Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Days of Heaven

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaven that this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memory—which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven; rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic composition—a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.

Not that history is not an important element in the film. In a way, Days of Heaven is a celebration of an epoch; and that, not the wheat, is why it kept reminding me of Dovzhenko’s Earth. Permanence, more than change, is stressed by Dovzhenko’s static poetry, in which only the slightest movement betrays the fact that a shot is a shot and not a still photograph, and in which images are deliberately more important and memorable than events. Both Dovzhenko and Malick intercut people and nature with a curious kind of disjunctive montage that is more impressionistic than Eisensteinian. Indeed, Eisenstein and Pudovkin seem reconciled here: we get both collision and linkage, as in the sequence where, wading in the stream, Bill tells Abby she should stay behind after the harvest, as the farmer has asked. Seeing parts of each other they’ve not seen before, the two young lovers keep trying to reconcile their divergent feelings spatially, by moving toward each other; but Malick’s montage diabolically and revealingly keeps them from ever occupying the frame together during the course of this brief, tense conversation. Or the economy with which the rich farmer is identified with his holdings: After we learn he has noticed Abby, we see a transitional shot of his house dominating the horizon and humbling the small figures moving on his land; then, without any further establishing shot, Malick cuts directly to a low-angle close shot of the farmer asking an offscreen foreman about Abby’s background. No other preparation for the farmer’s sudden appearance in the frame has been necessary, since the shot of the house is alone enough to put us in mind of his power and presence.

This identification of people with their milieu is what enables Malick to extend his film’s implications without being ponderous about it. A dying capitalist; oppressed workers seeking to profit by, and ultimately to hasten, his death; Abby as young America, walking the narrow path between an impulsive immigrant worker class and a complacent, powerful ruling class, finally finding her way out of the conflict by boarding a train filled with soldiers off to fight the First World War. This is the stuff of which heavy-handed allegory is made, and it is to Malick’s lasting credit that he has gently indulged the allegory while altogether avoiding the heavy-handedness. The swarm of locusts, bringing about the farmer’s ruin, is associated in the farmer’s mind with Bill’s jealousy; the good harvest, with Abby’s tender beauty; the fire, with his own avenging rage against Bill; but these things are also, to us, locusts, wheat, and fire, never merely symbols. In Malick’s world, both in Badlands and in Days of Heaven, we have a middle ground between naturalism (in which environment determines behavior) and expressionism (in which behavior is reflected symbolically in environment): a world in which the destinies of characters and environment are so inextricably interwoven that they cannot avoid turning inward upon themselves.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

Screenplay and direction: Terrence Malick. Cinematography: Nestor Almendros; additional cinematography: Haskell Wexler; time-lapse cinematography: Ken Middleham. Art direction: Jack Fisk. Costumes: Patricia Norris. Editing: Billy Weber. Second-unit direction: Jacob Brackman. Music: Ennio Morricone; additional music: Leo Kottke, Doug Kershaw. Production: Bert and Harold Schneider.
The players: Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis, Stuart Margolin.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.