Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick

It all began when I watched the “The Tree of Life” trailer in the theatre. I was mesmerized. A few seconds into the trailer I decided it would be a must-see for me. Then later it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 22. I’m now catching up on Terrence Malick’s previous works before “The Tree of Life” screens here in our city in a few weeks time.

The reclusive auteur Terrence Malick has only made five feature films in his directing career which spans four decades: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978, Won Oscar for Best Cinematography), The Thin Red Line (1998, seven Oscar noms), The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life (2011, Won Palme d’Or at Cannes, so far). His academic background in philosophy at Harvard and later as a Rhode Scholar at Oxford has found its expressions in his cinematic creation.

“Days of Heaven” in the Criterion Collection is a fantastic restoration and transfer. I watched it on the DVD. I suppose the Blu-ray would be even more spectacular. Some call “Days of Heaven” one of the most beautiful films ever made. Well, I haven’t seen all movies ever made to say that, nevertheless, of all that I have seen, such a statement is certainly not an exaggeration. Using mostly natural light, every shot is cinematic poetry. Enthralling scene sequences joined together to produce a piece of artwork that speaks the quiet, and sometimes silent, language of visual eloquence.

Written and directed by Malick, the film is nostalgically set in the 1910’s. The story is about Bill (Richard Gere), a hot-tempered steel mill worker in Chicago, who has to flee after an altercation leaving a man dead. He and his lover Abby (Brook Adams), and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) run away together and end up working in the harvest on a Texas farm. Pretending to be Bill’s sister, Abby is soon courted by the farmer (Sam Shepard). Overhearing that the farmer has only a year to live due to an illness, Bill persuaded Abby to marry the farmer so they can inherit his properties after his death. Every choice has its consequence. The plot unfolds in intriguing ways. Biblical parallels are deftly embedded in the scenes, Abraham and Sarah, the plague of locusts, Linda’s voice over allusion to the apocalypse… not just offering stunning images but thought-provoking as well.

And I must mention, I have a connection to the movie. It was shot right here in southern Alberta, and some scenes right here in Calgary, in Heritage Park to be exact. No, I wasn’t an extra. But proud that this regarded by some as one of the most beautiful films was shot entirely on location here in this province. It is the magnificent expanse of Alberta’s wheat fields and not those in Texas that we see in the film. The reason: from the DVD commentary I learn that the wheats were four feet tall in Alberta while those in Texas were only two feet.






CLICK HERE to read my review of The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick.

CLICK HERE to my post “A Sequel to Days of Heaven, Mr. Malick?”

Photo Source: Use as per outlined in Fair Use, for review and educational purposes only.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

14 thoughts on “Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick”

  1. Some of the story line reminded me of a few different Bible stories…Moses, Abraham and Sarah. The photos you shared are stunning. I’d like to watch this film. Hope you have a good week!


    You’re right exactly, I was writing a paragraph on Biblical parallels and then I deleted it, don’t know why. Abraham and Sarah, the plague of locusts… Thanks for the reminder, I should put that back in.

    Yes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this film… and The Tree of Life in the coming days.

    Have a good Memorial Day!



  2. I love the Texas-Alberta connection. And it only took one look at the house featured on the movie poster for me to say, “That’s the Fulton Mansion!” Granted, it’s been redesigned just a bit – primarily the porch and balcony to the side – but it’s the Fulton. Whether the resemblance is intentional I can’t say, but I don’t think you could show that poster to any native South Texan without getting the same response. You can see the frontal view from the architectural drawings here.

    Beyond that, I was left almost breathless by the visual references in the stills you’ve chosen to show us. The fourth, fifth and sixth could be paintings by Andrew Wyeth. The woman in the kitchen is Vermeer. The one below that recalls Jean-François Millet’s “The Angelus”.

    Ironically, many of the images also make me anxious – they’re almost perfect renderings of what the countryside looks like in the grip of wildfire. Like the Fulton Mansion, that may be purely accidental, but for being filmed in Alberta, it certainly captures Texas!


    1. Linda,

      We share similar mental associations here: I was thinking of Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” when I saw the wheat field and the single house on top of the hill. As for the house, from the commentary, I learn that it was built by art director Jack Fisk out of plywood. Unlike other movie sets, it’s not just a facade, but a real house with all its very rustic yet stylish, and nostalgic interior. That it looks like the Fulton Mansion could well be the attempt to make it look like a Texan monumental building. After the film production, they sold the house and the buyer just hauled it away. I’ve seen actual ‘house moving’ on our highways before.

      And yes, that was a Vermeer moment with the girl Linda at the kitchen… she was only 15 years old at that time, a natural.

      As for the one below it, those are locusts in the sky, thanks for pointing me to Jean-François Millet’s “The Angelus”. Yes, it does look like that painting. The movie still depicts the invasion of the locusts, the cosmic element shrouding over the farm, where humans are subject to the tiny insects, swarms and swarms of them. It’s interesting to hear how they make that scene too. But I won’t comment too much here. Yes, Linda, this is definitely one film that you should get a hand on. BTW Malick was born in Waco, Texas and very much Texan raised. Do watch for his “The Tree of Life” coming soon.


  3. Arti,

    I am ambivalent about going to see Tree of Life (it runs tonight in our little local cinema – in original version even!) as the reviews have been very mixed. Of course, deciding for myself is the best option so I’ll probably go.

    But Days of Heaven is now a must-see, thanks to this post. The stills are beautiful, and knowing beforehand that it was shot in my home and native province is even better.
    Your breadth of reference is impressive, and your writing quite wonderful. I’ve signed on to get your posts by email – don’t know how that didn’t happen before.


    1. Deborah,

      Yes, I’m aware that The Tree of Life got boos and applause, a mixed response indeed. But I’m just reserving my judgement until I’ve seen it… and eagerly waiting for it. From the Malick works I’ve watched so far, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, I quite appreciate his style of storytelling. And all the art and cinematography are just wonderful, all the ones I’ve seen.

      As to the film location of Days of Heaven, from the commentary it says it’s on Hutterites land near Lethbridge. They’ve used a part of their wheat fields, and did the harvesting for the movie before it’s too late. So they’ve only spent two weeks there and got all those scenes done. It’s really interesting to watch the supplements on the DVD. Make sure you get the Criterion Collection.



  4. I have just added “Days of Heaven” to my Netflix queue after reading here and falling into the images. I loved reading your comments with Linda, and I felt the Wyeth connection too. I learned much more here too. I look forward to this very much.

    By the way, have you seen “Downton Abbey”? Forgive me if you’ve ever talked about it here, and I forgot. It’s a wonderful Masterpiece Theater we have been watching on DVD.


    Yes, I’ve seen “Downton Abbey” and loved it. Eagerly waiting for its continuation and conclusion later this fall. I just don’t understand why they don’t have everything all completed before showing it. No I didn’t write about it. But did go on a live Twitter one time with one episode, just for the experience.

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy “Days of Heaven”. Have you seen other Malick films?



  5. Have you seen The tree of life yet? We saw it last night and I’m still digesting it. The viewing was a little complicated because I was sitting next to my friend whose son – in his mid-20s – has terminal cancer. It was hard to watch. The narrative was a little challenging but I found it engaging – he certainly made his audience work – and the philosophy was somewhat confusing. What WAS he saying? But I like films that challenge me like this. There’s a great review at that expresses my feeling pretty well exactly – so much so that I can’t imagine reviewing it myself. I’m tempted but I probably won’t.


    1. whisperinggums,

      Yes, I’ve seen The Tree of Life. And my reaction to it is… well, I’m a little ambivalent. I’d like to see more of the middle part where the human dimension comes in, albeit the cosmic perspective at the beginning and the end is cinematically astounding and equally thought-provoking. I hesitate to write a review on it considering there have been so many written already, from both camps: the haters and lovers. But of course, I can still express my own view and feelings. The ironic thing is though, as much as my high expectation of it, after seeing it I’m not driven as affectively as to put down in words my response. And this I dread too: whatever I say may not be original. But I can tell you my favourite parts are all captured in the trailer (that’s what makes me want to see it so eagerly at the beginning), including the deeply moving scenes of childbirth (Brad Pitt holding up the minuscule feet of his newborn son), the celebration of life and love at the backdrop of Smetana’s majestic music “The Moldau”.

      Thanks for the link to Salon’s review. I’ve one for you too, one that represents ‘the other camp’. I think the reviewer has just about answered the question on every viewer’s mind: “What’s Malick saying?”


      1. All you say makes complete sense … and that’s an interesting review. I like the likening it to three movements, though was the last movement allegro? I must look at the trailer. I was so out to touch in May-June – didn’t go to the movies for 2 months due to travel – that I didn’t see it, so I went to it pretty cold. As time passes I think I’d like to see it again … but write about it? Hmm …


  6. I recall when scenes from this movie were being shot in southern Alberta. I was a student in residence at the University of Lethbridge at the time, and distinctly remember the night when a suite-mate came in after he had spent the day as an extra, shooting the grass fire scenes. He was in a dusty, smokey homesteader costume and I didn’t recognize him when he swaggering in. Chris Montoya, wherever you are . . . . . you scared the daylights outta me!


    1. Barb,

      What wonderful memory! I admit as a long time Albertan, I only found out recently that the film was shot here. I’m sure you must have heard stories from your friend about being an extra at a Malick shoot… must be exciting, especially in those dramatic fire scenes. Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Hope to hear from you again!


  7. Awesome write-up, Arti. I learned a lot here I didn’t previously know about this film, which I have always loved. The screen-caps are gorgeous. Makes me want to re-watch the film in a new light!


    Thanks for your kind words. I watched the film on DVD borrowed from a library, but I’m thinking of buying a personal copy. The excellent Criterion Collection is a ‘must-have’ item. The booklet that comes with it and the special features are most valuable for me in appreciating the film even more.



  8. Days of Heaven is one of my favorite movies, but I haven’t watched it in years. I need to add this to my movie queue to see again. I missed Tree of Life in the theatres, but may catch it on DVD.


    I think all of Malick’s films have wonderful cinematography. Watching them on the big screen definitely will enhance your enjoyment. Hopefully The Tree of Life will come around your area as a second run film. Do watch for it.



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