The Art of Image: Days of Heaven (1978)

Film is an art of images, yet the visual aspect is the most difficult part for anyone to convey in words. It is all good and well to talk about great cinematography, but it is another thing altogether to witness it. After all, every love affair with the movies starts by watching them and even after writing, blogging, discussing, arguing, and ranting about them, the pleasure of seeing a movie unfold remains the essence of the cinematic experience for any moviegoer. “The Art of Image” is an attempt to pay tribute to the beauty of the image by letting the image speak for itself. The series will specifically feature films that are visually stunning, and to kick it off, I’ve chosen Terrence Malick’s sophomore effort, Days of Heaven.

For those who don’t know, Days of Heaven is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is about a Chicago steel worker who accidentally kills his boss and migrates south to Texas with his sister and girlfriend. As is the case with most of Malick’s work, the film is beautifully realized on camera. The way that the movie captures the landscape’s natural beauty is stunning. Critic Andrew Ross said it was “the closest to poetry in motion that I have ever seen.” I really can’t disagree. Days of Heaven is the first film featured because it epitomizes naturalistic, poetically beautiful filmmaking.

Note: This post does not include spoilers, but there are bits of trivia about the making of the film that might be better enjoyed if you have already watched the movie. Also, unless you are reading this on a phone, I suggest that you read the full width version, which gets rid of the columns on either side of the article.

Cinematographer: Néstor Almendros (and Haskell Wexler)
Director: Terrence Malick


-The title is a reference to Deuteronomy 11:21: “That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them as the days of heaven upon the earth.”


-It’s set in Texas, but was filmed in Alberta, Canada.


-Art director Jack Fisk built the farmer’s house specifically for the film.


-Most of the movie was filmed during “magic hour”: late evening or early morning when the sun is setting or rising.


-Nestor Almendros, the principal cinematographer of the film, was nearly blind.


-Almendros was awarded the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work in this movie.


Days of Heaven was Richard Gere’s first time to star in a movie.


-Gere’s role originally belonged to John Travolta, but Travolta’s contract with ABC prevented him from participating.


-Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were both offered Gere’s role.


-The shot of the locust flying above the fields is actually a clip of falling peanut shells shown in reverse.


-The tractor in the fire scene was driven by director Terrence Malick.


-It took two years to edit the film. The final cut was 97 minutes and ended up leaving out much of the original script’s dialogue.


-Malick did not direct another movie until The Thin Red Line (1998), twenty years later.


-“Days of Heaven” is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made…This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us.” -Roger Ebert

29 responses to “The Art of Image: Days of Heaven (1978)

    • Thanks! I probably could have done any of Malick’s films, but this one is probably best known for its cinematography. It’s a pretty good movie in itself, but the visuals are definitely the highlight.

  1. Great post! I agree, this is definitely one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. I can’t believe the cinematographer was almost blind! That’s amazing!

  2. You could do a post like this on all of Malick’s films. This one has aged like a fine wine – gets better every time I see it…but what makes it a film or cinema rather than just a series of beautiful moving pictures is the imagery combined with the music and the narration that forms a unique narrative form that can only be created through the art form of film. This is why I would argue film is the ultimate modern mode of artistic expression as it combines image, music, written story, and staged acting all into one experience. Malick is one of the masters at this.

    • Agreed. And that’s why we love film, isn’t it? Each one is an experience and has more potential to strongly connect to an audience than most any other art. There is so much more involved in films than what we see, or that can be contained in any one post. Nothing compares to actually watching the movie, especially when it comes to Malick’s films, which are truly cinematic works of art.

    • Malick is definitely a master of beautiful filmmaking. Cool of you to check out the full width version! That’s how I originally wanted to do the post, but my site’s theme wouldn’t cooperate. Oh well…Glad you liked it! 😀

  3. God this looks fantastic! I love the shots and compositions. I was too young to appreciate the film when it came out the first time.Then I forgot all about it until now. A must see, thanks!

  4. A lot of Malick’s films are gorgeous indeed, but this one might be one of his best. Nice trivia too, Garrett, well done!

    • Hey Ruth! It’s a very good film, for sure, though I think The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line are my favorite of Malick’s. Thanks, I learned quite a bit while writing this post. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Days of Heaven (1978) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist·

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