Like Badlands, Days of Heaven is narrated by a woman and, in this case, by a child named Linda (Linda Manz). Bill (Richard Gere) is a short-tempered steelworker who flees Chicago in 1917 with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda after accidentally killing his boss (Stuart Margolin). The factory is a hellish, noisy place and Bill and Abby lead a bleak, dirty existence. It’s no wonder that they set out for the west with its beautiful, expansive landscapes. In a voiceover narration, Linda says of them, “in fact, all three of us been goin’ places ... looking for things, searching for things ... goin’ on adventures.” This particular passage is the key to understanding what motivates and drives these three people, especially Bill. They lead a nomadic existence, going where the work and opportunity for adventure takes them. Linda’s narration tells us little about these three people and, instead, offers abstract ruminations about life, like when she says, “Sometimes I’d feel very old like my whole life’s over, like I’m not around no more.”
Bill and Abby are lovers but maintain a facade to the outside world that they are brother and sister because of the societal stigma of not being married. They travel by train to the Texas Panhandle where they work harvesting wheat for a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) who ends up falling in love with Abby. Bill’s tendency is to keep moving, to go where the work takes him while Abby wants stability. She reciprocates the farmer’s advances and Bill and Linda stay on after the seasonal workers leave. At first, everyone gets along but when Abby and the farmer get married, Bill becomes increasingly jealous and unhappy with their arrangement. Initially, the farmer is sick and diagnosed to die within a year but once he falls in love with Abby, his condition improves, which complicates matters.
The scenes where we see people harvesting wheat has an almost documentary feel to them as if we are watching archival footage of what it must’ve been like back then. The first third of the film is almost like a sociological study as we observe how these people work and live off the land, much like the natives we see at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Malick also shows what these people do in their spare time: playing blues music during the day and Cajun music at night while dancing around a bonfire. There are lingering shots of nature that convey the spectrum of its power, from locusts eating wheat to gorgeous shots of the landscape, as we see the characters playing golf on a grassy hill or a field of wheat blowing violently in the wind. Malick shows the gradual changing of the seasons and, in another shot, a massive thunderstorm dwarfing the land. Every shot is exquisitely composed so that every frame could be a work of art, a still life. For example, when the workers first arrive on the farmer’s land, Malick presents a stunning pastoral setting with golden wheat fields in the foreground and green pastures in the distance while the clouds in the sky take on a purplish hue. Days of Heaven allows you to get lost in its landscapes and in the atmosphere Malick creates.
Malick eschews any kind of traditional narrative in favor of an abstract tone poem. The film simply presents these characters’ lives and we are just observing it. To that end, there is a real naturalism to the performances of the actors. We see the characters working hard off the land as was the custom back then. We learn about them from their actions and how they behave. Bill, for example, is headstrong and quick-tempered as evident from how quickly he starts a fight with a fellow worker who insults him. Brooke Adams has a wonderful, earthy kind of beauty and you can see why the farmer is attracted to her character. Abby doesn’t give much away but how she feels is conveyed in Adams’ expressive eyes. Sam Shepard has a natural, western charm and charisma that is perfect for his character and which would be exploited in a much more iconic fashion in The Right Stuff (1983).
Producer Jacob Brackman introduced fellow producer Bert Schneider to Malick in 1975. On a trip to Cuba, Schneider and Malick began conversations that would lead to Days of Heaven. Malick had tried and failed to get Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino to star in the film. Schneider agreed to producer and he and Malick cast a young Richard Gere, playwright Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams. The CEO of Paramount Pictures Barry Diller wanted Schneider to produce films for him and agreed to finance Days of Heaven.
Malick admired cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ work in Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970) and wanted to collaborate with him on Days of Heaven. Alemendros was impressed with Malick’s knowledge of photography. They decided to model the film’s look after silent films which often used natural light. They also drew inspiration from painters like Johannes Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, as well as photo-reporters from the turn of the century.
Jack Fisk designed and built the mansion in the wheat fields and the smaller houses where the workers lived. The mansion was not a facade (as was normally the custom) but authentic inside and out with period colors including brown, mahogany and dark wood for the interiors. Patricia Norris designed and made the period costumes from used fabrics and old clothes in order to avoid the artificial look of studio-made costumes.
Production began in the fall of 1976 in Alberta, Canada. The cast and crew found Malick to be cold and distant. He was having trouble getting decent performances out of his actors. Shepard had his own impressions of Malick, describing him as “one of those guys who has a great deal of difficulty having a conversation, but then every once in a while he’d go off on this extraordinary intellectual tangent.” Two weeks into principal photography and the footage that had been shot was not working so Malick decided to throw out the script, shoot a lot of film and work it out in the editing room.
According to Almendros, the film was not “rigidly prepared,” allowing for inspiration both in front of and behind the camera. Daily call sheets were not very detailed and the schedule changed to suit the weather. This upset some of the Hollywood crew members not used to working in such a spontaneous way. Almendros felt that most of the crew were used to a “glossy style of photography” and were frustrated because he didn’t give them much work. On a daily basis he asked them to turn off the lights they had prepared for him. Some crew members said that Alemendros and Malick didn’t know what they were doing. Some even quit the production but Malick encouraged and supported Almendros to use very little studio lighting, pushing this notion even further by taking away more lighting aids, leaving the image bare.
Due to union regulations, Almendros was not allowed to operate the camera himself and with Malick, he would plan out and rehearse the movements of the camera and the actors. He would stand near the main camera and give instructions to the camera operators. Almendros worked on Days of Heaven for 53 days but had to leave due to a prior commitment on Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977). The cinematographer hand-picked his replacement Haskell Wexler, who worked on the film for 19 days. The two men worked together for a week so that Wexler could familiarize himself with the film’s visual style.
The production was plagued with numerous problems. The harvesting machines constantly broke down, which resulted in shooting beginning late in the afternoon, allowing for only a few hours of daylight before it got too dark to go on. One day, two helicopters were scheduled to drop seeds and peanut shells that were supposed to simulate locusts on film. However, Malick decided to shoot period cars instead and he kept the helicopters on hold at great cost. Schneider claimed that Malick ran $800,000 over budget and this created a significant rift between them. They used thousands of live locusts for inserts and close-ups, captured by the Canadian Department of Agriculture. For the extreme long shots, the film was run backward and the actors walked in reverse so that the locusts appeared to be flying up.
Malick spent two years editing Days of Heaven because he was indecisive. After a year of editing, he called Shepard and asked him to come to Los Angeles to do some insert shots, including a series of close-ups done underneath a freeway underpass. Another insert included a shot of Richard Gere falling face first into a river which was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.
Days of Heaven received generally positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert wrote, “Days of Heaven is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made ... His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.” In his review for The Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr wrote, "Terrence Malick's remarkably rich second feature is a story of human lives touched and passed over by the divine, told in a rush of stunning and precise imagery. Nestor Almendros’s cinematography is as sharp and vivid as Malick's narration is elliptical and enigmatic. The result is a film that hovers just beyond our grasp – mysterious, beautiful, and, very possibly, a masterpiece.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel also wrote that the film "truly tests a film critic's power of description ... 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.” Time magazine's Frank Rich wrote, "Days of Heaven is lush with brilliant images.” The periodical went on to name it one of the best films of 1978. However, in his review for The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote, "Days of Heaven never really makes up its mind what it wants to be. It ends up something between a Texas pastoral and Cavalleria Rusticana. Back of what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques.” Days of Heaven went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Cinematography. Malick won the Prix de la mise en scene (Best Director award) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
If Badlands is tightly scripted, then Days of Heaven has a looser feel with more shots of the environment and voiceover narration that is sometimes naive and sometimes all-knowing. The emphasis on the environment and how it relates to the characters was a pre-occupation of some films in the 1970s, like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Along with Days of Heaven, they show the often harsh, unforgiving nature, with its raw, natural beauty, and how it affected the people who lived on it. Malick would expand on the themes examined in this film with even more skill and in more depth with The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005). The first two thirds of Days of Heaven has the meditative quality of Thin Red Line while the last third features the last vestiges of the lovers-on-the-run story from Badlands before he would move on to the ambitious scale of his next film.