Thursday, July 5, 2012


Days of Heaven, USA, 1978
Dir: Terrence Malick
Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Ganz

There is something to be said about Days of Heaven. Even though the film has become one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1970s, directed by one of cinema's most reclusive filmmakers, there is something poetic about it. Days of Heaven is a film with a very long history. Shot in 1976, editing took two years for Terrence Malick to complete. The production was so tumultuous that as soon as he completed it, Malick left the States and moved to Paris in a self imposed creative exile. It would be a full 20 years before Malick directed The Thin Red Line, a war film starring a host of well-known actors including Sean Penn and Nick Nolte.  

Malick first broke out in 1973 with Badlands about a young couple on the run. Think Bonnie and Clyde but with narration and classical music. It put Malick on the map, and made his next project highly touted by emerging actors like Richard Gere and John Travolta. Gere was eventually cast as the lead in Days of Heaven, Bill, his first movie role. Also cast was Brooke Adams as his lover Abby, and Linda Ganz as his younger sister. The plot follows the trio as they try to successfully cheat a dying landowner out of his wealth. The characters are not bad. They've just never been given a fair chance. 

The film, set in Texas in 1916, is slow, like a painting, and takes time to warm up to. It was originally panned by critics but has since been recognized for its brilliant cinematography. It was actually shot by two very distinct cameramen. Nestor Almendros, frequent collaborator of Francois Truffaut, was hired but had to leave once the production ran late. Acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler took over the duties. Days of Heaven ended up winning the Oscar for Cinematography, but only Almendros was awarded a trophy. 

It was a very meticulous production. Mr. Malick insisted on shooting primarily during a time in the day which became known as “magic hour,” that short period when the sun is rising in the morning, and setting in the evening. According to Almendros, this limited the cast and crew to less than an hour of shooting a day. Malick then spent two years editing the picture, struggling to find the voice he wanted the film to have. The spark for the finished film came when he experimented with narration by the films young star, Linda Ganz, like he did with his previous films star, Sissy Spacek. All of Malick’s subsequent films also features some form of narration.  

If Badlands was Terrence Malick’s introduction to movies, then Days of Heaven was his mature second effort that simultaneously propelled him to cinema’s top and drove him away from it. The film also starred Sam Shepard as the farmer who is fooled into marrying Abby. Most viewers will single out the visual greatness of Malick’s work, but there is a very strong story involved in this film as well. In fact Malick borrowed parts of the plot from a back-story in The Three Musketeers.

Today, Malick is 68 years old and has found new life in his movie career after the success of 2011’s The Tree of Life. The film won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and helped Malick secure the director’s role on three new projects in the works. He remains one of cinema's most talked-about, but least seen and least interviewed filmmakers. But that just adds to the mystique of his life and movie career which can be characterized as a quiet and unnerving body of work. Days of Heaven, depending on your perspective, might be his finest work.


  1. I love Malick's work, and 'Days of Heaven' is no exception. 'The Thin Red Line' is my favorite of all his films and is actually set in the South Pacific during World War II, not Vietnam. IMDB says that is an "adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical 1962 novel, focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during the second World War."

    Love your blog, by the way. I have discovered so many amazing films I might have missed if not for your terrific reviews. Keep them coming!

  2. You're right about Thin Red Line, it is about World War II and not Vietnam. You're a careful reader :)

  3. Such a great list. You really nailed it. Great work.
    Underrated Movies