“He told me the whole earth was going up in flames… There’s gonna be creatures running every which way, some of them burned, half their wings burning. People are gonna be screamin’ and hollerin’ for help,” says Linda – the young narrator in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” I have always cherished this beautiful film for it was the first time I had encountered Malick’s work when I caught it in 1978 – and of course it was nothing like I’d seen before. Here was a narrative that unfolded like a dream and it encouraged me to meditate on the big ideas that the director was grappling with. I always understood it to be a mediation on the very soul of America – and the relationship between humankind and nature. It makes you long for the past and its innocence. A couple of days ago, I sat and watched it again, and with the context of everything that has been happening around us – with the record heat and the fires, I couldn’t help but to feel even more connected to this seminal work of art. It is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous films ever made – and one of the most adventurous and romantic.
It starts in Chicago, 1916. Bill, a laborer at a steel mill has a quarrel with his boss and kills him accidentally. He takes Linda, his young sister, and girlfriend Abby – and they hop on a train heading to the Texas panhandle. All three get jobs during the harvest at the wheat fields of a wealthy young farmer. Bill decides to tell everyone that Abby is his sister. Everything is fine, until one day Bill overhears a doctor tell the farmer that he only has one year to live. The farmer, besotted by Abby, asks her to stay after the harvest with his brother and sister. Bill tells her to marry him since he doesn’t have long to live – and they can be together and wealthy after he dies. Bill and Linda move in with the newlyweds into the main house and experience the rich life – and it’s a very happy period. Until jealousy and suspicions come into play. “The devil just sitting there laughing,” narrates Linda. “He’s glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snake house.” There’s not much to the plot of “Days of Heaven,” but it doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot happening because every frame is infused with information and things to take in visually. The narrative is made up of Linda’s reflections. Her observations are like memories that are slipping through her hands.
We travel from a factory to a rural world. There are biblical undertones to this story. The industrial scenes at the beginning of the film are represented like this destructive energy full of fire and brimstone. Once they arrive at the farm the film becomes an extraordinary examination of a pastoral and idyllic way of living – detailing the daily routine of the harvesters. Fields of gold undulating in the wind. Laborers curved over collecting and sleeping under the stars. Beautiful shots that will recall impressionistic paintings – as well as the work of Andrew Wyeth. Working with cinematographers Nestor Almendros and additional work by Haskell Wexler, Malick will show us a world that seems to be permanently bathed in the magic hour of sunset. He will intercut photography that lovingly documents natural life on the farm. The movement of a snail will have as much importance as the movement of one of our main characters. It all feels as the Garden of Eden. The relationship between the main characters – athough not brothers – has a certain Cain and Abel quality. A traveling circus will land on the farm on two small planes – blown by wind – just like the seasons. Its members – three of them – in symmetry with our love triangle will do a performance. When the farmer finds out of the betrayal – Malick will introduce for the first time a bird’s eye angle. The camera will linger godlike up above the kitchen looking down – and that’s where Linda – working in the kitchen — will notice the arrival of the locusts. The plague is stunning and awe-inspiring. A fire will be started to chase away the invasion – and it will look apocalyptic. It is all suffused by a haunting score by Ennio Morricone full of longing and desire – as well as things lost.
“Days of Heaven” stars the trio of young and beautiful Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams. It is a work of a master poet.
Linda: “I always thought that being alone was just something that a man had to put up with. It was like I just got used to it.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and CBS All Access and to rent on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, Kanopy, Redbox and Apple TV.
Written by Terrence Malick
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard and Linda Manz
Filming “Days of Heaven”
The director’s 1st AD and 2nd AD on the picture, Scott Kirby and Dennis Becker, respectively, departed from their usual routines to conform to Malick’s highly unorthodox methods. Fresh pages of dialogue delivered the morning of a shoot took the form of “little poems or writings on a typewriter,” says Becker, “nothing written like a screenplay.” Adds Kirby: “[Malick’s] not somebody who does the traditional shooting breakdown with a shot list. Terry likes to be inspired from day to day by what the actors and the locations have to offer. He works like a photographer; he’s the first one to say it’s kind of like a glorified photo shoot. He is finding the best light and then it unfolds from there. We sometimes had takes that went up to 40 minutes.”
Rather than work with his regular DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, the director recruited Jörg Widmer, who operated the camera for Lubezki on previous Malick features, and performed double duty on A Hidden Life. “[Widmer] was always operating,” says Kirby. “We only had one camera. We didn’t have any B camera or any second unit. We would sometimes go out on Saturdays with a mini unit, just basically Terry, Jörg, myself and maybe two of the actors, and go put them in a landscape—just find things. It’s always this process of discovery.” The bulk of the pastoral settings were shot in South Tyrol, in the north of Italy. “The Jägerstätter family lived in a relatively flat area in the north of Austria, not far from the German border,” explains Kirby. “Terry decided to move away from that kind of flat reality and pieced the landscape together in a more mountainous region to give it more personal and physical drama.” According to Kirby, it’s a process that Malick calls “cubizing,” like a cubist painter—”You kind of take one scene and you break it up into a lot of different locations so this gives you the opportunity later in the cutting room to build something unique.” For example, certain settings would actually be comprised of five locations but made to look like one, such as the farmhouse where the Jägerstätters lived. “That was part of the philosophy,” says Kirby, “creating a unique space, not one that exists, [but] created through the process of filming it.” One of Becker’s primary duties was culling newsreel footage of the period to place the story in sociopolitical context. “It was all propaganda,” explains Becker. “There were a lot of phone calls, research on the internet.” At the end of the day, whatever nervousness the actors or crew had about Malick’s fluid approach was assuaged by his openness to suggestion. “He is not some kind of mad genius who everyone kind of drank the Kool-Aid [for] and just does what he says,” notes Scott. “He doesn’t dictate. He knows how to tickle things along and use everybody’s strengths in a kind of a jujitsu way.” (dga.org)
Casting “Days of Heaven”
It’s a relatively little-known fact…that the director wanted John Travolta for the lead. This is confirmed and discussed on the Criterion DVD. “Richard was cast when John Travolta fell out of the picture,” Weber said. Diane Crittenden, the casting director said, speaking on behalf of Malick,” He just felt like [Travolta] was very real, that he had the qualities, that blue-collar kind of quality that he wanted, and he worked very, very hard to try and make it work out, even giving up all his points in the film to [producer] Aaron Spelling,” she said. “He was producing ‘Welcome Back Kotter‘ and telling him that he would let John Travolta travel back for those couple days, that they would need him for [‘Kotter’]. And it was a no go, they just wouldn’t do it. And so we knew we weren’t going to get John and sort of had to go looking for someone else pretty quickly,” Crittenden said on the Criterion DVD. Even then, Malick went on with casting for over a year trying to match specific actors with other complimentary actors. “Terry can’t make a decision anyhow. This went on forever,” Gere laughed. “I surprised him and said, ‘Look I can’t do this anymore so you need to make a decision.’ ”
Losing Travolta was once rumored to be the reason why Malick left filmmaking for 20 years, that he was so heartbroken that he could not get his lead actor. However, like most Terrence Malick legends, there seems little foundation in provable fact. Note, in Peter Biskind’s book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” he contends that Malick tried and failed to get Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino to star in the film, but the details on that are also very thin…Casting director Diane Crittenden initially wanted Tommy Lee Jones for Shepard’s part, but what Malick liked the most about Shepard was “that he was really unknown as an actor – and he’s not an actor, he’s a playwright,” she said (Malick also let Shepard write one scene). “So he liked the honesty of [Sam’s] character.” She also mentioned that Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold (De Palma‘s “Obsession,” Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”) was also someone they looked at closely for the lead before they chose Brooke Adams. (indiewire.com)
Richard Gere on “Days of Heaven”
“I don’t know how equipped he was to lead actors, or anyone,” Gere said in a Criterion interview extra devoted to his work and his perspective on the film. “I think he had a really good idea, in the broad sense, of what he wanted and what he wanted it to look like, feel like, but I don’t know that he knew the exact specifics, he wasn’t that kind of a filmmaker. Because he was relatively new to directing, as I recall he didn’t really know how to talk to an actor the way a theater director does, so that led to some frustration from the actor’s point of view. It would be like, ‘do it again,’ and hopefully you would come up with something he liked, but it could be deeply frustrating, but that’s just how Terry works and it worked for him.”…In a Village Voice interview with his co-star Sam Shepard, a proponent of Malick’s working style, Shepard said, “And then the notorious shot of Richard Gere falling face first into the river — that was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek [and Jack Fisk]’s living room. They had to convince Richard to do this — he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Terry begged him.” Pretty much every key member of the team can attest to the near-revolt that was brewing within the crew. “There was a lot of griping from the Hollywood crews,” Weber said on the DVD. “I remember the electricians being really ticked off because they had nothing to light and they built hammocks in the electrical trucks for taking naps,” art director Patricia Norris said on the same commentary track. “The camera crew didn’t really [understand] what Terry was doing,” said Weber. “Besides Néstor, who was fantastic and whose attitude was great, (he was wonderful with Terry) the rest of the camera crew were all from L.A.. Néstor never met them, he couldn’t bring his crew from France and they were pretty obstinate and didn’t like the way Terry shot.”“I remember someone [complaining and] saying, ‘It wasn’t like this on ‘El Cid,’ Fisk laughed. (indiewire.com)
About Writer and Director Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois…Malick was raised in Texas and Oklahoma and graduated with a degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1965. After Harvard, he was a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, but he did not finish his thesis. Instead, he returned to the United States, where he worked as a freelance journalist for various magazines, including Life and The New Yorker, and briefly taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Interested in phenomenology, he translated German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s essay “Vom Wesen des Grundes” (“The Essence of Reasons”) for a bilingual edition of the text published in 1969. That same year Malick returned to school at the American Film Institute’s fledgling Center for Advanced Film Studies (now the AFI Conservatory), receiving an M.F.A. in 1971. Malick first worked in Hollywood as an uncredited writer on “Drive, He Said” (1971), directed by Jack Nicholson. His own directorial debut, “Badlands” (1973), which he also scripted, starred Martin Sheen…His next film, “Days of Heaven” (1978), about day labourers in early 20th-century Texas, featured a similarly lush visual style and won even more critical acclaim, earning Malick the best director award at the Cannes film festival. The public would have to wait 20 years, however, for Malick’s next movie. With “The Thin Red Line” (1998), based on James Jones’s novel about the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, he relied on an ensemble cast to present an existential meditation on war. Malick was nominated for best adapted screenplay and best director Academy Awards…Several more years would pass before Malick’s The New World (2005) hit screens…
…Malick’s next production, “The Tree of Life” (2011), was an impressionistic essay on humankind’s place in the universe, presented through the lens of a troubled family in 1950s Texas. The film, which featured Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, and Malick was again nominated for an Oscar for best director. Appearing to ramp up his productivity as he approached his seventies, he soon followed with the romantic melodrama “To the Wonder” (2012). Although it was Malick’s first film set entirely in the present day, it echoed his previous work in its elliptical, atmospheric style. “Knight of Cups” (2015) chronicled the surreal wanderings and encounters of a dissipated film-industry professional (Christian Bale) in a series of chapters named after tarot cards. Malick followed up with “Song to Song” (2017), a whirling depiction of a love triangle between two Austin, Texas, musicians and a high-powered music producer. He then returned to World War II for “A Hidden Life” (2019), a drama based on the life of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Between writing and directing his own films, Malick occasionally worked on scripts for others, and in the late 1990s he co-founded a production company. (britannica.com)