Cast & Crew
The fate of a rich but lonely wheat harvester becomes intertwined with those of three migrant workers from Chicago.
Charles L Campbell
Joe A Dodds
Frances Benjamin Johnston
Colin C Mouat
John T Reitz
Paul G Ryan
John D Scott
Barry D Thomas
R Martin Walters
Best Costume Design
Days of Heaven
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 naïve 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
Days of Heaven
Days of Heaven - DAYS OF HEAVEN - Terrence Malick's 1978 Pastoral Epic on DVD
Terrence Malick's films are easily distinguished from those made by his contemporaries, the counterculture directors and the film-school whiz kids. Like Badlands, Days of Heaven tells its story in small impressionist strokes, immersing us in impressive views of nature. The setting is rural Texas in the early 1900s, where itinerant farm laborers work and live under open skies. The world is clean, raw and unforgiving, and Malick lets his story play out with a minimum of dramatic embellishment. When people do talk, we often can't hear what they say; it's not a movie of speeches. Malick instead offers frequent voiceovers from young Linda, observations that advance the plot only tangentially, and add a verbal counterpoint to Néstor Almendros' breathtaking visuals.
The story begins in Chicago, where steel worker Bill (Richard Gere) strikes his foreman (Stuart Margolin) and flees from the law. He travels with his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), although they avoid problems by pretending that Abby is his sister as well. The three join a group of harvesters in the Texas panhandle, working for a wealthy Farmer (Sam Shepard). While keeping the peace with the harvest Foreman (Robert J. Wilke - see footnote #1 below), Bill overhears that the Farmer has a serious health problem, and has only a year to live. When the Farmer takes an interest in Abby, Bill formulates a plan. If Abby were to marry their employer, in less than a year they'd all be rich.
Even though it ends in violence, Days of Heaven plays out not as a rural thriller but as a delicate landscape and character study. The laborers have a hard life but the world that surrounds them is vast, clean and stunningly beautiful. A generous shooting schedule gave French cinematographer Néstor Almendros the freedom to experiment with his visuals, shooting scenes without studio lights. Stanley Kubrick made news a couple of years before when he filmed scenes for his Barry Lyndon only by candlelight; Malick and Almendros routinely films in pre-dawn shadow and post-sunset darkness, and comes up with magical-looking footage. The film is photographically organic, eschewing standard Hollywood short cuts. Even the fades are created in the camera, as was done in silent days.
Rather than invent psychological complications for his characters, Malick simply observes their behaviors. We need only see the Farmer start a conversation with Abby to know that he's interested in her. The Farmer has little to say when his Foreman warns him that Billy and Abby are running some kind of con game. Malick communicates the rural pace of living by contrasting days of hard work with weeks of idleness -- life seems to drift by. In this natural setting, relationships cannot be hidden. Linda's poetic voiceovers are the only verbal expression of interior feelings, giving the film a sense of a living diary: "Nothin' to do all day but relax, walk. I'm telling you the rich got it figured out."
A couple of diversionary episodes seem to be included for their own sake, like the visit by the airplane barnstormers. Fiddler extraordinare Doug Kershaw performs by firelight for one memorable scene. When Malick wants to convey the fury of nature, he comes up with a terrific locust invasion and a subsequent fire. The film's visual authenticity elevates this spectacular sequence above the industry standard set by movies like The Good Earth, with their elaborate opticals and tricky montage cutting. Days of Heaven's only trick is to drop loads of almonds and peanut shells from a helicopter. When filmed in reverse, they look like a swarm of locusts taking flight.
Malick's script starts from the observation that life is terrible for some and easy for others, and never imposes a moral on what we see. The downbeat conclusion is treated as a natural consequence, as opposed to the workings of fate or cruel irony. Viewers expecting more focused dramatics may think Days of Heaven remote and muted, but those viewers sensitive to its expressive images will see a much bigger story unfolding. Human struggles and crimes pass and are forgotten, but the land continues.
Criterion's DVD of Days of Heaven presents a luminous enhanced transfer of a film that elicited oohs and ahhs from audiences when first shown in 70mm; we can imagine this title as a highly-desirable candidate for Hi-Def release. The audio has been mixed in 5.1 Dolby, highlighting Ennio Morricone's Oscar®-nominated score. Malick is described on the package text as a filmmaker-philosopher, and his collaborators have plenty to say about his quiet but effective filming style. Editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden sit in for a fascinating commentary, describing the film's unusual filming circumstances. Local Hutterite workers erected the impressive farmhouse on location in Canada. The director personally wooed playwright Sam Shepard for the role of the farmer, and young Linda Manz was discovered in a New York casting call.
The most interesting discussion topic is the film's camerawork. Haskell Wexler remembers Terrence Malick's command of film technique and talks about his effort to maintain visual continuity after Néstor Almendros had to leave the production early. The filmmakers remark on the unsympathetic attitude of the Union-mandated Hollywood crew. Many crewmembers simply watched over truckloads of lighting equipment that was never used. A year later, the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Sam Shepard makes an appearance in a 2002 video interview, while Richard Gere's memories are heard as an audio featurette backed with images from the film. A fat insert booklet contains a thoughtful essay by Adrian Martin and an entire chapter from the late Néstor Almendros' autobiography. It's some of the best camera-related writing on the movies to be found. Criterion's disc producer is Kim Hendrickson.
* Footnote #1. One of the key Hollywood actors that specialized in playing western bad guys, Robert J. Wilke can be seen in dozens of westerns from High Noon to Man of the West, almost always as a heartless killer. Days of Heaven is probably the only film in which he plays a character that cries, a moment that Wilke's fans will surely appreciate.
For more information about Days of Heaven, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Days of Heaven, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Days of Heaven - DAYS OF HEAVEN - Terrence Malick's 1978 Pastoral Epic on DVD
Shot almost entirely at "magic hour," the hours between day and night early in the morning and late in the evening. Terrence Malick wanted to have a white sky and no sight of the sun.
Comedian Redd Foxx received special mention in the closing credits, for the use of one of his jokes in this exchange between Bill (Richard Gere) and Linda (Linda Manz): "I saved your life today." "How?" "I killed a shit-eating dog."
After filming for a short time, Terrence Malick threw out the script altogether and filmed for a close to a year allowing the actors to "find the story" for the film as they went along.
John Travolta, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman turned down the role of Bill.
Cinematographer Nestor Almendros was going blind during production. Before each shot, he would have his assistant take a picture with a Polaroid camera and then would view under a high-powered magnify glass.
Released in United States Fall September 1978
Re-released in United States April 14, 2006
Re-released in United States March 26, 1999
Completed production August 1978.
According to V9/23/91, only one 70mm print of "Days of Heaven" is available for exhibition; Paramount has another print which never leaves the vaults.
Re-released in United States March 26, 1999 (Film Forum; New York City)
Re-released in United States April 14, 2006 (New York City)
Released in United States Fall September 1978