Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Days of Heaven (1978)

Outstanding films are usually greater than the sum of their parts. This seems obvious. When you take great acting, great cinematography, a terrific story and excellent direction, the end result is like the left side of Einstein’s famous equation: a quantum leap in energy. My choice for this month’s Seldom Seen is a paradox. It is somehow less than the sum of its impressive parts. It’s a potential supernova that ends up being a pretty nice sunset. Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven is one of cinema’s neatest near-misses.

Not that contemporary audiences saw it that way. Days of Heaven reaped an armful of awards at film festivals in Los Angeles, New York, and Cannes. Judges were probably overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of the cinematography. Originally shot in 70mm to maximize the quality of the final print, Days of Heaven represents the best work of one of the world’s best cinematographers, Nestor Almendros. This Spanish-born, Cuban-educated artist, who worked for most of his life with such European directors as Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, was a shoe-in for the Oscar for Heaven. And thanks to a wonderful book by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers, we have Almendros’ own description of how the extraordinary look of the film was achieved:

“….we shot under very exceptional lighting conditions. We very often shot in what [Malick] called the ‘magic hour.’ We would prepare and wait the whole day, then we would shoot at the time after the sun set. We had about twenty minutes before it got dark. We would just shoot frantically to make use of this beautiful light.”

When asked how he did the night exteriors with the campfires, Almendros said that they invented the technique of using propane bottles with burners to simulate the light of the fire. This is illusion at its best. You can’t just go out and photograph people around a campfire. Between your eyes and reality is the chemistry of film negatives. What you see is not what you get:

“….normally when you shoot a scene that’s supposed to be firelight, you have a spotlight and you wave and shake pieces of clothes or plastic or something in front of it to imitate the flickering of flames. But that always looks very phony and ridiculous….So since my technique has always been realism, I thought why not go to the real thing and use real fire? So we had the bottles of propane with the burners and we put them as close as we could to the faces of the people, but out of range of the camera. We lit it exactly as we would light it with electric light only we used a flame instead. And that light had the real flickering, the real movement and also the color temperature because it’s very warm and has its own kind of reddish quality that you don’t get in electrical light. You know the scene where the fiddler is playing and all the people are dancing? All that is lit with propane.”

For anyone interested in how films are made, Masters of Light is a Rosetta Stone. It’s still in print, and is complemented by a documentary film with the same title, consisting of interviews with several of the world’s best cinematographers and examples of their work.

So what’s the beef? With all this hotshot photography, why am I saying this isn’t a great film? Is it the musical score? Not likely. The composer is the great Ennio Morricone, with bonus instrumentals by 12- string guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke. Is it the direction? Terrence Malick has been called the cinematic equivalent of J.D. Salinger. Days of Heaven was his second film. It’s also his last since 1978. No one knows why. A former journalist and MIT philosophy professor, Malick’s first film, Badlands (1973), based on the Starkweather-Fugate killings of the late 1950s, was a powerful, creepy piece of Americana which would be echoed in Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album and in Dominic Sena’s 1993 film Kalifomia. Collaborating closely with Nestor Almendros, Malick was at the top of his game in Days of Heaven.

Is there a problem with the story?  Perhaps. Days of Heaven is about a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere), his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend (Brooke Adams) who are forced to flee their home city to work as itinerant farmhands in the Texas panhandle. The time is just prior to World War I. They wind up on a 20,000-acre spread owned by a young but ailing farmer (Sam Shepard) who falls in love with Brooke. Gere, convinced Shepard’s character is going to die soon, convinces Brooke to marry him in the hopes of setting themselves up for a better future. Inevitably, the husband recovers and Brooke comes to love him. This love triangle, lost in the vast prairie lands which wash like great rolling waves around the farmer’s Victorian house, has the makings of Greek tragedy. There is one moment— when we see Shephard, his face distorted by the certain knowledge of betrayal, starkly outlined against the massive timber framework of his suddenly pointless home—when we realize how truly powerful this movie could have been. Malick’s a fine writer, but this screenplay needed the Eugene O’Neill of Mourning Becomes Electra to freeze the blood in our veins.

Sam Shepard’s is the strongest performance in Days of Heaven. It figures. Here’s a man who does nothing by half measures. How many resumes would include several solid movie roles, the screenplay for Paris, Texas, an Oscar nomination (for The Right Stuff), a Pulitzer Prize, eight Obie awards for playwriting, a rock’n roll play with Patti Smith, and a stint as drummer for the ultimate folk-punk band, The Holy Modal Rounders? Richard Gere should be so lucky.  Gere’s performance is the other weakness in Days of Heaven. He doesn’t do a bad job, but he’s just not quite convincing, Shepard has the kind of features that make him look like he was born on the prairies, with the wind howling through; Gere’s a smooth city boy. No rough edges. A steelworker he’ll never be. No qualms about Brooke Adams’ performance; hers is a completely believable mix of Chicago cynicism and sudden tenderness. Linda Manz’s precocious narration runs a perfect counterpoint throughout.  And veteran heavy Robert Wilke, in one of his last screen appearances, makes a splendid avenging angel.

There’s an added bonus in Days of Heaven for those of us in the Great White North. The setting’s supposed to be Texas, but we know that it’s really Lethbridge, Alberta. The whole thing was filmed there, with the cooperation of Lethbridge’s Hutterite Communities. The actual farming scenes in Days of Heaven, with the gypsy-like bands of laborers and great chugging steam tractors, are among the finest evocations of this vanished life I’ve ever seen.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

After writing the paragraph below, and then re-reading my original review, I find myself in the unusual position of not knowing if I agree with myself.  It’s been a couple years since I last watched Days of Heaven, but it seems I was even more impressed the second time around, No caveats this time.  Perhaps, being prepared for the film’s stunning visuals the second time around, I was better able to focus in on the drama of the main characters and appreciate how that drama was played out.  Perhaps I’ve gotten soft in my old age.  Some day I’ll give Malick’s film a third viewing to see which of me I still believe.  In the meantime, here’s my last impression:

Days of Heaven remains one of the most visually impressive films I’ve ever seen, but that wouldn’t amount to much if I didn’t care about the people in the story.  The same was true of Malick’s previous film, BadlandsDays of Heaven’s classic, tragic love triangle is solidly anchored in the performances by Sam Shephard, Brooke Adams, and Richard Gere, just as Badlands’ doomed lovers-on-the-run were given dramatic weight by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.  In retrospect, I’m rather surprised that I didn’t draw any parallels between Days of Heaven and The Marriage of Maria Braun, which I’d reviewed the month previous.  In both stories, we have three people who deserve to be happy but discover that the heart’s a poor mathematician—it can only count to two.

Check out the fine 35-minute documentary by Cameron Beyl, Terence Malick: Days of Heaven & Crimes of Passion (The Directors Series), available on YouTube:

It was only after watching this documentary that I learned that another master cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, had filled in for Almendros when he was unable to complete Days of Heaven.  A remarkable accomplishment given the challenging nature of the shoot.  I don’t know if Wexler continues to remain uncredited in more recent versions of the film; he wasn’t happy to have his contribution go unacknowledged.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert Wilke
Year: 1978
Original Review: February 1997


Blue Underground

Because we can’t all be watching Last Year and Marienbad.

From the website:

“The entertainment company dedicated to guilty pleasures for adventurous movie lovers….

It’s any time between the late ’60s and mid ’80s, and you’re standing in front of a decrepit movie theater in an unsavory part of town. The titles on the marquee called you like a beacon. You were lured by the reputation of an obscure director, the talents of a notorious star or even the promises made by an amazing poster. You honestly don’t know what you may be getting yourself into, or even if you’ll get out of the theater alive. For some strange and wonderful reason, you are compelled to see movies about psychopaths, cops, robbers, zombies, cannibals, madmen, strange women and more, with an audience often comprised of the same.
Today those theaters are gone, but that excitement – and these films – remain. These will be definitive discs of some remarkable films, all fully restored, remastered and packed with the most mind-blowing extras in the business.”

For those times when only Killer Nun and Spaghetti Westerns Unchained will do…..


“Gallica est la bibliothèque numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de ses partenaires. En ligne depuis 1997, elle s’enrichit chaque semaine de milliers de nouveautés et offre aujourd’hui accès à plusieurs millions de documents.”

This might seem an odd choice for Seldom Scene, but when you think that the five million documents on this website give you access to books, magazines, newspaper articles, photographs, sound recordings, and manuscripts for key figures in the history of cinema such as Georges Méliès, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, etc. etc. it’s well worth checking out.  The Homepage is available in French, English, and Italian.  And if you want to branch out from film history, there are features like “800 Medieval Manuscripts from France and England” and “Natural Science Illustrations.”  I love checking out the latest sound recordings and the regular feature “Front page from one hundred years ago” where you can look at the front page of every major French newspaper exactly 100 years back.  Comparable websites are those run by the U.S. Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute.  I may be mistaken, but I think Canada trails way behind on this one.

The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films

This list, from August 2016, comes courtesy of BBC Culture.  The top 5 films, in order from #1 to #5?  Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love, There Will Be Blood, Spirited Away, Boyhood.  The site includes “Surprising Facts,” critics’ comments on the top 25 films, and “Why Mulholland Drive is Number One.”

Films Worth Talking About:

Hra o jablko (The Apple Game), The Chess Player, Love Sublime, Honningmane (Honeymoon), Tudo Bem (Everything is Fine), la Cage aux folles, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Pretty Baby, Grease, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Midnight Express, Autumn Sonata, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Halloween, Superman—The Movie, The Cheap Detective, Up in Smoke, Bye Bye Monkey, Woyzeck, Violette Nozière, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Sürü (The Herd), An Unmarried Woman, Days of Heaven, Who’ll Stop the Rain? The Fury, Coma, The Buddy Holly Story, A Wedding, Northern Lights

The Bigger Picture

FilmsBadlands (1973), Bound for Glory (1976)


BooksThe Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham

The Word on the Street

[NOTE:  The Imdb User Reviews for Days of Heaven are surprisingly mixed.  I’ve mainly included positive comments below, but I could as easily have chosen critical pans that complained of poor acting, miscasting, absent storytelling, and glacial pacing.]

“If any movie could be called filmed poetry, this would be it. From its first opening shot to its last frame, there is such lyricism and emotion and beauty that it almost leaves you speechless. I have not seen this movie in years, but it still affects me and I want to write about it. There is a pervading sadness to the movie, like a memory of something wonderful that could have been, that should have been, that almost was, and is all the more tragic because it was in your hands but slipped through your fingers. This is not a movie for everyone, but if you believe that film can be one of the highest forms of art, this is the film to see.”  [katsat]

“Days of Heaven is, in fact, what its highest praisers want you to believe: awe-inspiring cinema, sometimes even mind-blowing in what can be filmed and brought forth in a beautiful, seamless mold of narrative and poetry, photographed with an eye for the prairie and fields like very few others and for the period detail. But it’s also wonderful- and haunting- because it evokes what it is to look back on something and remember things vividly, clearly, with a subjectivity that is startling in its scarred interior….And as if the crisp eye of Malick and his DPs Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler weren’t enough, there’s Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack to boot. Here’s a crucial part of Malick’s success in translating the theme of remembrance and feeling both the moment and the mood of the whole period and characters in the film (sometimes combined): just listen to the theme of the movie, used later in movie trailers and commercials, as it reckons a nostalgic tinge for something that one can’t firmly grasp but is felt deeply and without really fully knowing the whole scope.”  [MisterWhiplash]

“Malick refuses to explore his characters’ motivations. The viewer is deliberately kept at an arm’s length, and Malick eschews cinema’s traditional notions of narrative development. Instead, the story is told as a succession of fleeting moments, the sort that a young girl (the film’s narrator, Linda Manz) might pick up through her day-to-day experiences and muted understanding of adult emotions. Note that the girl is always kept separate from the dramatic crux of the film – the love-triangle between Billy, Abby, and the Farmer – and her comprehension of events is tainted by her adolescent grasp on adult relationships and societal norms. I was reminded of Andrew Dominik’s recent ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)’ {another sumptuously-photographed picture}, which also refused to explore its title character, Jesse James, kept at a distance through the impartial objectivity of the historical narrator. In Malick’s film, Linda’s narration tells us one thing, and the viewer sees another. But one can never fully understand the complex emotions driving human behaviour, so perhaps the girl’s perspective is as good as any other.

‘Days of Heaven’ derives its title from a passage in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:21), and Malick’s tale of jealousy and desire is suitably Biblical in nature. Essential to this allegory is an apocalyptic plague of locusts, which descend upon the wheat-fields like an army from the heavens. When the fields erupt into flame, quite literally from the broiling emotions of the film’s conflicted characters, the viewer is confronted by the most intense manifestation of Hell-on- Earth since the burning village in Bondarchuk’s ‘War and Peace (1967).’ But, interestingly, Malick here regresses on his own allegory: Judgement Day isn’t the end, but rather it comes and goes. Life is driven by the inexorable march of Fate: The Farmer (Sam Shepard) is doomed to die within a year; Bill (Richard Gere) is doomed to repeat his mistakes twice over. In the film’s final moments, Linda and her newfound friend embark purposelessly along the railway tracks, the tracks being a physical incarnation of Fate itself: their paths are laid down already, but we mortals can never know precisely where they lead until we get there.”  [ackstasis]

“The other outstanding element of the film is the music; it is bookended by Camille Saint-Saens spine-tingling Aquarium theme from his Le Carnaval Des Animaux, but the rest is awash in a fabulous string/woodwind score by the great Ennio Morricone, one of his very best….After making this fabulous movie, writer-director Malick took a twenty-year break from cinema and moved to France to teach. This was a great shame, because he is one of the most original, creative and talented directors of all time….”  [ShootingShark]

Claims of this being the most beautiful film ever were ignored by Cahiers du Cinema in its 2007 inventory of cinema’s top 100 lookers. Perhaps that’s because it looks like Mr Malick had ears of corn that offended his eye removed or painted golden, or of had carriage wheels placed at a particular “just-so” angle. This mannered beauty seems more appropriate for paintings, which perhaps capture rare moments. A cinema composed of paintings can come off feeling too artificial. What Days of Heaven does, it does well, starting off with Joseph Wright of Derby, going through Wyeth and even Hockney. Not perhaps entirely original in conception, the film feels influenced by Visconti’s The Leopard / Il Gattopardo (hunting with dogs sequence) and I am told recreates wholly footage from Murnau’s City Girl and Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale.  [oOgiandujaOo_and_Eddy_Merckx]

Should have been called “Wheatlands”; an appropriate title to complement Malick’s previous (and much better) movie “Badlands”. This movie shows that not all directors have as their prime objective to entertain. In fact, some of them have as their main objective to show wheat in all its splendour.  [fedor8]