Days of Heaven was director Terrence Malick’s second film after the much-celebrated Badlands. A difficult shoot, a long editing process, and a simple tragic story told from the distancing point of view of a child, it was mostly well-received, though some critics complained it was too pretentious and arty.
Today, it is considered one of the best films of the 1970s and one of the top films of all time.
The story begins in 1916 and concerns Bill (Richard Gere) a young Chicago mill worker who kills his foreman after an argument. With his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) he jumps a train and heads west. Bill and Abby pretend they are siblings to prevent talk about their relationship. Arriving in the Texas panhandle, the trio finds work for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard).
The work is relentless and brutal. It soon becomes apparent that the farmer has his eyes on Abby. Overhearing a conversation between the farmer and his doctor, Bill concludes the farmer will die soon. He encourages Abby to marry him so they can live well after the farmer dies.
Of course, things do not go as planned. The farmer does not die quickly. Jealousy and the farmer’s suspicions about the true nature of Abby and Bill’s relationship compel Bill to leave for a time. When he returns, the festering feelings lead to tragedy.
The plot, as I said, is almost absurdly simple. There is very little dialogue, and most of that seems improvised. Reportedly, Malick threw away the script during filming and encouraged the actors to “find” the story.
This lead to the difficulties with editing. Malick eventually hit on adding a voice-over by Manz. Her unique voice and matter-of-fact delivery enhances the action of the film. Her commentary is anything but on-the-nose; instead, it’s oblique and contemplative, as if she’s remembering the events at a later date.
The film was not shot in Texas. Alberta, Canada stood in for the Texas panhandle. However, it certainly has the wide-open spaces feel of Texas. The farm spreads as far as the eye can see. The farmer’s Victorian mansion looks almost absurd stuck in the middle of it. The opulence is also a stark contrast to the way the farm workers live, outside regardless of the weather.
And they work. How they WORK. As Linda says in the voice-over, they work from sun-up to sundown with no breaks. It’s backbreaking work, too. They can be let go at the whim of the foreman at any time.
Some critics have complained that the love triangle is shown at such a distance it strangles the emotion of the story. But I find the distance is necessary. Bill uses Abby to gain a better life, but you can almost understand why. Without regulations and unions, workers were treated vilely during the early 20th Century. Watching Bill shovel coal into a huge furnace—probably having to do it for 12 straight hours—seems utterly inhumane. Children work side-by-side with adults near dangerous equipment. There’s never the slightest chance that all that hard work will elevate them to something better.
All of this to enrich one man (his foreman comments after the harvest is done that he will make well into the six figures from the one year—a fortune now, and even bigger one then). The farmer (who is never named) seems like a nice fellow and unfortunate at that, considering he is dying. But when he begins to suspect the truth about Abby and Bill, he turns into a possessive and violent man, who probably believes he’s entitled to deal with them in any way he sees fit because of his place in life.
The film is rightfully famous for its cinematography (by Nestor Almendros, who was beginning to lose his sight during the shoot). The film crew even complained about the complicated set-ups and shooting during the time of day as the sun is setting. The film production ran over so long that Almendros had to leave for a prior commitment. Haskel lWexler took over for him, but was only credited with “additional photography,” making it seem his contribution to the film was minor.
In spite of all the problems with the film’s production, it remains today one of the most breathtaking examples of the hyper-realistic films of the 1970s. Nestled in the overwhelming beauty of the landscape is poverty, brutality, betrayal, tragedy, and loss. As Linda comments, most of us are half angel and half devil. Days of Heaven makes the case more eloquently than most films.