Movie Review: Days of Heaven (1978)
by Alan F. Zundel
“Days of Heaven” is an exquisite cinematic experience, a morality tale presented with simplicity and heart-wrenching beauty. Starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as tragic lovers, it has belatedly come to be recognized as a must-see film classic.
I’ve been a film lover for decades, but I was not aware of this movie until recently. I saw a magazine article in which the actress Rachel McAdams listed it as one of her favorite romantic movies. A DVD copy was in our local library so I checked it out.
Gere and Adams play Bill and Abby, a poor young couple trying to survive in the Chicago slums circa 1916. Bill accidently kills a foreman at the foundry where he works, causing him to flee with Abby and his young sister Linda by jumping a train.
They end up in the Texas panhandle where a gruff older man (Robert J. Wilke) recruits them to help harvest wheat on an isolated farm. The unmarried Bill and Abby pose as siblings to avoid gossip, but the owner of the farm (Sam Shepard), a shy man of about thirty, notices Abby and at the end of the harvest asks her to stay on at the farm.
Bill, who has learned that the farmer is ill and is expected to die within the year, persuades Abby to tell the farmer she will stay on if her brother and sister can stay as well. They enjoy an idyllic life on the farm until the farmer asks Abby to marry him. Thinking he will die soon, Abby agrees, thus setting in motion events that end in tragedy.
Writer/director Terrence Malick won the Cannes Film Festival Award as Best Director for this, his second movie, but the film opened to mixed reviews. It has an unusual rhythm for a Hollywood movie, partly due to extensive editing. Production was reportedly difficult and it took Malick over two years to edit the film. He finally established some needed continuity by adding a voice-over from the character of Linda, played by Linda Manz.
The result is somewhat choppy, with many scenes of interactions between characters happening very briefly rather than building to a dramatic high point. Instead Malick included beautifully shot footage of realistic settings and laborers working. He effectively recreates life on early 20th century farm, using natural lighting, carefully designed costumes, and archaic farm machines.
The result is a feast for the eyes, almost as realistic as a documentary but with astonishingly beautiful cinematography. Néstor Almendros won an Academy Award for his work on the film. Ennio Morricone provided an equally captivating musical score.
This is not to say that the story lags. It develops with the familiarity of a folk tale, and in fact echoes of the Biblical story in which Abraham passes his wife Sarah off as his sister to the enamored Pharaoh. But there are no heroes or villains here, only ordinary people with their hopes and flaws searching for a better life. I cared about them. The film builds suspense as the farmer slowly catches on to Bill and Abby’s surreptitious interludes, climaxing with a fire that outdoes the burning of Atlanta scene in “Gone With the Wind.”
A young Richard Gere in his first starring role holds the screen with ease. My one complaint is that the filmmakers presented him clean shaven and with a stylish haircut in every scene, even when he was camping in a forest. He often looked prettier than his co-star. Brook Adams meanwhile is allowed to look dirty and disheveled when appropriate. But the two handle their roles well, relating to each other as complex human beings facing a difficult situation.
The supporting players are all uniformly good as well.
“Days of Heaven” is not what I would call a perfect film, but it is very good and well worth watching for film buffs. It has the feeling of a foreign film in its willingness to set aside expectations and shoot for something different.
It achieves that goal and then some.