them. This time the landscape is the endless rolling wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle. Seasons roll by, crops are grown then harvested, new faces come and go, giving you a sense of scale and continuation. All the time, the film is innocently narrated by Linda who takes a naïve view on events. This simplistic narration helps to reduce the importance of events; this combined with the emphasis on the surrounding landscape leaves me to believe Malick’s central two characters are not Bill and Abby, but actually time and nature.
As ever with a Terrence Malick film, it’s impossible not to mention the cinematography. Two great cinematographers worked on Days of Heaven: Hexall Wexler who worked on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and American Graffiti; and the late, great Nestor Almendros (whose films include My Night with Maud and Sophie’s Choice, to name but a few). The entire film looks beautiful, from simple medium shots of characters working to sweeping long shots of the countryside. The majority of the film was shot in what Almendros referred to as ‘the magic hour’, which was the few hours between night and day each morning and evening. This gives the film a very unique look, and one which I can’t do justice to in writing, but if I were to try, I’d say everything has a golden, warm quality to it. When I first watched Days of Heaven I thought that it was stunning to look, at but ultimately shallow. Now that I understand more about what Malick is doing, I can see that it the film is far deeper then I’d given it credit for.