Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.—Vincent Canby, The New York Times
…the fact is the picture does not have one good scene, or one good character, and it goes on for several hours. I think it’s very interesting visually, but there is nothing that can carry it with an audience.—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (in a 1982 interview with Jean-Luc Godard)
A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture. But Cimino’s in deeper trouble still.—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Has a more notorious film than Heaven’s Gate ever been made? Michael Cimino’s follow-up to a masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was plagued by budget overruns and negative press from day one. A disastrous early screening at an unwieldy 330 minutes was so reviled by those who screened it, Cimino himself begged for more time to edit it to a manageable length. The 150-minute cut released into theatres several weeks later received some of the worst reviews any movie has ever received in the history of the medium.
In fact, this movie—and, to a lesser extent, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Allen’s Stardust Memories, Landis’s The Blues Brothers, and Spielberg’s 1941—effectively killed the 1970s auteur movement. Hollywood studios started to realize giving artists free reign with tens of millions of dollars yielded major flops. Even though some of the movies made money (like Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers), the whole idea of letting the inmates run the asylum seemed to frighten executives.
Virtually every story about the production of a great film starts with studios fighting tooth and nail with every decision filmmakers want to make. For a long time, I asked myself why the studios didn’t just step out of the way. I’ve come to realize it’s effectively a system of checks and balances. Great art requires constraints to overcome. When filmmakers no longer need to worry about budgets or meddling studio executives, they end up making movies like the ones mentioned above. It’s not an airtight rule—after all, Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers are legitimately great movies; then again, both films had bigger problems to overcome than studio pressures—but it holds true more often than not. Given carte blanche, most filmmakers will turn out shitty movies. A filmmaker doing everything the studio says unquestioningly will also lead to shitty movies. A balance needs to exist, and that balance was lost briefly in Hollywood in the late ’70s, with almost comically disastrous results.
All of this and more is covered in Steven Bach’s great book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists (which you should all read if you have any interest in the clusterfuck known as the movie business), so I feel no reason to rehash it here. If you don’t know the story, read Bach’s book and find out. I’m here not to retell the struggles to make and market the film. I’m here to determine whether or not all the negative publicity had anything to do with Heaven’s Gate being a bad film.
Even after watching the four-hour “director’s cut” (as opposed to the gutted theatrical cut that garnered so much hostility), I can understand why people might hate Heaven’s Gate. It has one very big problem that a film this long has an impossible time overcoming: it’s disjointed. Not quite as disjointed as Jonah Hex, another revisionist western that flopped big-time, but it nevertheless feels like Heaven’s Gate has numerous connective scenes missing. But, you know, it does have roughly 90 minutes still missing. The director’s cut restores what footage remained years after its release, but that original 330-minute cut—maybe it could have used some trimming, but I fear Cimino cut material necessary for this story to flow. Maybe he didn’t, though. That’d be a kick in the balls.
Whatever the case, the Heaven’s Gate available doesn’t cohere quite as effectively as more traditional films. This sometimes makes Heaven’s Gate a difficult film to watch, but it also lends a lived-in quality to the story and characters. Rather than moving from beat to beat like a more straightforward movie, it unfolds more like a novel, with long scenes that don’t seem to have anything to do with anything and don’t appear to lead anywhere. Often, these seemingly disconnected scenes pay off much later in the film, rewarding the viewer’s patience. Sometimes, they don’t. Maybe they serve as isolated moments of character development. It’s hard to say how the movie would fare without them.
Before I go on, maybe I should talk a little about the plot. It’s loosely based on the Johnson County War, a land war in 1890s Wyoming in which wealthy American land barons allegedly convinced the federal government to allow soldiers to slaughter land-owning immigrants, so that the barons could take over the newly available spreads. Many conflicting stories of this war and its circumstances exist. Cimino’s interpretation of the story has what I believe (with no evidence to back me up) are indelible roots in Vietnam and the hippie movement of the ’60s. It opens with Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as clean-cut, hilariously middle-aged-looking Harvard graduates, portraying them as footloose and fancy-free even as the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) gives a prophetic but somewhat condescending speech underscoring the need for people to live together harmoniously.
Twenty years later, Jim has eschewed his education and life of privilege to maintain law and order as sheriff of Johnson County. Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), the wealthy head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, has what is always referred to in the film as a “death list”—a list of local immigrants the ranchers want taken out. They allege these ranchers have stolen cattle from more successful ranchers to pay for prostitutes. Unsettled by the idea of the death list, Jim doesn’t take any immediate action, even when a team of hired killers led by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) ride into the county. He talks it over with his friend, John (Jeff Bridges), and lover, Ella (Isabelle Huppert, a successful bordello madam). He even discusses it with Billy Irvine, who is now a drunken member of the WSGA. Billy knows everything about the list, but he’s not going to even pretend to do a thing about it.
When Jim finally gets a copy of the list, he gathers all the townspeople and reads its names. From there, the immigrants are left to figure out what to do to save themselves. Although John’s ready to fight on behalf of the immigrants, Jim takes a very low-key, hands-off approach. He disapproves of the list and the corruption of the WSGA, but he’s a passive observer. He urges the immigrants to take matters into their own hands instead of leading them to fight back. Things get complicated from here, so I won’t talk much more about the story in the hope that I actually convince some of you to check this movie out.
You might be wondering at this point what a western about a land dispute has to do with hippies and Vietnam. Maybe nothing, but consider the archetypes: Jim and Billy are introduced as men of great privilege and education. They give up their privilege because neither feels he deserves all that he has. When the going gets tough, Jim responds by making urgent pleas and protestations against the vicious acts of the WSGA, but he doesn’t really do anything about it for much of the movie. When he finally does take action, it’s both too late and largely ineffective. Billy’s an even worse case, crawling into the bottle to numb that big brain of his. I took some symbolic cues from these characters. Jim represents the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective political activist—a smart person who is only powerless because he denied his birthright. Had he used the advantages of his upbringing, perhaps he could have effected real change, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Billy is a more obvious symbol of the many, many, many hippies who turned to drugs and failed to accomplish anything greater than making their own LSD. This, then, makes the WSGA a symbol of the war profiteers, and the immigrants and assassins all become the hapless pawns of an unnecessary war.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphoric nature of the story, but let’s face it: Cimino made The Deer Hunter, so it’s not like he’s an apathetic or apolitical bystander, and honestly, I can’t figure out any other reason why John Hurt’s character needs to be in this movie. Only when I started to ponder what purpose his character served did I start to realize the undercurrent running through the film. I may have gotten it all wrong, but the fact that the film is so sprawling and poetic leaves it open to interpretation, the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. This is my take on it, and while I suspect it may have also been Cimino’s, who knows? He refuses to speak about the film. Still, I think a lot of evidence exists in the bleak-as-hell epilogue to support my take on the deeper meaning of Heaven’s Gate.
Despite the disjointed nature of the film, I have to disagree with Ms. Kael’s assertion that Heaven’s Gate contains no good scenes or characters. It’s a challenging film, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot to love here, especially if you can make it through the first hour. Once Cimino sets up the dominoes and starts knocking them down, the film has a number of spectacular moments—epic battle scenes, vivid and well-acted characters, ever-deepening relationships (including an extremely well-executed “love” triangle between Jim, Ella, and Nate), and a tricky-gray-area portrayal of a complex situation. Cimino took the idea of a “revisionist western”—the sort from the ultra-violent Peckinpah and ultra-mythologized Leone—and stripped it to the bone. This film does not have white hats or black hats. It just has dusty brown hats and a lot of unpleasant but memorable people. Cimino makes nothing in this film easy for anyone, and that partially includes the viewer, but in the end, the film rewards those watching. It just makes them endure a little bit of punishment for foolishly thinking the Old West contained nothing but altruistic heroes and mustache-twirling villains.
Virtually every frame of this film looks like a dingy oil painting. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the aesthetic of the film “so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen.” He’s not entirely wrong, but there’s a hard-edged beauty to this unromantic portrayal of the Old West. In fact, the beloved HBO series Deadwood owes a whole hell of a lot to Cimino, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Tambri Larsen. Ironically, the aesthetic of Heaven’s Gate underscores the messy narrative and thematic elements at play by making each image simultaneously ugly and beautiful. Maybe critics and audiences will never appreciate this, but it made me like the film even more.
With the cast Cimino has assembled (which includes small but key supporting roles from actors who would go on to better things: Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Richard Masur, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, and Willem Dafoe), it probably won’t shock anyone to hear that the performances don’t contain a single false note. More than anyone, Kristofferson impressed me. He has never struck me as a great actor—never bad, but more suited to the villain in Fire Down Below (no, he really is the villain in that movie, and he’s awesome) than the lead character in a sprawling, artsy-fartsy western. However, he does a wonderful job as Jim Averill. He brings to the role an air of palpable defeat that reinforces my interpretation of what Heaven’s Gate Really Means. Although the film doesn’t spell it (or anything else) out, it’s made plain just from the things Jim does and the way Kristofferson carries himself that the twenty years between graduation and the Johnson County War beat him down.
It’s time to get down to brass tacks: Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s also not even close to one of the worst movies ever made. In a world where such detritus as Jonah Hex and Howard the Duck exist, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t even fall into the bottom 500. My biggest problem with it is that, when it ended, I wished I’d been able to see more of these characters and this story. Knowing another 90 minutes once existed is just salt in the wound. Anyone who considers themselves a cinephile should check this film out. You may not love it, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time.