4 stars (out of four)
Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven"--a tale of two fugitive lovers, a child, a wealthy farmer and a doomed Texas wheat-field idyll in the early 1900s--is one of the legendary '70s American films. Often regarded as a miracle of cinematography (shot by Nestor Almendros, for which he won an Oscar), it's far more, a movie that remains just as lyrical and powerful as it seemed in 1978. It's Malick's best--even though, of course, he doesn't work that often. (He's made only four films in a directorial career that started in 1973.) More than that, it's a picture that ranks high on any sensible list of the great American films.
"Days"--narrated with touching mix of hard-shell savvy and glowing innocence by the 12-year-old Linda (Linda Manz)--is the love-on-the-run story of Linda's older brother Bill (Richard Gere, in a part intended for John Travolta) and his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), who, to help him elude the law, poses as Bill's other sister. After Bill kills his Chicago steel-mill foreman in a fight, the three flee the North for Texas. There they join a band of migrant workers on the huge farm of a young, rich farmer who may be dying and who remains nameless. The farmer is played, in the role that started his movie star career, by playwright Sam Shepard.
What follows is a classic triangle. The farmer falls for Abby, marries her (with Bill's cynical encouragement, since he knows of the fatal illness). Then Abby falls in love with her husband. Bill leaves, then returns, and a tragedy ensues. All this is told, with a casual yarn-spinning air, by Linda, whose streetwise child's voice gives the movie a mixed air of timelessness and great specificity, knowingness and naivete.
That tone contrasts sharply with the incredible, rapturous images of the Texas Panhandle (actually Canadian) farm and wheat fields, filmed by Malick, Almendros and "additional" cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The cinematography, as well as the wistful, melancholy score by Ennio Morricone, helped make "Days" one of the great American romantic films. The images of threshers and wheat and the dying light before sunset suggest a world of untapped beauty and promise. The story breathes with eternal tragedy and unavoidable fate. Malick entered the pantheon of American filmmakers with "Days of Heaven" and his 1973 debut picture "Badlands," and he's remained there. This great movie, re-released in a new 35 mm print, is perhaps the most typical example of a `70s American art film--daring, romantic, rebellious but also filled with longing for the beauty of the past.
'Days of Heaven'
Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.MPAA rating: PG.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times