Days of Heaven (1978) – S2 Train Ride

And here we meet our narrator, Linda (Linda Manz). Her voice has been heard for the first time at the end of the pervious scene. Notice the fact that she’s in a dark and enclosed space, working with her hands. As we will come to find out, this mimics the childhood Abby had and is part of the motivation for her actions later in the film.

And Abby still lives this life in dark, enclosed spaces. Almost imperceptible is the figure of Bill who has been submerged into darkness, associating him with evil, while Abby remains in light, associating her with good. Also, notice the aura of light. It likely emanates from above, but it almost looks as if it is actually emanating from Abby herself. It’s almost an angelic image.

The three flee on a train, mimicking the action of the last scene, which actually begins this scene. What precedes it is more of an interlude than anything else. And already I’ve running into trouble deciding where a scene ends and begins because this shot has an entirely different energy and tone than the previous one and suggests a passage of time. For all intents and purposes, the two shots before this shot compose a mini-scene, but it serves as a pause more than anything else.

It’s also here that the music kicks in. I’ve included the video, which starts with this shot. The song is “Enderlin” by Leo Kottke, a folksy, instrumental piece that captures perfectly the mood and flow of the scene. In fact, as the train chugs along the music keeps tempo with it even before we hear the actual sound of the train. This play of music and image create a perfect synthesis, which is one of the many reasons while I love this sequence.

This is one of my favorite shots of the film. The simple, yet detailed, silhouette of the train plays against the magnificent and broad sky. The fact that there are clouds both above and below the bridge creates this fantastic sense of scale where the train is dwarfed by nature. And also notice the puff of black smoke that appears to run along the clouds. This is yet another expression of man versus nature via his machine, which is absolutely crushed in size and output by nature.

The next shot is a play against the narration as Linda has just said they were “going on adventures.” Here she has a look familiar to many a parent, the bored roadtrip look. This suggests that Linda is romanticizing the story and trying to make it more exciting as she recounts it.

Linda informs us in this shot that Bill and Abby are posing as brother and sister. This is the first of many Biblical allusions as Abraham and Sarah as well as Isaac and Rebecca did the same thing when they traveled to another land–both the disastrous results. In fact, we’ll see that a lot of the Biblical allusions in the film are associated with tragedy and judgment. This association alone foreshadows the trouble their relationship will be in soon enough and the upcoming presence of an interloper.

Here the train rolls by and the film captures the many hitchhikers on the train. All seem to be looking for a job and a better place, once again expressing the idea of class struggle.


Malick gives a close-up here to a simple extra. As far as I know, this character has absolutely no significance. This could be Ding-Dong, a man Linda talks about starting with this shot. However, this is never clearly expressed. Most directors don’t give close-ups to simple extras, but those that do often pick these fascinating faces, such as this one.

And here it begins. You know what Malick loves? Nature. Some of his actors complain that Malick is far more interested in getting a shot of some bird than in of the actors he is paying to work. Some people have this idea that his shots of nature are indulgent and make his films slow and boring. However, I prefer to see them as magnificence and cinematic.

Linda’s face expresses concern as her voiceover tells us that Ding-Dong told her that the world is going to burn. Once again, this is a Biblical allusion to the Book of Revelation. It’s a dark moment amid what is an otherwise upbeat and high energy scene, once again playing the narration against the images.

Wheat spotting! This shot tells us we are now in wheat country, where we will spend the majority of our stay. In fact, we are heading to a wheat farm at this very moment. We can see that some of it is still a bit green, but on the whole it’s turned a golden shade and is ready for harvest. If you have an aversion to wheat I must inform you that this film will deal heavily in wheat imagery and might offend those who have personal and religious feelings against wheat.

At this point I should mention that I’ve lived in Texas all my life. I’ve been all over the state and I’ve yet to see any creature that could in any way look like this creature. The film, as we will soon see, is set in Texas. However, I can say with almost complete certainty that Texas does not habitat such creatures. The film was shot in Alberta, Canada, a beautiful place which happens to not be Texas. Malick doesn’t seem to mind. He’s far more interested in the aesthetic value of what he can take from the environment around him than in something as silly and petty as continuity. And I appreciate that even if I do think these creatures seem a bit out of place.

During this moment Linda talks about people escaping the impending apocalypse. She says that the good people will escape all this and go to heaven. Now as these workers jump off it’s almost as if they are mirroring this escape and entering into a better place.

Bill and The foreman (Robert J. Wilkes) meet. Once again the foreman is indicated to be in power by the nice, tall hat. However, he is positioned on the left side of the frame while Bill remains on the right. This shot establishes that while the foreman may have more social power, Bill will end up having more control. The foreman recruits Bill and they head off to the farm, ending their journey.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

  • A lot of these images are beautiful. I’m now recalling images of “Heaven’s Gate” by Michael Cimino in terms of the shots of people on top of the trains a lot of the landscapes. Obviously, Cimino ripped off Terry for a lot of the visual look of the film. I think he was trying to one-up Malick. Though the cinematography in that film was great, it pales to the work Almendros and Wexler did with this masterpiece.

    • I’ve been meaning to see Heaven’s Gate for a while now. It certainly must be better than The Deer Hunter.