As the probable May release date of Terrence Malick’s fifth film, The Tree of Life, looms, we take a look back at a career spanning over 30 years with a special focus on his second feature – Days of Heaven.
After the moderate success of Badlands, Malick had serious studio support for his next project. 1978’s Days of Heaven dealt once again with a young doomed couple but also saw the arrival of certain significant themes and an unconventional structure which would come to define Malick’s career.
It the story of a lovers Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) who are forced to flee Chicago in the early 20th Century when he accidentally kills his foreman at the steel mills. They find work and freedom among the seasonal workers in the vast wheat fields of Texas, far from the grime of the city. When the terminally-ill owner of the land (Sam Shepard) falls for Abby, the couple play a dangerous game – pretending to be brother and sister in the hope that the farmer will die, making them rich in the process.
As with Badlands, Days of Heaven is told from an oblique and subjective angle, that of the young girl Linda. Her meandering and naturalistic narration opens the film, explaining the context and the story as she understands it and creating a sense of quiet adventure which an objective wall of text would have obliterated. The focus remains on her for much of the picture, making the film less of a thriller and more of an observational drama as the story progresses. Manz was totally inexperienced and Malick had difficulty keeping her focussed on set – even changing the names of the main characters to begin with A, B and C so she could retain them. It leads to some awkwardness but also startling realism, as when she recounts her version of the Apocalypse – retold and recorded by the director on a whim.
Days of Heaven became known for its lengthy and difficult production. Despite having a complete script, Malick threw most of it away in search of a more evocative and poetic version of the story. Though it has been widely reported that much of the film was shot at magic hour (those few moments in the morning and evening when the sun is gone but the light remains) the effect was often achieved through colour timing tricks for scenes shot on overcast days. And on every laborious shot there was always the chance that Malick might become suddenly distracted by a flock of birds. The editing process was even more protracted, taking more than two years and trying the patience of the studio. Malick and his editor Billy Weber completely deconstructed the film, rebuilding it as a near silent, visual masterpiece with spare, often halting narration and a plethora of natural images the likes of which have rarely been captured on film.
The result is certainly unique, with arresting vistas of weather-tossed wheat, stunning close ups and time-lapse photography creating nothing less than a work of art on screen – particularly as I was lucky enough to experience the film for the first time on Criterion Collection Blu-ray. But Days of Heaven can also be inscrutable, contrasting its cast so massively with the epic scale nature that it can be hard to distinguish their characters, to feel for them as people. It’s not helped by Manz’s gawky performance and elliptical narration, but Gere makes a striking leading man while Sam Shepard impresses in one of his first feature appearances.
It’s certainly a more difficult proposition for audiences than Badlands but, along with some stunning imagery, it sees Malick developing the themes which would come to characterise his later work. For fans of the director, it also marks a significant point in his career. After last minute reshoots and still more editing, the film finally had a successful screening for Paramount execs, leading to the studio offering him complete freedom on his next project. Instead, Malick fled – leaving the country and moving to France where he stayed for more than a decade.
It would be 20 years before another Malick movie arrived in theatres, a title that earned the filmmaker his first Oscar nomination and is generally considered to be his masterpiece. Check back next month for our thoughts on 1998’s The Thin Red Line.
Read Part 3: The Thin Red Line.