For 40 years, Heaven’s Gate has been synonymous with “expensive failure.” And not just any costly failure, but the kind of waste associated with the delicate indulgences of a self-described film artist. It is seen as the symbolic end of a decade in which inmates ran the asylum, when iconoclasts like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were allowed to operate within the studio system with minimal interference. The film’s director, Michael Cimino, was accused of bankrupting United Artists. It couldn’t be allowed to happen again.
However, there is another lesson to be learned from Heaven’s Gate: don’t trust conventional wisdom. Stories about runaway productions are hard to beat for the movies themselves, and only commercial success is a powerful enough counter-narrative to handle it. Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was called “Kevin’s Gate” before Best Picture came out and won, and apparently all of James Cameron’s productions have generated nasty headlines, which Titanic and Avatar survived and The Abyss did not.
Cimino’s wounded revisionist western never had a chance. There’s no point in pretending that Heaven’s Gate, in any way, would have been a box office sensation. The reviews were apocalyptic when it premiered in a 225-minute cut in New York City. (Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a total disaster”.) The reviews were just as bad when it was pulled after a week and relaunched in a 149-minute cut. (Roger Ebert called it “the most outrageous cinematic waste I’ve ever seen.”) And it’s hard to imagine a huge public appetite for an American epic about a country built on the slaughter of the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe freely.
Five years after Heaven’s Gate, the story of its creation and destruction was commemorated in Final Cut, a book written by Steven Bach, who was an executive at United Artists when the ship sank. It is one of the great books of its kind, on a par with Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy on The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Bach reflects admirably on the flaws of the study, not just Cimino’s. But the impressions of this continuing catastrophe are difficult to shake: the money well of the schedules is exceeded and is repeated; horror stories of animal abuse and a dictatorial director; the insistence on giving an important role to a French actress, Isabelle Huppert, whose English was barely intelligible; an executive job impression that lasted five hours and 25 minutes; a release date that was pushed back a full year for additional post-production; etc.
Now that the dust has settled, and Cimino certainly kicked up historic amounts of dust, the film has steadily and legitimately gained in recognition, fueled by 2012 screenings of a “director’s cut” at the Venice film festivals and New York, and a Criterion Launch. All the key stakeholders in the original film release are gone, the whole apparatus for making studio movies has changed, and even the babies at the time are now middle-aged. Heaven’s Gate can finally be seen properly, in a full cut, freed from luggage that was not sturdy enough to carry at the time.
If Heaven’s Gate epitomizes the excesses of Hollywood’s 1970s movie brats boom, then it should also represent the revolutionary spirit at its core: the determination to reject the myths and traditions that studio movie making had lazily upheld. He’s anti-Western to begin with. It is also simply anti-Western, as it is about how the civilizing forces that domesticated the country in the mid and late 19th century were, in fact, the villains, violently suppressing the dreams of immigrants and other unfortunates. Immigrants may have built America, the film suggests, but only a select few could appropriate it.
Though the film needs a more authoritarian actor at its center, Kris Kristofferson has a persuasive figure like Jim Averill, the Harvard-educated man who serves as a quarterback for Johnson County, Wyoming, where the class struggle is about to break out openly. . A small group of wealthy ranchers, united under the name of Wyoming Stock Growers Association and led by the ruthless Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), seek to crush the immigrant settlers scattered throughout the county. Using fabricated accusations of cattle theft, the WSGA draws up a list of 125 people and recruits a group to slaughter them, with the tacit support of the United States government. Averill gets in the way, and others fall on different sides of the line, including Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), an enforcer whose loyalties change dramatically.
With shades of McCabe and Mrs Miller from Altman, another revisionist western about capitalists invading a dark outpost, Heaven’s Gate stages a love triangle between Averill, Champion and Ella Watson (Huppert), a French woman who runs a brothel and accept payments on stolen livestock. . There is more than a hint of the modern in the freedom with which Watson shares his love and his body, but his business, with its exchanged forms of payment, is harmoniously adapted to the needs of the community. So does the roller skating rink in the center of town, which features one of the few truly joyous sequences in the film, in which seemingly every citizen gliding down the rink. This is what happens, Cimino suggests, when the settlers become neighbors and act in solidarity.
Yet the actual direction of the country is determined in the lavishly stocked living rooms of the whites and the wealthy, like the board meeting where Canton gets near unanimous approval to start what would become the Johnson County war. The second half of Heaven’s Gate spends too much time on the lawless chaos that ensues – proportionality isn’t Cimino’s strong suit, here or in movies like The Deer Hunter and The Sicilian, but the movie doesn’t want its audience to understand the violence. here. like any old west shootout. This was a genocide carried out by the wealthy class against a largely Eastern European population, instigated by a government that would eventually look the other way.
Drawing on old photographs, Cimino and his legendary cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, recreate the era with sumptuous attention to detail that makes it clear that all those cost overruns ended up on screen. Some critics of the time complained of her confusion, but a better word for her is “tactile,” like an illustrated story that comes to life in all its dimensions. Cimino asks his audience to live in that space longer than expected, much like the 51-minute wedding that The Deer Hunter opens, and the price for the film’s vibrancy is a lumpen beat that occasionally drags it into. down. There is a feeling that Cimino lost his perspective while obsessing over the minutiae.
But Heaven’s Gate shouldn’t be seen as the calamitous end of an adventurous decade of director-led studio movies, but rather as a kind of messy apotheosis, one last challenge for audiences to rethink their understanding of what westerns and historical epics can do. do, and most of all, what the United States is capable of doing. And now, decades later, it’s time to reconsider our assumptions about Heaven’s Gate.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.