Directed by: Michael Cimino.
Written by: Michael Cimino.
Starring: Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotton (The Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper Fred), Richard Masur (Cully).
Movie history is full of movies that the critics got wrong upon their initial release. Either mediocre films that were praised to high heaven for some reason, or great movies that somehow would critically reviled when they first came out. You’d be hard pressed to find a more critically reviled movie than Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). It was supposed to be his epic follow-up to the Oscar winning The Deer Hunter (1978). The studio gave him almost unlimited funds, and Cimino’s obsessive attention to detail put the film way behind schedule (it was said at the time that after six days of shooting, they were five and half days behind). But over the 33 years since the film has been released, it has gained a lot of friends – many critics now believe that Heaven’s Gate is misunderstood masterpiece. After watching the film myself, I have to conclude that those critics are idiots. While the initial reviews of the film may have been a little too harsh, they pretty much nailed it. Heaven’s Gate really is a three-hour and forty minute, shapeless, ridiculous, borderline incoherent mess of a movie. But the cinematography is great, as is the art direction and costume design. As for the rest, I’m not quite sure what to say.
The film opens, for what reason I am not sure, in 1870, at the graduation ceremony from Harvard University. We have to sit through the stuffy speech by the Dean, the great Joseph Cotton, and then a more free spirited speech by valedictorian, John Hurt. The two speeches go on and on and on, and before you know 20 minutes have gone by, and nothing has happened. Worse still, we won’t see Cotton again for the rest of the movie, and Hurt will only have a few scenes – mainly in the background as a drunken buffoon. The main character of Heaven’s Gate is neither of those men, but James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), among the graduates that day, who will next see 20 years later, out in Wyoming where he is Sheriff of Johnson County. How Averill got to Wyoming, and how he became Sheriff is anyone’s guess, because the movie doesn’t bother to explain it.
In a series of seemingly endless scenes, we get to know Averill and his life in Johnson County. It isn’t long before we know he is not much liked by the Cattle Baron’s Association, run by Sam Waterson. Their plan is to legally execute 125 European settlers, who they say are stealing their cattle. The Governor and the President have apparently been appraised of this plan, and are all for it. But Averill lets them know he won’t stand for it – unless, of course, they have legitimate paperwork on each and every person.
There is more – much more – but I’ll try to get through it quickly. Averill is close to these European settlers – especially John Bridges (Jeff Bridges, just to confuse me), who runs the local bar. He doesn’t tell them of this plot he has uncovered, until they find out on their own. Averill is also in love with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a Madam on the outskirts of town, who spends much of the movie in various stages of undress. She is torn between Averill and Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who is one of the people hired by the Cattle Baron’s Association to execute all the European settlers – which of course, he doesn’t share with her – nor does he share with her that she is in fact on the list.
I could, as many critics did, poke fun at the movie’s more extreme instances of ridiculousness, but I really don’t see much of a point in doing so. I could point out all the plot holes in the movie, but that would imply that the film has a plot to begin with. Perhaps that is unfair, because the movie does, I suppose, have a plot. The problem is the film has about an hour of plot stretched out over almost four hours of running time. Huge chunks of time pass with nothing going on. I was amazed to look at my watch and discover that 90 minutes had elapsed without anything of interest happening on screen yet. The movie continues that way over its entire running time. The final, bloody, epic showdown that the whole movie has been leading to is a confused mess full of explosions and constant gunfire, that is so poorly put together that I had no idea what the hell was going on.
It was said that Cimino was obsessive in his attention to detail on the set of Heaven’s Gate. There were many stories about this obsessiveness – some of them apparently exaggerated – but my favorite was upon discovering that the street in the town they built was six feet too narrow, Cimino insisted that they dissemble both sides of the street and movie them back three feet. When the crew complained that it would easier to simply move one side back six feet, he would not be swayed. Cimino also apparently hired guards and locked the door of his editing room to keep executives from United Artists away from him during his months long editing process. Cimino apparently shot 1.3 million feet of film (approximately 220 hours of film) and was very proud of the fact he beat Francis Ford Coppola, who shot 1 million feet of film for Apocalypse Now. His initial cut of the film was apparently 5 hours and 25 minutes, but United Artists refused to release it at that length, so he edited it down to 219 minutes (just a shade under three hours and forty minutes). Cimino was convinced he had a masterpiece on his hands. A disastrous one week run at a single New York Theater proved otherwise however, and the film was re-edited once again – down to 149 minutes and released in 1981. That version also got slammed by critics. After spending roughly $44 million on making Heaven’s Gate, the film grossed less than $4 million at the box office. And for all intents and purposes, Cimino, who was once seen as a rising directorial star, had his career ruined. 33 years later, he has only directed 4 others film – The Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and The Sunchaser (1996) – none of them very highly thought of (I can only speak for Sunchaser, and it indeed does suck).
When the grand follies of Hollywood are brought up, it never takes very long for Heaven’s Gate to be mentioned. This was financed at the tail end of the 1970s, when studios were already moving away from what they had done for the previous decade, when they gave young, talented directors freedom to make the type of films they wanted to make. When they were cheap films, that made money, they didn’t care. But when they starting costing huge amounts of money, they moved to safer choices. Coming out a year after Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the two films make an interesting study in contrasts. Coppola was given all the money and freedom he could ever want, and ended up making (in my opinion) the greatest film ever made – even though it cost him a large part of his own sanity, and he has never come close to replicating the greatness of the four films he made in the 1970s (along with Apocalypse Now there was The Conversation, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Given the same money and freedom, Cimino made a formless mess – a borderline incoherent movie, where nothing makes a whole lot of sense, especially not the actions of the characters, whose motivations are never really clear. The performances in the movie are for the most part terrible – the exception could be Christopher Walken, who at least exudes that Walken-esque insanity he does so well, and has perhaps the most over the top death scene in cinema history. Kristofferson’s acting career would be forever marred by Heaven’s Gate, although he has been quite good in films like John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996).
Reading the reviews of some of Heaven’s Gate supporters before writing this, I was struck by all the fancy wordplay in them. All the comparisons to the work of the great John Ford. Or how Cimino brilliantly deconstructed the Western genre, by making his hero completely powerless to stop what happens (this ignores the scene where he bursts into a room like John Wayne kills 4 people trying to gang rape Isabelle Huppert, and doesn’t shoot her, but whatever), or how even when the immigrants seemingly won, they still lost because of all the people killed. But I was also struck that few of these reviews actually highlighted anything in the movie itself that they actually liked. Why do some think Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece? It beats the hell out of me. The film is no misunderstood masterwork. It is almost as bad as the initial reviews would have you believe.