Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), his second Oscar-winning feature as writer/director, at once cemented his unusual approach to filmmaking and, for a time at least, became his unexpected swan song. (He wouldn’t make a third film until 1998’s The Thin Red Line). Following a trio of migrant farm labourers—the on-the-lam Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who poses as his sister, and his real sister Linda (the extraordinary Linda Manz)—the story settles on an enormous spread of wheat fields overseen by a sickly, shy young farmer (Sam Shepard). The trio works the harvest and finally stays the winter when the farmer confesses his affection for Abby. All this constitutes story, yet what Days of Heaven really deals in is moments, passages, transitions, transfiguration, splendour and the vulnerability of human beings when set against boundless country.
The title’s Biblical allusion is reinforced in numerous compelling ways: Linda’s remarkable, endearingly awkward, heavily accented voice-over, in which she speaks about the Biblical apocalypse while images of smiling travellers under blue skies unfurl; the eventual scenes of fires spreading out of control; the plague of locusts that consume the farmer’s property and are sometimes revealed in close-up with the same attention and awe that Malick bestows upon the characters and objects. Edited to accentuate the film’s poetic sensibility, images shift continually between small details outlining the characters’ emotional stakes and the world with which they’re forced to negotiate.
Though set during the second decade of the 20th century, Days of Heaven carries with it something of the ghost of the 19th, particularly in its undercurrents of philosophy gleaned from Emerson and Thoreau, and in its evocation of man’s uneasy status in a still-new age of machinery, enterprise and expansion. A love triangle gives the film its narrative centre, but another triangle is just as prominent in its thematic core, one drawn between man, nature and industry. The heavenly days are fleeting indeed, their vestiges cradled in the embrace of Malick’s sumptuous camerawork, as fleeting as the harvest season’s magic hour that sweeps across the prairies in so many of the film’s most achingly beautiful scenes.
It’s not only because of it’s key creative talents—Malick, cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, composer Ennio Morricone and the lead actors—that Days of Heaven is such a special film. Shot in the seemingly endless, roadless, Hutterite lands of Southern Alberta with a luxurious shooting schedule, an exceedingly loose observance of union restrictions and granted considerable freedom under the auspices of Paramount, it’s a film that could probably only have been made in that particular window of history, before the demise of director-driven projects, the exploitation of the land and the micromanaged system of filmmaking took hold.
The singularity of the elements feeding into Days of Heaven is something made clear time and again on Criterion’s new DVD, which in my book is probably the single-best single-disc package of the year. The ever-reclusive Malick is unsurprisingly not a collaborator in the film’s extras, but this in no way detracts from their appeal and information. In fact, there are times when great directors make the weakest commentators, as they’re unable to articulate their feelings about work that’s emerged from such a slippery, instinctive part of the creative consciousness. This might go some way to explaining why the audio commentary on Days is so good. Performed by the film’s editor, casting director, production designer and costume designer, the commentary is so rich with anecdote and laid-back analysis precisely because these comparatively peripheral collaborators were simultaneously heavily involved in multiple aspects of the film and able to stand back and see it from a distance. And they reveal countless fascinating tidbits of production history, like how John Travolta and Tommy Lee Jones were originally considered for the roles of Bill and the farmer, how Manz was found living in a laundromat in Manhattan, how Hutterite kids built the row houses for $5 an hour or how the clouds of locusts were created by dropping seeds from the sky and shooting them in reverse.
Of equal interest is a long, thoughtful interview with camera operator (and later cinematographer) John Bailey and a shorter, less articulate, but still fun interview with Wexler. There are also great interviews with Gere and Shepard that deal with their complex interpretations of Malick’s vision and his elusive and sometimes frustrating method of working with actors, not to mention with their own off-camera crushes on Adams. Last but not least there’s a wonderful extract from Almendros’s autobiography that talks in largely layman’s terms about the daring experiments with natural light that endowed the film with its haunting imagery, and an excellent essay by Adrian Martin.