Days of Heaven (1978 USA)

I arrived to the Terrence Malick party relatively late in life. My first Malick was The Thin Red Line when it came out, and I couldn’t make it all the way through it I was so bored. Viewed 20 years later, it now ranks, for me, with Apocalypse Now, Paths of Glory and Bridge on the River Kwai as the greatest war film ever made. The Thin Red Line signaled Malick’s return, and for me and a great deal of the cinema-loving world, it’s been a welcome return.

Dissertations could be written about the recurrent themes of man and nature in Malick’s films, particularly in how he chooses to photograph the natural versus the man-made. Days of Heaven, which I own on Criterion but had never watched, is now one of the most beautiful films I’ve personally seen (I had to Google to see if I was over-inflating it, and there are quite a few pieces that say the same thing). Set in Texas just before WWI (but shot in Canada), Malick’s attention to the details of the harsh natural world of the farm and the people who inhabit it make it, like almost all his films, as much a study of nature as a story about humanity.

Days of Heaven is a love-triangle: Richard Gere and Brooke Adams migrate from Chicago to the Texas panhandle to work as “baggers” on a wheat farm. The farm’s owner is a young Sam Shephard, and the first season portrayed in the film is a bounty, yielding The Farmer (that’s his character’s name) a six-figure return in a time that would amount to eight-figures today. The film is only 90 minutes long, but as with all Malick’s work, it takes its time. The hard work, communion and life of the farm workers is shown not as some Steinbeckian hellhole nor as an idyllic worker’s paradise, but something pleasantly in-between – hard-as work, but work that pays and is rewarding.

The Farmer takes an interest in Abby, and why not since she and Bill present themselves as brother and sister, even though it’s clear to all the workers they are lovers, not siblings. The film is narrated by Linda, possibly the sister of Bill or Abby but who knows – she speaks in that manner that Scout Finch had, a perceptive understanding of things she doesn’t even seem to realize she knows. She describes their first season on the farm in manners that make it dream-like, and when The Farmer asks Abby to stay on for another year (and as a byproduct Bill and Linda), her narration deliberately gets more pessimistic.

The madness of the final act of Days of Heaven is quite simply breathtaking. I’m not sure how they did it or what effects were involved, but when a Biblical plague of locusts sweeps over the wheat field and The Farmer, in fury at Bill for being its semiotic cause, catches his own field on fire, the devastation is maddening. As the hired hands try to put out the fire, Bill screams in a rage “let it burn!!” and burn it does.

Although this can be said of all movies, here it’s a literal truth: it must be seen to be believed.

The film acts a preamble for the horrors of the first industrialized war the world was about to embark upon. Like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, it is a thematic refutation of the once-contemporary political illusion that war was the only solution for the world’s problems – there, the issue was class resentment among a powerful trio of men; here, it is the disruption of the natural balance of plant, tend and harvest to the wholesale upheaval of the natural order that was about to be unleashed.

[Season 3 of Twin Peaks dwells on this as well, though instead of WWI, its concern is the use of the first atomic bomb. /cbk]

Its bitter end echoes a heartbeat where the pretentiousness of its relative contemporary Bonnie & Clyde did not. The films are clearly attempts to illustrate things that are equally-dynamic but different, and I always felt like B&C’s ending was over the top with its tommy guns and ultra-violence, while Days of Heaven ends as Bill must have known it would, a chase, a bang and a whimper.

Creede Kurtz

I write about the movies I see and a few other things.
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