Days of Heaven: Criterion Collection
October 12, 2007
In retrospect, Days of Heaven (1978) can be seen as a transitional film for its director, Terrence Malick, whose first film, Badlands (1973), was a fictionalized account of Charles Starkweather, a young man who went on a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend. Malick’s follow up to Heaven was an adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel, The Thin Red Line (1998). While Badlands was a fairly straightforward film, Days of Heaven marked a significant evolution in Malick’s thematic preoccupations as he explored man’s relationship with the environment and its effect. The filmmaker also examined the destructive relationships between people. This is all depicted in an observational style reminiscent of a documentary albeit with some of the most stunning cinematography ever put on film.
Bill (Gere) is a short-tempered steelworker who flees Chicago with his girlfriend Abby (Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Manz) after accidentally killing his boss (Margolin). Bill and Abby are lovers but maintain a facade to the outside world that they are brother and sister because of the societal stigma of not being married. They travel by train to the Texas panhandle where they work harvesting wheat for a wealthy farmer (Shepard) who ends up falling in love with Abby. Bill’s tendency is to keep moving, to go where the work takes him while Abby wants stability. She reciprocates the farmer’s advances and she, Bill and Linda stay after the seasonal workers leave. At first, everyone gets along but when Abby and the farmer get married, Bill becomes increasingly jealous and unhappy with their arrangement.
The scenes where we see people harvesting wheat has an almost documentary feel to them as if we are watching archival footage of what it must’ve been like back then. Malick also shows what these people do in their spare time: playing blues music during the day and Cajun music at night while dancing around a bonfire. There are lingering shots of nature that convey the spectrum of its power, from grasshoppers eating wheat to gorgeous shots of the landscape as we see the characters playing golf on a grassy hill or a field of wheat blowing violently in the wind. Malick shows the gradual changing of the seasons and in another shot, a massive thunderstorm dwarfing the land. Every shot is exquisitely composed so that every frame could be a work of art, a still life.
If Badlands is tightly scripted then Days of Heaven has a looser feel with more shots of the environment and voiceover narration that is sometimes naive, sometimes all-knowing. Malick would expand on the themes examined in Heaven with more skill and in more depth with The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005). The first two thirds of Heaven has the meditative quality of Thin Red Line while the last third features the last vestiges of the lovers-on-the-run story from Badlands before he would move on to the ambitious scale of his next film.
A few years ago Paramount Pictures unceremoniously dumped Days of Heaven on DVD with a decent transfer and no extras save a theatrical trailer. While the folks at Criterion haven’t quite given it their deluxe treatment, they have provided a brand new, Malick-approved transfer that is a revelation and a few, yet substantial extras.
While it was too much to hope for a commentary by the media-shy Malick, Criterion has provided us with the next best thing: a commentary by art director Jack Fisk, editor Billy Weber (both men have worked on all of Malick’s films), costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden. Crittenden says that Malick wanted John Travolta for the role of Bill because he felt that the actor had a blue collar attitude but he couldn’t get out of his commitment to Welcome Back Kotter. Weber talks about Linda Manz’s inexperience as an actress and how she kept referring to Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard by their real names. Fisk talks about the challenges of constructing sets with very little preparation time while he and Norris reminisce at length about creating period detail. They all talk about Malick’s working methods and provide fascinating insight into the director’s creative process.
There is an audio interview with Richard Gere that plays over footage from the film. He says that he loved Badlands and told his agent that if Malick was doing another film he wanted to be in it. The actor says that the filmmaker spent a year casting and this drove him crazy and he almost left the film. Gere candidly reveals that Malick didn’t really know how to direct actors and this led to some frustration on their part.
Also included is a 2002 interview with Sam Shepard who mentions that Malick was shy and almost embarrassed to ask him to be in the film. Shepard also talks about the filmmaker’s attention to detail and how in awe he was of nature and his desire to capture it on film.
Finally, there are interviews with camera operators John Bailey and Haskell Wexler. Bailey says that Malick made a classic, pastoral film but with an edgy, American New Wave style. He also talks about Malick’s creative process and the cameras they used. Wexler took over when the film’s cinematographer Nestor Almendros left due to a prior commitment. He talks about Malick’s connection to nature and his working methods.