Days of Heaven
One-of-a-kind filmmaker-philosopher Terrence Malick has created some of the most visually arresting films of the twentieth century, and his glorious period tragedy Days of Heaven, featuring Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, stands out among them. In 1910, a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his supervisor, and he, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and his little sister (Linda Manz) flee to the Texas panhandle, where they find work harvesting wheat in the fields of a stoic farmer (Sam Shepard). A love triangle, a swarm of locusts, a hellish fire—Malick captures it all with dreamlike authenticity, creating a timeless American idyll that is also a gritty evocation of turn-of-the-century labor.
Criterion has ported their lovely DVD edition of Terrence Malick’s gorgeous film Days of Heaven over to Blu-ray, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
The original DVD edition’s transfer surprised many since it changed the look most people were accustomed to. Previous presentations of the film presented a golden hue over the film (the DVD edition from Paramount looked this way) and it was assumed, at least by me, this was how the film was supposed to look. The new transfer, worked on and approved by Malick, did away with that, presenting more natural looking colours. Whether this is a revision or a “correction” I’m not sure, but whatever the case may be that DVD did look damn good and the film had new life brought to it. Now that same high-def transfer that was used (and downscaled) for that DVD edition is presented here in all its glory on Blu-ray.
The DVD still looks pretty good in comparison but the Blu-ray does blow it away in many areas. Compression artifacts are no longer an issue and some of the problems with edge-enhancement are gone. The picture here is sharper and presents more detail, though some sequences are limited in this regard because of how some sequences were shot and the lighting used. Blacks are certainly deeper and inkier here than what the DVD offers, and shadow delineation actually looks better. Colours are also a bit more vibrant, best shown in some of the shots of the horizon.
Some sequences look a touch smoother than I would have liked, but it still retains film grain and looks quite film like. The print is in pristine shape and I can’t say I noticed much in the way of damage, the worst possibly being what looks like slight fading on the edge of the film in a couple of darker sequences. Other than that it’s no doubt that this looks wonderful, certainly the best home video presentation for the film so far.
The Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is a touch sharper than the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track. For what is a reflective and fairly quiet film it does make great use of a surround system. The opening sequence in a steel mill presents the film’s best use of the surrounds, effects from the various machines echoing around, quite loudly I might add, with distinct, noticeable splits. There’s also a couple other surprises, like a flying circus that appears midway through. The film has a very dreamlike quality to it and part of that has to do with Ennio Morricone’s score for the film, which has never sounded better. It fills the sound field beautifully, sounding crisp and clean. There’s no distortion to be found and it almost sounds like the music was newly recorded, and dialogue is clear and intelligible when it’s supposed to be. In all a satisfying and lovely presentation of the film’s wonderful soundtrack.
Criterion ports everything over from their lovely DVD edition to this Blu-ray. It might not be the loaded edition many—like me—had been hoping for but there’s still some decent material here. All features are presented in 1080i/60hz.
First is an audio commentary featuring editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. Short of getting an actual commentary from director Terrence Malick, which will more than likely never happen, this is about as good. All the participants have been recorded together but when they talk they usually stick to their own involvement with the film, only conversing with one another on occasion. Throughout they all offer praise of Malick, and talk about his techniques. Weber’s comments on editing the film—and Badlands—are especially intriguing, offering up information on some of shot material and dialogue that had been cut (a lot.) There’s a lot of information on Malick’s knowledge on film stock, how the light was captured, the tricky matter of filming in Canada (which involved a lot of smuggling back and forth across the border apparently,) and possible alternative casting (it almost sounds like the cast could have been up instead of John Travolta, Genevieve Bujold, and Tommy Lee Jones.) There’s of course also plenty of information on the costumes and sets of the film. I think one of the bigger surprises presented for me was how the studio, Paramount, wasn’t all that concerned about the film and the years it took to edit. More shocking is that key execs loved the film and didn’t even care if the film made money or not. While Norris seems to be a little bitter about Canada and says a couple questionable things (she makes some comments alluding to the attitudes of the Canadian members of the cast and crew I seriously question, especially since other members of the track are caught off guard by them and seem to have no idea what she’s talking about) it’s a decent track, well worth listening to.
The remaining supplements are all interviews.
First we get “actor” interviews with Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, Gere’s recorded exclusively for this release, while Shepard’s is edited from a 2002 interview. Gere’s interview is audio only, played over clips and stills from the film. I almost suspect it was supposed to be a commentary track as it does sound as though he is watching the film, though I can’t say for sure if this was the intention. What we do get here, though, is a surprisingly strong recollection of the film from Gere, and he has many lovely things to say about the film, “Terry,” and his costars. He talks about the lighting, and the long editing process, and also mentions how shocked he was when he saw a rough cut of the finished film; he was surprised to see a lot of the dialogue had been cut out and admits he was actually a bit mad about this at first, saying that the actors could have probably “saved brain cells” if they didn’t have to memorize all the dialogue. He obviously loves the film, though, speaks affectionately about it, calling it a European saga set in America. If there was more it’s actually a shame it’s not included here, but what we do get from Gere is quite good. Shepard’s 12-minute interview focuses mainly on his character and how a man like him lived during the era, even comparing him somewhat to Charles Foster Kane. He also offers a bit on Malick’s presentation of nature. Both are certainly excellent, though it is a bit of a shame they couldn’t get Shepard for a newer interview.
The next set of interviews deal with the cinematography of the film and features interviews with cinematographers John Bailey and Haskell Wexler, running 20-minutes and 12-minutes respectively. Both talk about cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and both touch on the “magic hour” lighting. What seems surprising to me is that some of the more beautiful shots in the film were more or less taken on a whim and captured accidentally. Bailey gets into more detail about lighting while Wexler recalls some specific shots and then explains how he got his “additional” credit.
The booklet, which looks to be exactly the same as the DVD’s in a quick comparison, presents a nice essay on the film by Adrian Martin, and an excerpt from Nestor Almendros’ autobiography Man with a Camera detailing his work on Days of Heaven, which presents even more wonderful info on the film’s stunning photography. Both are excellent reads.
All around the commentary and interviews offer a lot of insight into the production of the film, the editing, and photography. Disappointingly, though in no way surprising, excised footage is nowhere to be found here. I knew the film morphed into something different over the years of editing, though after listening to the commentary and then the interviews I obviously hadn’t grasped how much the film had changed from its original conception to the finished product. While it would have been nice to maybe see samples, I could understand why Malick, who worked with Criterion on this edition, wouldn’t want to show any hints of what an alternate version would look like.
In all it might look like a disappointing special edition at first glance, but it’s a fairly satisfying and informative release.
This is the best I’ve seen the film, Blu-ray really suiting a gorgeous film like this, the photography looking even more spectacular. Though there are many things I would have hoped for in the way of features what we do get is informative and fascinating. A lovely edition.