In September 2018, I launched a short-lived film website for Seattle Pacific University and began to write about films that have risen to a sort of legendary status that I call “sacred cinema” — films that routinely inspire spiritual reflection in dialogue with the Scriptures. Days of Heaven was the first film on that list.

That website was a great project, but my search for collaborators came up short, and it quickly became clear that I couldn’t sustain it entirely by myself as my teaching responsibilities increased. So I shut it down, and now I’m hosting some of those reviews here at Looking Closer.

Here is the “Sacred Cinema” piece on Days of Heaven.

The world was on fire. At least, that’s what it smelled like in Seattle during the middle of August this year. Those of us working on the Seattle Pacific University campus didn’t need to look out the windows at the heavy haze half-erasing the scenery; we knew from the incense on the air that we were engulfed in the consequences of wildfires — several of them — raging around the Pacific Northwest. It gave most of us an ongoing sense of unease, as the sun became an angry red eye in the sky, and certain prophecies about “the Last Days” came to our minds.

For some of us who love the movies, something else came to mind: a movie that is now 40 years old, but that fills the screen with the spectacle of a wildfire that roars at the characters — and at the audience — in a voice of apocalyptic judgment.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Days of Heaven, a film frequently celebrated as a landmark work of spiritual artistry and religious cinema.

In September 1978, Days of Heaven premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, earning Terrence Malick a Best Director award. While the initial critical reaction was mixed, over time the movie has become revered as a classic of American cinema. When, following this movie’s release, Malick disappeared from filmmaking for three decades, its lasting impression and influence on other directors cemented Malick’s reputation as one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. And when he returned to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line in 1998, critics were eager to see if he could still work at this level. (Short answer: Indeed, yes!)

Here at NxPNW, we’re remembering Days of Heaven as the beginning of an ongoing series we’re calling “The Sacred Cinema Canon“: films that inspire substantial and sustained engagement with questions of faith.

This story of adultery on the Texas Panhandle is set just before World War I, but it resounds with echoes of Old Testament drama. Blast-furnace worker Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with his foreman, then goes on the run with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda.

They settle as field workers for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard), who eventually falls for the irresistibly beautiful Abby. Bill sees this as an opportunity to get rich not-so-quick. But this involves pretending that Abby is his sister. And his plot is the first step toward violence, which blazes up in a conflagration that may be the greatest inferno ever filmed.

Sound heavy? It is. But the playfully poetic narration by young Linda (Linda Manz, whose voice is one of the film’s greatest gifts) keeps the goings-on from becoming too ponderous. It’s an enthralling story.

What’s even more interesting to those seeking a sense of the sacred in cinema is how Days of Heaven has sustained a reputation over 40 years as being “biblical” in the character of its storytelling.

The great American film critic Roger Ebert noted that this story is “set  against a backdrop of biblical misfortune: a plague of grasshoppers, fields in flame, murder, loss, exile.”

Christopher Runyon (Movie Mezzanine) writes,

Malick has always had a spiritual streak in him, and Days of Heaven was the first indicator of that side of him. Using the imagery, the mood, and the voice-over, he transforms this simplistic story into a Biblical parable. Not only do the vast wheat fields feel like an Edenic Promised Land, but it’s eventual end is brought about by none other than a swarm of locusts and a hellish fire (as foreshadowed in the italicized quote above). The way these days of heaven come to a close, it feels less like the end of a end of an era and more like an apocalypse.

Runyon goes on to read the film as an “Adam and Eve” story that explores the concept of original sin.

Michael Leary finds even more specific correlations between Malick’s narrative and the Bible at The Other Journal:

At the center of the story is an image of Ruth (Abby) and Boaz (The Farmer) which is eventually ruined by the envy of Bill, Abby’s lover and partner in crime. And against this current of Ruth’s story is an allusion to Abraham and Sarah.

In a Cinema Journal essay back in 2003, Hubert Cohen offered an in-depth study of the film’s Old Testament echoes, titled “The Genesis of Days of Heaven.” (You can read that here.)

These close readings of the film can enrich our experience of it. But we don’t need to identify parallels with Bible stories to appreciate Days of Heaven as a work of spiritual significance.

Here, Malick took a significant step forward from 1973’s Badlands in the development of his particular style.

Captured indelibly by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Malick’s film has a visual syntax so eloquent and graceful—its fields of gold cause its quiet characters to stand out like mythic figures—it would play powerfully as a silent film. (Shots of a hand extended to brush across the wheat fields have inspired numerous imitators, including Gladiator’s Ridley Scott.)

By attending to the details of his characters’ environmental context with as much reverence and patience as he does the characters themselves, he seemed to quietly insist that the created world itself was participating in the story: speaking into silences, carrying out both blessing and judgment, suffering the consequences of sinners’ misdeeds, and — to reference Romans 8 — groaning with desire for some kind of supernatural salvation.

This attention to nature becomes even more prominent in his subsequent features—The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song—and his cinematographers find ever more creative ways to weave the suggestiveness of the environment into the subtext of the storytelling.

So yes, as you discover or revisit Days of Heaven, read up on how others have interpreted the story of Bill and Abby, and explore its “biblical” connections. But don’t overlook the distinctiveness of this particular American story, which pushes back against the American ideal of “the pursuit of happiness” by showing what can result from a scheming and deceitful pursuit.

And note that it isn’t just the story that is told, but also the way in which the story is told — not just the “what” but the “how” of the movie — that carries a particular and profound spiritual quality. Days of Heaven doesn’t moralize in its narration or its narrative. It presents us with images glorious and terrible that speak in the way that nature itself speaks. As George Macdonald wrote,

When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them. Yet the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart.

Days of Heaven refuses to be reduced to any paraphrase or moral. It goes on speaking. In its preference for visual poetry over screenwriting prose, it seems to have new things to say each time a moviegoer returns to it — that has been my experience as a film critic in conversation with other film lovers who go on revisiting it and writing about it. It’s a film to have a relationship with. It still seems daring, ambitious, and at times almost miraculous—even now, 40 years later.

The Criterion Collection, which released the best home video edition of Days of Heaven, has just released an extended cut of Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life, which adds more than 30 minutes to a film that was already epic in every way, and which deepens the films engagement with texts from Job and Ecclesiastes. It also includes a narrative flourish lifted right from Augustine’s Confessions.

It seems that Days of Heaven and its predecessor, Badlands, while standing strong as pillars of American cinema, were just the beginning of the most substantial and sustained cinematic engagement with the Bible in cinema history.

When I was in practicing the art of the personal essay in my graduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, my mentor, the celebrated memoirist and theologian Lauren Winner, encouraged me to strive to write about my subject in such a way that the reader would never again think about that subject without also recalling to mind what I had said about it. In that sense, Terrence Malick works a kind of magic in Days of Heaven: Whether I’m reading about the Garden of Eden, or reading about Abraham and Sarah, or reflecting on biblical prophecy, or waking up to smoke in the air… I find myself thinking about this magnificent film.

[This post is an expansion on a brief review originally published at Image.]