Monday, July 23, 2012


(November 1980, U.S.)

It is virtually impossible for me to say anything about Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE without discussing the outright infamy that has always surrounded it. Briefly, let me just say that this film suffered major setbacks in production due to cost and time overruns, highly negative press, and rumors about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It's generally considered one of the greatest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles, even considered to be one of the worst films ever made. It opened to very poor reviews, earned almost nothing at the box office and eventually contributed to the collapse of its studio, United Artists, the collapse of the independence and creative freedom many new, young directors had enjoyed during the 1970s and effectively destroyed the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 THE DEER HUNTER, which won the Oscar for best picture of the year. The reasons for it's failure are numerous, including its unusually long running time, highly negative critical reviews, and widespread accusations of animal abuse and subsequent boycotts by the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations. It's often been cited in film history as the biggest example of how devastating a box office bomb can be, financially and economically.

Well, there you have it in a very tiny nutshell. I suggest, though, you take a little time to look up this film and the shit storm that surrounded it for absolute historical clarity to what I'm talking about. But now, you see, thirty-two years have passed and as I've previously said, nothing is kinder to any film (even HEAVEN'S GATE!) than time. Now it's possible to brush aside all of the brutal history and accusations and really just concentrate on the film's content and the creative intentions behind Michael Cimino. Because, truth be told, when all the bullshit is cleared away, HEAVEN'S GATE is not a bad film at all. That's right, I'll say it again! HEAVEN'S GATE is not a bad film at all!

Set in the late 19th Century, the film tells a small piece of American history that I was never familiar with until I saw it. Kris Kristofferson plays Jim Averill, a marshal in the region of Johnson County, Wyoming, where European immigrants are in constant conflict with wealthy ranch owners belonging to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, sometimes even stealing their cattle for food. Nate Champion (played by Christopher Walken) is a friend of Averill and an enforcer for the landowners. Early in the film, he kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a meeting, the head of the Association, Frank Canton (played by Sam Waterston), tells members of their plans to effectively kill 125 named settlers, or "thieves and anarchists", in order to fix the problem. The marshall being the decent man that he is, will not allow the systematic murder of who he consideres to be innocent people. Amongst the list is Ella Watson (played by Isabelle Huppert), a bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes and is in love with Averill. In the final climax of a very long drama, Averill leads the settlers, with cobbled-together siege machines and explosive charges, in their attack against Canton's men and their makeshift fortifications. There are heavy and bloody casualties on both sides, before the U.S. Army arrives to stop the fighting and save the remaining besieged mercenaries. Ella survivs, but only briefly. As she and Averill prepare to leave for good, they're ambushed by Canton and two others who shoot everyone in their path. Avrill survives, only to live on as a rich man who has clearly never gotten over the historical chaos that changed his life forever.

If you know the history of HEAVEN'S GATE, then it becomes very necessary for the viewer to completely clear their mind and not allow the infamous controversy of its cinematic failure to give them any pre-conceived ideas of the film's potential. The film is definitely not perfect. It is very long and drawn out at times during sequences that don't necessarily require so much focus. There are other moments where the camera takes its time that serves to enhance the scene. This is particularly valid during the opening ceremony at the Harvard graduation when the men are dancing with the women to the tune of "The Blue Danube". It's nothing more than a stylish dance sequence, but Cimino's camera knows how to follow it along and provide a visual stunning sequence of beauty and music. It's long, but works very well, in my opinion. The film contains many other overlooked virtues that can only truly be experienced by those who have the time and patience to appreciate good filmmaking and the creative vision of the artist who gives it to us. It's a western, true, and we all know how I generally feel about westerns. It's a western, though, that did not follow any of the traditional western cliches and, dare I say, may have been the prerequisite to later films like DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) and LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994).

So, if you appreciate serious film, do yourself a favor - first look up all you can about HEAVEN'S GATE to know exactly what you're getting yourself into. Then clear your mind and about three and a half to four hours off of your calendar to give the film the appreciation it deserves, even after more than three decades.

Favorite line or dialogue:

John L. Bridges: "It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country."

1 comment:

  1. Eric, you surprise me with your mild acceptance of another Western, and one that is so controversial to begin with. I think if you look closely at many of the best westerns, they don't fall into those cliches that you clearly dislike. You are right, Heaven's Gate does not have the usual trappings of a 1940 or 50s cowboy picture.

    I first saw the trailer for the movie, playing with "The Empire Strikes Back" in the summer of 1980, while I was honeymooning. The picture was due in December and after the disastrous Toronto and N.Y. screenings, they pulled it and released it the following summer in a Two hour twenty minute version. We saw that, and it did not do anything at the box office. Later we saw the full version playing in a special screening in Century City. The truncated version makes very little sense, but the long version drags out events and scenes so much that it feels unfocused. The movie is beautiful to look at and I immediately bought the soundtrack (on LP) because the music is lovely.
    Studio Executive Steven Bach, wrote a fascinating book on the making of the movie (and the ultimate unmaking of United Artists Studio)called "Final Cut". When the studio was showing pieces of the film and looking at the rough footage, they kept saying it looked like a Western made by David Lean. I can see that in some of the film shot compositions. It is an ambitious film that needed a lot more work on the story and script before they began, because none of the plot is very propulsive.
    Characters come and go and come back with very little reason. There are way to many sequences of the immigrants speaking with accents that make their dialogue meaningless.
    I think it was Joseph Cottons last movie, and Christopher Walken was dangerous in the way he would be for the next thirty years. So I agree, not a bad movie, but not a good one either. It is however a great story about film making in Hollywood. "Final Cut" would make a great mini-series or a interesting documentary.