How Terrence Malick ever got to work so freely in the Hollywood film industry is anyone’s guess. As far as I can see, he never had to work for anyone, never had the indignity of small budgets, limitations of time, or any lack of resources. He simply went about the work of making films, his films, right from the start without compromise and with all the benefits of the best that Hollywood could offer from the biggest stars to the best technicians in the world. All on stories that were not exactly popular entertainment. Some guys have all the luck.
Days of Heaven (1978) was only his second film, a follow-up to his critical success, Badlands (1974). It’s the kind of film that really looks like someone worked long and hard to create. The way some David Lean films give the impression that ten-second shots may have taken 500 crew members and 20 weeks to get in the can. While it’s one of the most breathtaking visual experiences you will ever encounter, it’s also one of the most non-dramatic. Scene after scene depicts beautiful images of characters who say nothing and merely stare at the empty spaces around them. Since the spaces don’t talk back there’s not a lot of drama.
This is the film’s modus operendi. There is a plot but it’s not so much told as suggested. In the early 1900s, Chicago steel worker, Bill (Richard Gere), strikes his foreman (Stuart Margolin) and flees from the law with his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). They avoid shaking up the social order by pretending that Abby is his sister. as well. The three join a group of harvesters in the Texas panhandle, working for a wealthy Farmer (Sam Shepard) who lives in a big house that dominates the flat farmland. One day, Bill overhears that the Farmer has only a year to live. When the Farmer falls for Abby, Bill formulates a plan. If Abby were to marry their employer, in less than a year they’d all be able to live in that big house.
In one of the DVD’s many extras, Richard Gere talks about how the original script contained a more conventional approach with the usual dramatic conflicts conveyed in long scenes of dialogue. Almost all of this was filmed, but ended up either dubbed over by narration or tossed onto the cutting room floor. Gere jokes that after watching the film for the first time, he thought that it would’ve been great to know that all he had to do was stare blankly in space rather than give a full performance. But all kidding aside, after typing this plot out I can understand why Malick may have decided against telling this story in a straightforward manner. It’s nothing more than a silent era melodrama, the kind of soapy story that would’ve had D.W. Griffith throwing Lillian Gish into an icy river. Great cinema for 1925, not so great for 1978.
What makes the film great cinema is that Malick just ignores this plot, ignores his characters, and goes for that singular, intangible quality that makes all of his films unique. He puts the visual and aural emphasis on a vast, natural world that would be nothing more than a backdrop to the human story for most filmmakers. But in a Malick film, the camera may spend more time examining the grooves in a tree than the expression on a character’s face. For him, man is just a small part of a world that is full of life and death which just keeps going round with or without his petty squabbles, crimes, loves, or melodramatic plots. It’s what allows his stories to transcend their simple genre labels like the true crime flick (Badlands), war film (The Thin Red Line) or historical romance (The New World).
Since most of the “acting” has been stripped bare here, Gere’s performance is easily the most restrained he’s ever given. He’s still a strong presence onscreen, but it’s all bottled up. Adams gets my John Cazale Award for the most underrated actress of the 1970s. The late Cazale, best known as Fredo from The Godfather, is the link to so many of the best films of the ‘70s, like The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter.
Adams is in her own way just as vital, with strong performances in many fascinating films such as Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Richard Lester’s Cuba and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. She’s at her most simple and beautiful here, her dark hair and pale features almost ghostly amid the natural light and landscapes.
Gere, Adams, and Shepard are all fine given the limitations Malick places on his performers, but Manz is given more rope and she remains to this day the single most talked about aspect of Days of Heaven outside of it’s visuals. There have been many talented child actors since the beginning of cinema from Jackie Coogan to Tatum O’Neal and Hayley Joel Osment. All of them are very talented in the sense of knowing their craft. Manz has no craft, or appears to have none, she simply appears to be. There isn’t a single moment in the film where Manz seems to be acting, lying, playing or forcing her reactions.
Manz narrates the film and it never once sounds like anything but the thoughts and words that would come out of this street tough kid’s mouth. Full of both wonder and cynicism, musings about the coming of the apocalypse and the value of people, the narration is also pure Malick. Used in much the same way throughout Badlands, it portrays the world through the eyes of an innocent and creates an ironic distance between our objective view and the character’s peceptions onscreen.
Days of Heaven has been released to DVD before, by Paramount in 1999. But that release was a bare bones DVD with a less than pristine transfer. Now a less than pristine transfer may be OK for Animal House but for a film of this beauty, nothing short of perfection is acceptable. Criterion has long been known for their painstaking attempts at perfection and under the supervision of Terrence Malick, editor Billy Weber, and camera operator John Bailey, Criterion has produced the finest presentation of the film to date on a single DVD that even includes a fair share of extras.
These include an audio commentary by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden but not, of course, the reclusive Malick himself. Gere is not seen but heard in a new 22-minute audio interview in which he talks quite a bit about Malick’s methods or lack of them and still seems to be conflicted about the very spartan final cut.
Video interviews with camera operator Bailey and Shepard are informative but another with co-cinematographer Haskell Wexler is perplexing. Wexler starts out talking about the subjective nature of “truth” and then goes into a breakdown of his own credited contributions to the film that seems a bit defensive.
A 40-page booklet contains an excellent essay on the film by Adrian Martin and an excerpt from one of the greatest books on filmmaking ever written, cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ A Man with a Camera. Almendros writes about his experiences shooting Days of Heaven, the complex efforts to film during “magic hour” to give the film it’s very unique soft look, and the influence of silent filmmakers on both he and Malick throughout the production.
All in all it’s a decent amount of extras, although both Adams and Manz are, for some reason, nowhere to be seen. So is the film’s original theatrical trailer and, of course, Malick himself. But since the director never had to play ball before why should anyone expect him to now?