Film: “Days of Heaven” with Richard Gere
There are certain films that defy the test of time: their stories could work equally well today or 100 years ago.
Such a film is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Shot for a mere $3 million, it faced challenges from the outset: among them, bad weather on location in Canada, and crew members who refused to work with Malick due to his cold and idiosyncratic style. Once in the can, another two years of editing and agonizing fine-tuning took place before the firm was finally released in 1978.
The result was a masterpiece. I was fortunate enough to rewatch it today for the first time in 45 years, and I’m pleased to report that it remains a masterpiece.
The plot is simple: set in 1916, a love triangle develops between Bill, a poor day-laborer (Richard Gere); Abby, his ethereal girlfriend (Brooke Adams); and a shy but wealthy farmer (Sam Shepherd, billed as The Farmer) who falls in love with Amy while she and Bill are working his wheat fields in the Texas Panhandle. Bill and Abby, who pose as siblings, implement a scheme to marry Abby to The Farmer, who has been diagnosed with a fatal illness. This would allow them to remain together and inherit the farm after he dies. The Farmer eventually catches on and the result is not pretty.
In 1978, Gere was just beginning to come into his own as a leading man and Malick’s camera frames him like an Adonis. But he reveals himself to be more than a pretty boy: Gere’s sorrowful look as he sees Abby enter into a marriage with The Farmer is a heartbreaker. With her dark eyes, ivory skin, and black hair piled high, Adams skillfully holds her emotions in check till the film’s shattering ending. Already well known in the world of New York theater, Shepherd plays against type as a gap-toothed rube who’s being cuckolded.
A fourth character, Bill’s 11-year old sister Linda (Linda Manz), who is traveling with Bill and Abby, moves the story forward, narrating in first person the trio’s flight westward to the Panhandle. Her story, told with the innocence of a child, is the story of early 20th century America: the westward movement of immigrants and poor laborers who struggled and rode in boxcars across hundreds of miles to find work.
Cinematography by Haskell Wexler and Nestor Almendros turns every scene in the wheat fields into a Wyeth landscape. Scoring by Ennio Morricone and Leo Kottke shows what genius can be inspired by Camille Saint-Saens’ haunting “Carnival of the Animals.” All this, coupled with a terse, underwritten script by Malick, makes the film a perfect storm of music, art and dramatic talent.
“Heaven” was a commercial failure: its box office gross of $3.4 was only slightly more than the cost to make the film. On a positive note, critics and film nerds like me continue to worship it. Variety called the film "one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1970s." The late Gene Siskel wrote: “Some critics have complained that the Days of Heaven story is too slight. I suppose it is, but, frankly, you don't think about it while the movie is playing".
“Heaven” continues to appear in polls of the best films ever made. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
At the age of 80, Malick is still actively working behind the camera. In 2019, he started shooting his next film, “The Way of the Wind” which tells the story of Jesus’ life through a series of parables and which features Mark Rylance as Satan. Making a movie about the Supreme Being all sounds very interesting but to many of us the only true god remains the man who made “Days of Heaven.”
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