Not that he was a great screen actor, necessarily...rather that here was a great screen presence, a man who exuded an old-fashioned dignity and a quiet integrity coupled with a sort of rugged tenderness.
Prior to being cast by Malick, Shepard was known almost exclusively as one of America’s most innovative playwrights, who by age 30 had seen 30 of his plays mounted on the New York stage (the year after Heaven was released, Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child).
Shepard wasn’t thrilled about performing...in fact, he once vanished after opening night of a production in which he acted and still harbors a horror of live audiences.
But he was natural and unforced in front of a camera. In Days of Heaven he plays a wealthy young farmer dying of an undisclosed disease who becomes an easy target for a couple of rootless lovers (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams).
The lovers, accompanied by her little sister (Linda Mantz) — who narrates the film in much the same manner that Sissy Spacek’s runaway teen narrated Malick’s first feature, Badlands — have come to the Texas plains as migrant workers. They decide to let the Farmer woo and wed Adams’ character, believing that she soon will be a rich widow.
What they hadn’t counted on was that the Farmer’s unsophisticated, pure love — despite his wealth he is a true innocent — would actually prolong his life.
Days of Heaven feels less like a conventional drama than a folk song about doomed lovers and a deadly romantic triangle. Malick’s oblique approach — it eschewed conventional actorish moments and character development for a ballad style that many found distancing — divided critics.
The film never made up its mind as to what it wanted to be, wrote a reviewer for the New York Times: “It ends up something between a Texas pastoral and Cavalleria Rusticana. Back of what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques."
But Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader praised Days as “a film that hovers just beyond our grasp—mysterious, beautiful and very possibly a masterpiece."
What it really boils down to is this: Days of Heaven is less a play than a poem.
What everyone agreed on was that Nestor Almendros’s cinematography was drop dead beautiful, a haunting evocation of a long-gone way of life: A steam locomotive pulling cars fairly bursting with migrant field hands; the Farmer’s house, a Victorian beauty rising from the surrounding wheat fields like the ghostly house at the center of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World”; a plague of locusts; fields burning at night.
Almendros won the Oscar for best cinematography for his work on Heaven — ironically half the film was shot by the legendary Haskell Wexler after the production ran way over schedule and Almendros had to move on to other commitments.
Malick’s directing style — or lack thereof — proved taxing for his union crews. A couple of weeks into the shooting he jettisoned his screenplay and urged his players to improvise.
Particularly upset was Almendros’ camera crew. Almendros was determined to shoot using mostly natural light, meaning that lighting technicians and electricians on the set spent much time twiddling their thumbs.
Moreover, Almendros and Malick fell in love with the “magic hour,” a window of opportunity just after the sun has sunk but before it is truly dark. Their determination to film the entire movie in the 25-minute window of opportunity that presented itself each day led to the shoot — most of it took place in Alberta, Canada — stretching out month after month.
It took Malick two years to edit the film (he had to find a story in a movie that had no true script) and even then he had to call his principal actors back a year later for reshoots (Shepard shot some of his closeups in the shade under a Los Angeles freeway).
But it was worth it. Not only did Days of Heaven launch Sam Shepard’s continuing career as a movie actor, but the film was nominated for four Oscars (Almendros’ cinematography was the only win) and for his sophomore feature Malick was named best director at Cannes.
See Bob's general introduction to the Fool for Cinema film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.