Director Terrence Malick's second film focuses on a love triangle (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard) set against a wheat harvest circa 1917. Nestor Almendros treats us to lingering shots of the wind rippling over wheat fields, sunsets looming over haystacks, scurrying rabbits and foxes, thunderclouds lowering in the distance; he duly won the 1979 cinematography Oscar for his deftness with the Panaglide camera and for filming during "the magic hour" with few artificial lighting aids.
Malick prioritized visual over verbal -- the joke on the set was that they were shooting a silent film -- and he prepared meticulously. But he procrastinated on casting so long that the locations eligible for shooting a wheat harvest kept moving north, all the way from Texas to Alberta -- onto prairies so remote and unforgiving, says Shepard, that farmers "put lights in the old, abandoned pioneer houses so they'll feel less alone."
Extras on the new Criterion DVD don't include the notoriously shy Malick but do include commentary by Shepard and Gere, and by the art director, editor, costume designer, casting director, camera operator, and second director of photography.
This is the film on which Malick developed his habit of cutting out great swaths of dialogue. As compensation, though, there's some amazing voiceover commentary -- delivered in a strained, plaintive Midwestern accent by a teenage girl (Linda Manz, playing Gere's little sister) -- that advances our perspective on the narrative and characters in unexpected ways. As Shepard says, "You can't intellectualize Terry's films. They're visceral. You can analyze it all you like, but they're like poems. They go straight to your psyche."
In the end, the motifs in Days of Heaven -- civilization's encroachment on Nature, class conflict, all the lovers' passionate schemes -- end up amounting to the same thing. Because in Malick's biblical world, with its plague of locusts and its apocalyptic fires, schemers are punished. We cannot outwit Nature or our neighbors or ourselves, and everything that lies in wait for us is farther down an open road.