Filmsite Movie Review
Days of Heaven (1978)
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Days of Heaven (1978) is an exquisite, lyrical film of exceptional visual beauty and only the second film of writer-director Terrence Malick, following his critically-acclaimed success with an equally-haunting and visually-striking Badlands (1973). [Malick wouldn't direct another film for 20 years, until The Thin Red Line (1998).] This moody, elegiac film has universally been acclaimed as a cinematographic masterpiece, from the talents of Cuban-born European Nestor Almendros (and 'additional photography' by Haskell Wexler), with naturally-lit, sweeping, 70mm images of crystal clarity and scope, and artfully composed scenes reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth paintings. The film's tagline proclaimed:

"Your eyes... Your ears... Your senses... will be overwhelmed."

However, the surreal, epic-type film counterposes its superlative photography with a slim tale of working class protagonists, told with sparse dialogue and the jarring, quirky, drawling, and dispassionate, colloquial voice-over narration of a streetwise, but unschooled 13 year old girl (Manz). The film is also a social chronicling of the rough-hewn, simple lives of migrant American harvest workers in the Gilded Age during a time of growing industrialization, told with a mix of classical music, contemporary music, and natural sounds.

The film's plot is similar to the story in the Biblical Book of Ruth, and the film's title was derived from Deuteronomy 11:21 ("That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.")

Disharmony and tragedy in the poetic film's conclusion arise because of the conflict between the male protagonists in a fatal, fiery love triangle, who both demand the exclusive love of a female. A second tagline described the love triangle in the plot:

"She gave her hand to one man, but her heart to another."

A wealthy, lonely, land-owning, raw-boned farmer (Shepard in his acting debut) of the Great Plains falls in love with the girlfriend (Adams) of a hot-headed wheat-field worker (Gere), who is masquerading as the field hand's sister. The 'heavenly,' golden-hued, contented, and idyllic days of the drifters, who have found salvation on the wheat farm, are shattered with the discovered revelation of the real nature of the relationship between the brother and sister, and an accompanying plague of locusts and fire (typical of Old Testament judgments). Scheming deception, greedy avarice, jealous envy, adultery, and eventually murder result from the conflict.

The simple love story set on a pastoral landscape becomes a profound allegorical tale of harmony and discontinuity, love and hate, hopes and fears, and good and evil. Its emotional impact is shaped by the unique perspective of the narrator - a typical teenager telling the tale out of her own youthful concerns (having fun, her uncertain future), combining her beliefs about the dual contradictory nature of humanity ("you just got half-devil and half-angel in ya"), and imaginative and fearsome fantasies of religious judgment and divine retribution (the flaming end of the world, and the Devil's presence on Earth).

The film trailer's narrator succinctly described the plot of Malick's film:

In 1916, America was changing, expanding, holding a promise of new prosperity. People heard the call and it made them restless. Empires were being built in the wide-open spaces, and so they came. Each one oddly, blindly searching for the days of heaven. Days of Heaven, the story of a man who had nothing, the woman who loved him, and the man who would give her everything for a share of that love. Three people whose destinies joined briefly in a dream - but how long could it last?

Although allegedly located in the wheat-growing area of World War I Texas in the early part of the 20th century, the film was shot on location in Alberta, Canada over a two-year period. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris), Best Original Score (Ennio Morricone), Best Sound, and won one well-deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Plot Synopsis

The opening credits sequence, accompanied by a rendering of Camille Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals," provides sepia-toned historical period photographs (from the Library of Congress, various museums and photographic archives, and the NY Public Library) of turn-of-the-century city and tenement life (portraits, closeups, slices of life including play, marriage, work, politics, friendships, transportation, domesticity, and leisure time). The titles sequence ends with a photo of the teenaged girl that has been sepia-toned to appear like a real-life period photo.

The exterior of a Chicago steel mill, and a view of junk pickers (one of whom is Abby) searching through industrial scrap. Inside, workers shovel coal into the red-hot, glowing furnaces, surrounded by the deafening noise. Molten iron pours out into molds. Quarrelsome Bill (Richard Gere) has an undisclosed, violent altercation with his foreman, punches him to the ground, and renders him unconscious - thereby forcing him to run from the scene and leave town as a fugitive. [Bill experiences further difficulty with another work foreman later in the film.]

The voice-over narration of Bill's young sister Linda (Linda Manz) begins:

Me and my brother, it just used to be me and my brother, we used to do things together. We used to have fun. We used to roam the streets. There was people suffering of pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin' out of their mouth.

Bill - an ex-apple juggler, girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) posing as Bill's sister to avoid answering inevitable questions about their unmarried state, and teenaged waif Linda, board a west-bound freight train to escape the city's heat and authorities. Bill assures Abby that things will "get fixed up":

Just got to get fixed up first. Things aren't always gonna be this way. You know that, don't you?

The drifters switch trains at a station and scamper toward another boxcar. To the tune of Leo Kottke's acoustical guitar "Enderlin," their steam locomotive crosses a high suspension/trestle bridge, silhouetted against the partly cloudy blue sky. The original threesome of the film (Bill/Abby/Linda) sit atop the overloaded train, sharing their ride through Midwest farmlands and America's heartland with dozens of other would-be harvest hands.

(Linda's voice-over) In fact, all three of us been goin' places, lookin' for things, searchin' for things, goin' on adventures. They told everybody they were brother and sister. My brother didn't want nobody to know. You know how people are. You tell 'em somethin' - they start talkin'.

She prophetically fears a fiery apocalypse that will consume everything in its path, unless one is judged to be good and saved by God's mercy in heaven:

(Linda's voice-over) I met this guy named Ding-Dong. He told me the whole Earth is goin' up in flame. Flames will come out of here and there and they'll just rise up. The mountains are gonna go up in big flames, the water's gonna rise in flames. There's gonna be creatures runnin' every which way, some of them burnt, half of their wings burnin'. People are gonna be screamin' and hollerin' for help. See, the people that have been good - they're gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you've been bad, God don't even hear you. He don't even hear ya talkin'.

The train slows and many of the itinerant workers jump off with bundles and small suitcases in their hands. A farm foreman (Robert Wilke) with wagons awaiting harvest workers, bellows to everyone through a megaphone: "Sackers, I need sackers." Supposedly, a man can make $3 dollars in a day "if he wants to work." Bill accepts the offer and they join others on trucks and horse-pulled wagons across the golden plains at sunset, bound for a wheat farm on the flat landscape of the Panhandle.

The wagons pass under an entrance archway. The farm house, amidst immense fields of golden wheat, stands three stories tall in the distance as a lone fixture. It is a Victorian house, with one pointed tower and a noisy wind generator atop. A flagpole displays the Texas Lone Star State flag. An expensive open convertible is parked in front. The unnamed owner (Sam Shepard) bites into an apple as he observes the newcomers arriving. [One could read this story as a symbolic tale of Eden like the early chapters of the Biblical book of Genesis, with its prototypical Adam and Eve characters, the natural bounty of God's generous gifts, the biting of the apple, temptation, sin, and subsequent banishment from 'heaven' by the coming of a fiery 'hell.'] A rectangular-shaped red dormitory or bunkhouse, a hundred yards away, serves as the drop-off point. The workers are warned about avoiding the owner's house:

Don't any of you go up around there either.

Bill drinks in the beauty of the wheat fields with a trace of mountains on the horizon, with bison roaming the wild land. Hawks and eagles fly free. The wind rustles through the crop. As they walk through the waist-high wheat, Linda befriends one of the other young girls (Jackie Shultis) of her age, who is saving up one of her makins - a hand-made, rolled-up cigarette. A closeup of crickets on the stalks. Italian is heard being spoken among the migrants. As the sun sets, Bill, Abby, and Linda engage in a playful game of tag.

The sun rises at dawn - reddish-brown clouds provide a backdrop for a silhouetted scarecrow, whose right arm blows back and forth in the wind. Signalmen wave flags to pass a message from hill to hill. The owner snaps off the head of a stalk, rolls it between his palms, blows away the chaff, and then pops a kernel into his mouth. He nods - satisfied that the harvest work can commence. Flanked by two young acolytes, a Russian Orthodox Preacher (John Wilkinson) reads a passage from the Bible (Psalm 90:4) to offer a blessing and thanksgiving:

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. As soon as thou scatters them..

The workers and their families are solemnly gathered around in the field, listening to the prayer. When "Amen" is pronounced, everyone walks to the crest of the hill. A steam whistle blows, the owner signals with a sweep of his arm, and horse-drawn mowing machines (or binders) begin to cut the stalks. It is back-breaking work as the laborers toss the bunches of cut wheat aside, where it is raked or bunched together into sheaves/bushels. Closeups show wild fowl, rabbits and skunks scurrying to find sanctuary somewhere in the ever-decreasing wheat field. The foreman, riding in a buggy, chides everyone to work hard, while the owner sits in a padded chair in the middle of a field. During the mid-day meal break at the cookhouse, Abby's captivating beauty catches the owner's eye as she walks by:

(Linda's voice-over) This farmer - he didn't know when he first saw her or what it was about her that caught his eye. Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair.

After being served in food lines, some of the workers find shade under umbrellas planted around. One of the loutish workers impertinently asks Bill: "Your sister keeps you warm at night, does she?" Angered, Bill throws two plates of stew and mashed potatoes onto the man. After the man responds in kind, they wrestle each other to the ground.

Linda plucks the feathers off a chicken, while other women and children rest in the shade of a wagon. Work continues into the afternoon. Bill wears a white, full-length smock or duster coat unlike the other workers. The owner is still intrigued about the unusually-beautiful worker, and asks his foreman about "the woman with the black hair" among the others. At dusk, the foreman walks along a row of shocks and complains to Abby about her inferior work: "You wasted more than 12 bushels in this row. I'm docking you $3 dollars." Bill protests the indignity but, fearful of being fired, he resists the urge to fight. Abby calms his demoralized feelings: "Don't worry about it." Bill inspects Abby's swollen and cracked hands from the day's hard labor, and promises to seek a doctor's care.

After work, the men swim in a nearby pond to clean up. A black retriever plunges in alongside. Bill searches frantically for some salve or medicine to soothe Abby's hands in a doctor's medicine wagon parked outside the owner's house - in an area forbidden to him. He locates a tin of salve just as the owner steps out of the house. He overhears a crucial conversation with the doctor about the farmer's terminal illness:

Farmer: You never think it's gonna happen to you.
Doctor: Yep.
Farmer: How long would you reckon I have? You know, you can tell me.
Doctor: A year, maybe a year.

(Linda's voice-over): He knew he was gonna die. He knew there was nothing there could be done. You're only on this Earth once. And, to my opinion, as long as you're around, we should have it nice.

Wandering around after chasing peacocks with Linda, Abby suddenly finds herself close to the owner's house - and the owner suddenly pokes up in the field in front of her and asks: "Where are you from?" and "Where do you go from here?" She shrugs: "All over. Wyoming. Do you think I like it?"

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