Days of Heaven (1978)

Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick (screenplay)

Producers: Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider (Paramount)

Photography: Nester Almendros, Haskell Wexler

Music: Ennio Morricone

Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis, Stuart Margolin, Tim Scott, Gene Bell, Doug Kershaw, Richard Libertini, Frenchie Lemond, Sahbra Markus, Bob Wilson, Muriel Jollife


After storming onto the scene with Badlands (1973), writer-director Terrence Malick made his second feature — Days of Heaven — and then disappeared for 20 years. The hiatus only served to heighten the myth behind the film and its mysterious director.

Imagine the buzz around a maverick filmmaker who makes two masterpieces then goes unheard of for decades. This was Malick’s elusive M.O. for the rest of the ’70s, the entire ’80s, and most of the ’90s — a master of his medium who answers to no one.

For a long time, Days of Heaven remained the only recent work his fans could turn to, and thus deserves much of the credit for Malick finally getting an Oscar nomination for The Thin Red Line (1998) and winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life (2011). It was the build-up of respect.

Plot Summary

The plot of Days of Heaven is similar to Badlands in that it follows two lovers on the run after a murder, only here the characters are hardly as guilty as the former’s take on the Starkweather homicides. Here, it’s accidental, as hot-tempered Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills a fellow steel-mill worker in 1916 Chicago. Fleeing his crime, he takes girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and 13-year-old sister Linda (Linda Manz) to the Texas panhandle, where they blend in with the migrant workers in golden wheat fields. Bill and Abby work the harvest, pretending to be brother and sister, so as to hide any traces of their origins. The Farm Foreman (Robert J. Wilke) doesn’t buy it for a second, but they do convince the owner of the land, known only as The Farmer (a debuting Sam Shepard), who befriends Bill and falls for Abby.

When Bill overhears that The Farmer is in poor health, he devises a plot to capitalize. He convinces Abby to marry The Farmer, so that when he dies, she will take posession of his estate and live happily ever after with Bill and Linda. Only, The Farmer doesn’t die — “Instead of getting sicker, he just stayed the same” — creating a difficult love triangle where Bill and Abby must sneak out at night to be together. Of course, the scheme can’t last forever, and their journey spirals toward a tragic, fiery conclusion.

Script of Lyrical Themes

It seems almost a disservice to describe the plot as if it’s the most important thing. As weird as it sounds, the film is hardly about its plot, or even its main characters. Instead, the narrative serves merely as a framework for Malick to explore much more complex, deeply buried themes. This is the reason many average viewers will be turned off by it. Fans of narrative storytelling need not apply.

This one’s for viewers who like their storytelling visual, impressionistic, lyrical, allegorical. As the tagline reads: “Your eyes…your ears…your senses….will be overwhelmed,” and unfortunately for many, they’ll take the overwhelment as a cue to retreat from something they’re not used to and don’t want any part of.

One of the most cited criticisms from the film’s detractors is that its adult characters seem at an emotional distance from audiences. Those who feel this way should realize this is intentional. We aren’t allowed inside the heads of the adults because we aren’t seeing it from their perspective. We’re seeing it from the perspective of the narrator, 13-year-old Linda. Her naivity does not allow her to fully comprehend the actions of her surrounding adults. And as such, the film is intended to feel as if the broken memories of one’s childhood. We hear the tale as if in hindsight, a collection of moments and images that colored this girl’s memory, of the best time of her life, of those “Days of Heaven” in the wheat fields. She speaks of those days with an almost magical nostalgia: “I got to like this farm. Do anything I want, roll in the fields, talk to the wheat patches. When I was sleepin’ they’d talk to me. They’d go in my dreams.”

Under this framework, Days of Heaven works at a much more lyrical level, with the freedom to take on much greater themes than any one plot could tell. At times, Malick seems as much a philsopher as he is a filmmaker. On the film’s most basic level, we get a commentary on early 20th century industrialization, as first introduced in the sepia-toned Chicago images in the opening credits. The journey out of this urban society and into the open plains of the south creates a powerful contrast, yet one where industrialization is on the march. From the coal-powered plows to the propellers of the flying circus planes, from President Wilson’s coal-powered whistlestop train, to the Farmer’s weather vane, we see the expansion of industry, as mankind harnesses the forces of nature for his own progress.

From this theme, we move into a commentary on man versus nature, with The Farmer’s hat hung on the antlers of buck; a wine glass dropped underwater so that fish have to swim around it; the Foreman plucking a piece of grass that we have just seen grow; and a man-made fire engulfing the habitat of the rabbits, quail, buffalo and countless other animals we see in close-ups.

Finally, from this theme, we move into the level of Biblical allegory, starting with the story’s own similarity to the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. (A) The whole thing seems a study of good and evil, culminating in Biblical judgments like a plague of locusts and a giant trial by fire, foretold by young Linda in the first five minutes:

LINDA: “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 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 you talkin’.”

Of course, Malick does not wish to follow this simplistic good/bad construction. To him, there’s both good and bad in all of us. As Linda says, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just got half-devil and half-angel in ya.” In Days of Heaven, none of the characters are all good or all evil. The antagonist, The Farmer, is actually a nice guy getting cheated, and the protagonists, Bill and Abby, are outlaws on the run and living a lie. Our sympathy for the latter shows just how much Malick has shaken us up. So by the end, The Farmer, realizing he’s been made a fool, is left with no alternative but to turn to his devil side.

The film includes multiple references to The Farmer as the Biblical serpent of Genesis. As Bill and Abby (Adam and Eve) first arrive to their paradise, we see The Farmer biting an apple. Later, we more blatantly cut to him after the image of a snake in Linda’s picture book. Finally, and most obviously, we get Linda’s disturbing monologue about the evils of man: “The Devil just sittin’ there laughin’. He’s glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snake house and he just sits there and laughs and watches while you’re just sittin’ there all tied up and snakes are eatin’ your eyes out.” When The Farmer later actually does tie up Abby, we don’t see her “eyes eaten out,” but the analogy is clear. It’s almost as clear as the end of that monologue, where Linda says, “I think the devil was on the farm” just as we get a shot of The Farmer staring into a mirror. I find it interesting that this “devil” monologue comes during the sequence where the flying circus lands on the farm. After all, the word “devil” is inside “vaudeville.”

Visual Art

What does that say about Malick’s view of himself as an artist? Are filmmakers so different from vaudeville entertainers? The great irony then becomes that the “mischievious” task of making a film produces such heavenly beauty. Because that’s the only way I can describe the look of Days of Heaven — heavenly beauty. While Patricia Norris provides the period atmosphere with her Oscar-nominated costumes, Spanish cinematography legend Nestor Almendros paints the greatest panoramic views of rural America since John Ford. In the short lists of films that may be called works of visual art, Days of Heaven belongs at the front of the line. The quiet beauty of the fields no doubt bares its mark on so many films to follow, from Witness (1985) to There Will Be Blood (2007). Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader called it “a film that hovers just beyond our grasp — mysterious, beautiful, and, very possibly, a masterpiece.” (B)

It’s as “blithe and self-sufficent as a painting labored over in an attic,” says David Thomson, offering an analogy that describes the film better than anything else. (C) You could stop any number of frames and it would look like a master painting, remeniscient of the art of Andrew Wyeth (A). The shot compositions are just perfect, galliantly displayed in 70 mm widescreen and shot entirely with natural light during “magic hour.”

“It’s not an hour, but around 25 minutes at the most,” Almendros says. “It is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day, but it did pay on the screen. It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism.” (G)

Shall I name a few of the gorgeous compositions? That silhouetted train pulling across those elevated tracks against the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. That silhouetted scarecrow framed by black ground on the bottom and reddish clouds on top. The prarie stretching endlessly into the distance, covered with little mounds of hay and the tiny farm house erect in the background. Black horses in the foreground at dusk, the lights from the house shining through the fog in the distance. The moving silhouettes of Bill and Abby kissing behind the wind-blown sheets of gazebo curtains. The wheat fields swirling in the wind. The bonfire flames dancing across people’s faces. And finally a bunch of silhouetted figures running around in front of flames that climb high into the night, a moment that feels almost dreamlike.

The work won Almendros the Oscar for cinematography, the culmination of a career that saw such partnerships with such French New Wavers as Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, and such American independents like Monte Hellman and Martin Scorsese (D). He chronicled his fantastic career in the cinematography book, A Man with a Camera (1980), which Truffaut called a “lustrous chronicle of an artistic vocation.” (E)

But debate over his work on Days of Heaven remains a source of great movie mystery. Almendros won the Oscar and went on to great success in America, including shooting the next year’s Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). But why is it then, that Days of Heaven also credits Haskell Wexler for “additional photography” in the end credits? Wexler long contested that he, too, deserved an Oscar for his work on the film. The most fascinating example comes from Roger Ebert, who says he once received a letter from Wexler, saying he sat in a theater with a stopwatch to prove that more than half of the footage was shot by him. (F) Perhaps it’s a shame that Wexler never received the award. But for viewers, the reward of both their work makes Days of Heaven a thing of visual poetry.

The Music of Morricone

I am tempted to say that you should try muting Days of Heaven to simply take in Almendros’ (and Wexler’s) visual majesty, but I won’t, because then you would miss the beauty of yet another fabulous Ennio Morricone score. It’s a haunting reworking of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” — a piece I promise you all will know. The score marked a major point in Morricone’s career, practically the midpoint between his mesmerizing ’60s scores in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and his powerful themes of the ’80s in The Untouchables (1987) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). It earned the Spanish composer his first of five Oscar nominations.

A Perfectionist Director

As for Malick, the Academy was not nearly as receptive. In a year where Michael Cimino won Best Director for The Deer Hunter (1978), Malick was not even nominated. It was a snub that was out of touch with the rest of the international art commmunity. At Cannes, Malick was awarded the Prix de la mise en scene, the coveted award for Best Director. All the praise dumped on Almendros should have equally gone to Malick, who worked with his cinematographer tirelessly to set up the shots. Days of Heaven is notorious for its long production schedule, shot on location in Alberta, Canada, for over two years. (A) It dragged on so long because Malick often wanted to wait until “magic hour.”

Malick’s perfectionism was off-putting to some in his cast and crew. Gere reportedly considered leaving the project, and producer Bert Schneider had to mortgage his home in order to keep pace with the fact the film was already $800,000 over budget. (H) Post-production was even more of a beast. According to Schneider, director Richard Books viewed some of the footage to see if he wanted to cast Gere in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), and Days of Heaven took so long to edit that “Brooks cast Gere, shot, edited and released [Goodbar] while Malick was still editing.” (H) The final product was well worth it.

Just look at the tracking shot immersing the camera right in the wheat fields. The low-angle shots from the point of view of animals as farm equipment cuts through the field just above. The camera literally underground for time-lapse photography of a blade of grass sprouting. The close-ups on individual plant leaves and locusts, showing such detail in these often overlooked organisms!

Malick follows the mantra “don’t tell me, show me.” Note the succession of shots as Bill and Abby sneak off into the night, where Malick does not show us sex, but rather an empty gazebo, a jostling umbrella and a scarecrow bobbing in the wind.

Later, the camera sits outside the house with the only light coming from the farm house windows. Through the den window, we see Abby and The Farmer. As the they leave the room, the camera dollies left to pick them back up through the double panes of the front door, and then further left to gaze through a curtained window as they go up the stairs. We can imagine it as Bill’s POV and, sure enough, the next shot is of Bill gazing sadly up at their bedroom window.

Malick transitions to shaky handheld cameras as The Farmer confronts Abbey about her affair, and the sound and image of the spinning weather vane becomes a symbol for The Farmer’s madness, just like the ceiling fan and chopper sounds a year later in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

On top of all this, Malick gives us minimalist dialogue. Sometimes, he chooses not to fade in the sound until after the actors have already finished speaking. (J) In the opening murder scene, the sounds of the steel factory drown out the entire vocal argument that leads to the killing. More importantly, Malick uses the voiceover narration of Linda Manz’s innocent voice just as he had Sissy Spacek’s in Badlands (the brief underwater shot in Days of Heaven is actually in Spacek’s basement). To me, this connection is never more apparent than in the film’s final shot, where Linda and her new friend walk aimlessly down the train tracks. In this shot, Linda is not only describing her new friend in this story, but also Spacek’s Holly in Badlands, and so many other American girls of that age: “This girl, she didn’t know where she was goin’ or what she was gonna do. She didn’t have no money on her. Maybe she’d meet up with a character.” For Holly, that character was Martin Sheen-Kit Caruthers-Charles Starkweather. This is Malick’s America, baby.


The Academy wasn’t necessarily digging all this, but others got it right away. The National Board of Review named Days of Heaven the Best Film of the Year, and the late Gene Siskel was so overwhelmed that he wrote the film “truly tests a film critic’s power of description.”

Yet for all of it, I still feel Malick’s work is yet to be fully appreciated. It may take humanity to evolve into a deeper form of consciousness to fully grasp the thematic genius at work here.

The late Roger Ebert came closest to putting it into words: “What is the point of Days of Heaven — the payoff, the message? This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again–and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt.”


CITE A: Tim Dirks,
CITE B: Dave Kehr. “Days of Heaven”, The Chicago Reader. Retrieved on 11 December 2008
CITE C: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE D: Film Snob’s Dictionary
CITE F: – Ebert’s Great Movies
CITE G: Glassman, Arnold; Todd McCarthy, Stuart Samuels (1992). Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography DVD. Kino International.
CITE H: Biskind, Peter (1998). Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon and Schuster. pp. 297-299.
CITE I: Almereyda, Michael (April 20, 2004). “After The Rehearsal: Flirting with Disaster: Discussing Days of Heaven and Dylan classics with Sam Shepard“. Village Voice.,almereyda,52815,20.html. Retrieved on 2006-04-17.
CITE  J: rottentomatoes summary

This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.