Combustible Celluloid
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With: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Stuart Margolin
Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 95
Date: 13/09/1978

Days of Heaven (1978)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Fields of Gold

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw Days of Heaven (1978) once on video long ago and don't remember much of it, though I do recall that I found it pretty but empty. Now I've had the chance to see it again in a new print on the big screen, and I was very excited to find myself watching an American masterpiece. (The Criterion Collection released the film on Blu-Ray in 2010.)

Days of Heaven was directed by the ever-elusive Terrence Malick, who has only made three features in twenty-six years, though all three are excellent. (He seemed to disappear off the face of the earth between his second and third.) Badlands (1973) is a superior crime movie that looks in and around the crime itself into the empty spaces. The Thin Red Line (1998) is a meditative war movie with quiet scenes as beguiling as its explosive scenes. But for my money, the one I'd watch again and again is Days of Heaven, which I now find to be a rich, layered movie.

On the first layer is the story, borrowed loosely (and without credit) from Henry James' novel The Wings of the Dove. Malick reverses the sexes of that novel and stars Richard Gere as migrant laborer Bill, Brooke Adams as his soulmate Abby, and Sam Shepard as the rich, dying farmer. The amazing Linda Manz also stars as Bill's little sister. To make matters easier, the traveling trio pose as siblings. So when the farmer falls in love with Abby, Bill realizes that they can stand to inherit the farm if she marries him. Naturally, complications and jealousies set in.

And yet, this story is not Malick's main drive. He and cinematographer Nestor Almendros spend a great deal of time looking at the land. There are extensive scenes of Bill, Abby, and Linda, as well as other workers, harvesting grain. One can almost learn how to run a farm from this movie. We also see shots of mother nature at work; wind blowing through the grain, making ripples on ponds, birds and other animals. It's almost as if the movie were being told through stream-of-consciousness, or by a narrator relaxing around a fire who lets his mind wander from time to time.

Linda, of all characters to choose from, narrates the story. She talks in a thick city-accent (they've come from Chicago) about her observations. Like the movie itself, some are about the plot, and some are just plain observations about life itself. Manz has an amazing face and screen presence. But, like Malick, she disappeared from the movies as well. Besides Days of Heaven, she has only been seen in Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue (1980) and Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997), as well as few other forgettable titles. (I wonder if Malick and Manz disappeared together?) Indeed, there is a scene in Days of Heaven which has Manz tap-dancing on a length of wood along with an older black gentleman. Twenty years later, Gummo showed her doing the same dance.

An even more complex layer to the story comes towards the end, in which a plague of locusts attack the grain and the farm is burned to the ground in order to save it. Do these little characters who function as a part of nature have control over their lives, or are they subject to the wrath of God? Malick seems to remind us that although we've been watching scenes of mother nature interspersed with the "plot", the entire thing is really the work of the Almighty. But is Malick as director making himself a deity? Besides the locusts, there are many other Biblical parallels as well (better left to someone more versed in theology than me).

The cinematography by Almendros (with help by Haskell Wexler, who took over when Almendros needed to leave for another film) should not be underestimated. It is among the most startlingly beautiful color film shot in history. But it is not beauty for beauty's sake, as I described before. The seemingly random shots have a divine order to them. Almendros won a well-deserved Oscar for his work.

I also want to mention the achingly lovely score by Ennio Morricone (which has since been co-opted for something else since that I can't put my finger on). Morricone has composed hundreds of scores including the great Sergio Leone pictures, but this is some of his very best work. From now on when I hear it, I'll picture the movie's hopeful finale with Manz climbing out the window of the boarding house she is forced to stay in.

Although it was made in the 1970s, Days of Heaven qualifies to be described with that horribly overused word, "timeless."

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