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Home Classic Movies Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick’s Darkly Bucolic Classic

Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick’s Darkly Bucolic Classic

Days of Heaven Richard Gere Brooke Adams
Days of Heaven movie with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Terrence MalickA new print of writer-director Terrence Malick’s second film, the widely acclaimed 1978 drama Days of Heaven, will be premiered on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesSamuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The screening celebrating the 30th anniversary of Days of Heaven will be presented as part of the Academy’s Gold Standard series.

Hailed as one of the greatest American motion pictures of the 1970s, Days of Heaven inspired at least one reviewer to compare its pictorialism to that of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise. Perhaps appropriately so, as a sizable chunk of Malick’s film was shot – by Nestor Almendros, with “additional photography” by Haskell Wexler – during the hours of sunrise and sunset. Also, some assert that Murnau’s 1930 drama City Girl was the inspiration for the story, which is part bucolic nostalgia and part Shakespearean tragedy.

The plot revolves around a trio of big-city outcasts who find an apparent bonanza in the wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle (actually Alberta, Canada) during World War I. Two lovers (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) pretend to be siblings so as to fool a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) who has fallen for the woman – and who, they believe, is terminally ill. But ailing or not, the farmer does have eyes to see and ears to hear. Linda Manz plays both the third big-city migrant and the film’s wise-beyond-her-years narrator.

Many film critics consider Days of Heaven Malick’s unquestionable masterpiece. As so often happens, I disagree. In fact, I much prefer the director’s first film, Badlands (1973). Despite its evocative atmosphere and marvelous production values, each time I’ve watched Days of Heaven I’ve felt a certain detachment from the lead characters and whatever befalls them. I find Linda Manz’ narration distracting, while Richard Gere (in a role originally intended for John Travolta) is a thoroughly unconvincing working-class toughie. Also, Malick’s pace feels a tad too leisurely at times and the film’s poetry more than a bit calculated.

Days of Heaven Brooke Adams Sam Shepard

Having said that, I must add that Days of Heaven is a must-see on the big screen, especially for those interested in (re)discovering that curious mix of grandiosity/intimacy so prevalent in American filmmaking of the 1970s. As a plus, you’ll get to see Sam Shepard deliver what may well be his most complex and nuanced performance. And who knows … You may end up agreeing with those film critics who find Days of Heaven one of the greatest American films ever made.

In addition to Almendros’ Oscar win (as per Academy rules, Wexler was ineligible for his “additional” work, though he reportedly shot about half of the film), Days of Heaven received nominations for Costume Design (Patricia Norris), Music – Original Score (Ennio Morricone), and Sound (John K. Wilkinson, Robert W. Glass, Jr., John T. Reitz, Barry Thomas). Also, Malick was voted best director by the National Society of Film Critics and won in that same category at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, while Days of Heaven was voted best film by the National Board of Review.

Richard Gere in Days of HeavenThe new print is from the collection of the Academy Film Archive, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Tickets for Days of Heaven are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID, and may be purchased online at the Academy’s website, in person at the Academy box office or by mail. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The Samuel Goldwyn Theater is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. All seating is unreserved. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

Days of Heaven images: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library.

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