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Days of Heaven (1978) opens on a photo montage of life and work in early twentieth century America, set to a delicate, haunting piece for piano that cascades up and down the keyboard with sounds at once beautiful, fragile, nostalgic and ominous. Ennio Morricone's exquisite score sounds timeless, like an archival discovery of lost classical work (it's since been borrowed to evoke the early days of the twentieth century in other productions), but it's an original, much like the film it accompanies. Set in the pre-World War I era of the industrial economy, it follows lovers Bill (a young Richard Gere) and Abby (a sad-faced Brooke Adams) from the foundries of Chicago to the wheat fields of Texas. Abby poses as Bill's sister for the journey and they form a kind of family unit with Bill's little sister Linda (Linda Manz), who also serves as our nave narrator.
Linda's simple words and innocent reflections of migrant life and the breathtaking beauty of Nestor Almendros' vivid cinematography carry us through the subsequent romantic triangle that ensues in the second feature from writer/director Terrence Malick. "Me and my brother," she muses. "We used to have fun." The images show a tough, unforgiving existence of backbreaking work, scavenging and living rough, but it's not irony that Malick is communicating so much as perspective: one impression of life among many. For Linda, the flight to find work in the fields is simply another journey, yet we know that he is fleeing a murder charge. When Bill and Abby become field workers for a successful, shy wheat farmer (playwright Sam Shepard in his first substantial screen role), the wealthy landowner takes a shine to Abby. Bill pushes Abby to respond because he knows (from overhearing a private conversation) that the farmer is ill and not expected to live long. The hot-tempered Bill, however, is emotionally unprepared for the jealousy that burns as he impatiently waits for the farmer's demise.
Malick's use of the nave narrator and the lovers on the run from a murder (they even create a short-lived Eden-like existence in the forest at one point) recalls his debut feature, Badlands (1973), but the resemblances end there. The story of Days of Heaven has echoes of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah placed in the grandeur of the endless horizon and majestic skies of the Texas plains. The manor house and the grain elevators of this wheat empire stand like monoliths watching over the unending plains. The images of workers in their landscape look like impressionist paintings that cinematographer Almendros creates on the screen with the natural light of his location (Alberta, Canada, standing in for Texas).
Malick wanted to evoke the silent cinema of the teens, which was shot with available light and strove to create clear, sharp, vivid images. Almendros added to that the sensibilities and visions of such American painters as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, artists who strove for an evocative simplicity of image and lighting. In his autobiography, "Man With a Camera," Almendros praised the working relationship with Malick, who not only approved of but encouraged his efforts to dispense with traditional Hollywood lighting and push his experiments with available light photography, and a core group of collaborators (including set designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Patricia Norris) who were equally dedicated to recreating the era in all its detail and texture. For certain scenes, Malick awaited the "magic hour" between sunset and nightfall, when the light still glowed in the sky with a unique luminosity. "For those few minutes the light is truly magical, because no one knows where it is coming from," Almendros writes. Almendros' use of natural light for outdoor scenes and practical light sources wherever possible indoors gives the film an atmosphere that is both realistic and poetic.
The story seems to bubble up between the images. Malick observes the rhythms and cycles of human effort in concert with the machines of industrial-age labor without turning it into a documentary or a social commentary. When the mechanical harvesters rumble through wheat fields, the camera records not just the physical effort of the human workers and the cyclical routine of their work, but the effect of this invasion on the animals that inhabit the fields. Malick plays entire scenes without dialogue, letting the gestures and shadowplay communicate the meaning while the sounds of the world (be it the roar of a blast furnace in a sweltering foundry or the musical cacophony of birds and insects on the prairie) and Linda's musings fill the soundtrack with counterpoint. When the fields are overwhelmed by a plague of locusts, he builds the scene from tiny details that build until the swarms fill the sky like storm clouds. The imagery of the locusts, like all the special effects in the film, were practical effects accomplished on location or in camera, all of which contribute to the clarity and the consistency of Malick's vision. The director spent over a year editing the film, stripping away the literal for the impressionistic, layering in a soundtrack of industrial and natural sounds that would replace the dialogue and defy audience expectations, transforming the narrative into a meditation of these lives in impressionistic fragments edited together in a flow of imagery like visual music.
Days of Heaven was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Morricone's hauntingly beautiful score and the equally composed sound design, and won for Almendros' cinematography. Malick had previously won the Best Director award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and was honored as Best Director by the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. In his "Great Movies" series, Roger Ebert proclaimed that "Days of Heaven is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made.... His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie." Yet it was a financial disappointment for Paramount and it was twenty years before the release of perfectionist Malick's third film, the World War II drama The Thin Red Line (1998). With its reflective musings, impressionistic editing and attention to the effect of the human violence on the animals of the jungles of the South Pacific (as well as the indomitability of the eternal natural world in the face of man's fleeting incursion), it's as if the director simply picked up where he left off in Days of Heaven.
Producers: Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Art Direction: Jack Fisk
Music: Ennio Morricone
Film Editing: Billy Weber
Cast: Richard Gere (Bill), Brooke Adams (Abby), Sam Shepard (The Farmer), Linda Manz (Linda), Robert Wilke (The Farm Foreman), Jackie Shultis (Linda's Friend), Stuart Margolin (Mill Foreman), Tim Scott (Harvest Hand), Gene Bell (Dancer), Doug Kershaw (Fiddler), Richard Libertini (Vaudeville Leader), Frenchie Lemond (Vaudeville Wrestler).
by Sean Axmaker