Criterion Collection geeks rejoice…the company that makes excellent films even better on DVD has done it again with the lush, sprawling epic that is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”.
Though this version of the 1978 classic was actually released on DVD last year — for the first time ever in an amazing widescreen transfer — I just finally got around to watching the copy I got for Christmas and let me tell ya, it’s beautiful.
Although I still consider “Badlands” to be Terrence Malick’s finest hour as a writer/director — don’t even get me started on his more recent works, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” which both bored me to tears — “Days of Heaven” is, hands down, the most Terrence Malick of all of Malick’s films.
Meaning that not only is “Heaven” absolutely gorgeous to look at — with all that flowing yellow wheat, and those breathtaking magic hour sunsets — but juxtaposed against all that glistening nature is a wry, out-of-left-field voice over by the film’s pint-sized star, Linda Manz, that is vintage Terrence Malick.
Even the most jaded Malick-haters out there — and trust me, I met plenty of them when I was at AFI, Malick’s alma mater — have got to admit that Manz’s hilariously deadpan voice over is probably the finest ever put to film. And considering Malick worked similar magic with Sissy Spacek’s rocking VO work in “Badlands”, that is really saying something.
For while Manz may not have as much screen time as her co-stars — Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and a shockingly young Sam Shepard channeling Gary Cooper big time — Linda Manz and her haunting voice over are the heart of soul of “Days of Heaven”.
Opening in the fiery steel mills of post-WWI Chicago, the movie begins with Gere’s character accidentally killing the foreman at his plant in a fit of rage. Accompanied by his younger sister, Manz, and girlfriend — a positively luminous Brooke Adams — Gere sets out by train for the Texas panhandle.
Hoping to avoid the questions of prying strangers, Adams poses as Gere and Manz’s sister and the trio soon finds work harvesting wheat on a fairy tale farm owned by the handsome, soft-spoken — not to mention, terminally-ill — Sam Shepard. When Shepard falls in love with Adams — I mean, come on, who wouldn’t? She’s like, a force of nature in this movie — things get kinda complicated and quicker than you can say “biblical plague of locusts”, everything falls spectacularly apart.
And while the story itself is filled with enough juicy melodrama for ten movies, the dialog — save for Manz’s aforementioned VO — is surprisingly sparse. Malick said at one point that he wanted “Heaven” to be like a silent film for the modern-era, and that is totally what he created here.
Simple, lush, beautiful, the movie is told almost entirely through it’s visuals and they are truly amazing. You will literally wanna frame every shot of this movie. And if you think you’ve seen “Days of Heaven” on video before…well, think again. This Director-Approved Criterion print will literally knock your socks off!
And the extras are even better. Aside from a very cool audio Q & A with Gere (recorded exclusively for this edition of the DVD) and a brief onscreen interview with Shepard (from 2002), there is also a rocking feature length commentary with legendary Art Director Jack Fisk (Mr. Sissy Spacek), Editor Billy Weber, Costume Designer Patricia Norris and Casting Director Dianne Crittenden.
But the highlight for me was a pair of video interviews with the men behind the cameras; Camera Operator, John Bailey and Cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. Bailey, who went on to become a very well-known cinematographer in his own right, speaks very highly of “Heaven’s” original Director of Photography, the late, great Nestor Almendros.
Not only did Almendros win an Oscar for his work on “Days on Heaven”, but, astonishingly, he was also going blind at the time! I know, crazy…huh?
And make sure and stick around for Bailey’s demonstration of how they shot some of those super cool locusts shots like the one below. Painting peanut shells black, the crew dumped them from an airplane onto the actors, then reversed the film to make it look like the “locusts” were rising from the wheat in mass. Wow…who needs CGI when you got guys like Bailey around? Awesome!
Even more interesting than that is the truly bizarre interview with Almendros’s co-cinematographer, the notorious “mad man with a camera”, Haskell Wexler. From the get-go it’s clear that Wexler is completely bonkers, but even though everything he says is totally crazy, you will not be able to keep your eyes off him. This is probably the strangest DVD extra I’ve ever seen, but I loved it!
That said, I urge you to run down to your local video store or click on over to your Netflix queque and give this modern classic another look. Or if you haven’t seen it before, then, you know, a first look. Either way, it’s well worth the time…