I found myself getting very annoyed the other day – with something written almost 30 years ago. I had just watched – for the fifth or sixth time – Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven and felt as rewarded as on the first occasion I watched it. Indeed, even more so because, as is the case with really good films, books or plays, the depth becomes more perceptible with the closer examination multiple encounters offer.I then did a little internet trawl to check out if many felt the same way about it. In doing so I cam across the September 14, 1978, review by HAROLD C. SCHONBERG in the New York Times. How wide of the mark can you be? I thought as I read it. I also thought how terrible an experience it must have been for Mallick on reading it. Had it anything to do with his failure to make another film until he made The Thin Red Line in the 1990s? In those 20 years, of course, it became clear to many that those like Schonberg who consigned Days of Heaven to the rubbish heap had completely missed the point. Malick today stands out as one of the truly great poets of cinema – along with Andrei Tarkovsky, Ermano Olmi and, perhaps, Terence Davies.This was Schonberg’s judgement:“Some years ago Terrence Malick produced, wrote, and directed
Badlands, a film that created a certain stir. Now comes Days of Heaven… it obviously has cost a lot of money; it is full of elegant and striking photography; and it is an intolerably artsy, artificial film. “At the beginning, it is as though this is going to be a film about European immigrants in the early days of President Wilson’s presidency. Then it switches to the Texas Panhandle, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope still play. Migrant workers, fleeing the big cities, help reap the wheat harvest of a young, wealthy farmer. There are all kinds of special effects, including a plague of locusts and a prairie fire. There is a romance, in which the girlfriend of a young worker, who poses as his sister, marries the farmer. What results is jealousy and murder. “But Days of Heaven never really makes up its mind what it wants to be. Back of what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques. The film proceeds in short takes: people seldom say more than two or three connected sentences. It might be described as the mosaic school of filmmaking as the camera and the action hop around, concentrating on a bit here, a bit there.”
What can one say about all that? Essentially it is a hopeless case of a person reading a film totally on the surface and failing to grasp any of the suggestions, the nuances, the allusions which go to create its deep layers of meaning and observation of human existential experience and what lies beyond it. It is like someone coming to The Waste Land and complaining that it is all over the place, does not quite know what it wants to be – funny, pathetic, apocalyptic or whatever. So be it. A man sees what he wants to see – or is able to see – and disregards the rest, because he has no choice. But what a pity that an authoritative paper like the New York Times should allow a review like this to be inflicted on an artist of such sensibility as Mallick.On a first viewing Days of Heaven presents a visual feast. The cinematography and direction are flawless in their marrying a vision of nature, human tragedy, social description and an historical epoch. The economy of expression – which Schonberg mocks as “the mosaic school” – was superb. Take for example the very short scene where Woodrow Wilson’s campaign train passes through the Texas Panhandle and the migrant workers line up to see it as it passes. One can imagine Schonberg and his ilk asking, “What was all that about?” While you can’t say they should know, at the same time you know what they miss because they don’t know. This is the cinema of allusion and if we are unable to connect with such allusion we are the poorer for it.