Terrance Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” from 1978, came to the big screen in 70 mm, but unfortunately I did not see it that way. I enjoyed it very much on my TV screen, taking in the wheat fields on the Texas Panhandle (although it was actually filmed in Canada) through my ancient Magnavox color television set. I love Malick’s emphasis on the visual because it gives the eerie effect of projected memory. Dialogue-based movies seem to drag and stifle my curiosity about exploring the scene. In Malick’s movies, I explore the geometry of the frame.
In Days of Heaven, Malick shows a burning wheat field and a plague of locusts descending on a wheat crop. These events happen well into the story. By then, the audience is comfortable with the story-telling style. At the beginning of the film, however, Malick layers scenes of Richard Gere starting a fight in a Chicago steel factory with a teenage girl’s (Linda Manz) narration of the events that led her, Gere and Brooke Adams (as Gere’s girlfriend) to hop a train for the wheat fields of the Texas panhandle. At a Texas wheat farm owned by Sam Shepard, the family settles into the daily routine of harvest and planting chores. Shepard falls in love with Adams, and with Gere’s approval, she marries the rich but dying man.
Since the film sets up Gere as a violent and impetuous man, I expected a confrontation between Shepard and Gere and perhaps a tragedy. However, the tragedy lies not so much in Shepard’s fate but in Gere’s destiny. He experiences heaven on the wheat farm and Manz’ narration says so. But after an earlier exit from the farm, Gere returns with a pink motorcycle to find Adams resigned and happy about her marriage to Shepard. In this heaven, Gere plays Lucifer, suffering from the sin of pride. Shepard finally figures it out. When Gere leaves the farm for good, he returns to the violent and uncertain world. Outside of heaven, there are no guarantees.