Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Heaven's Gate

The saga of Heaven's Gate is well documented so I'll skip over its unhappy history and instead concentrate on the many virtues of this much maligned and misunderstood masterpiece. The film began production in 1979 but Michael Cimino's script for the film, then called The Johnson County War had been around since the early 70's and was shown little interest. After seeing an advance print of The Deer Hunter, a new management team at United Artists were keen to produce a film with the soon-to-be-hot Cimino and the result, released in November 1980 would become a by-word for runaway budgets and box office bombs...

The story set in 1890 concerns a brutal war waged by the rich cattle owners of Wyoming on poor European immigrants who have turned to cattle rustling to feed their families. Federal marshall Jim Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson) discovers that an association of cattle barons have compiled a list of 125 names for extermination, an action that has been all but sanctioned by the US government. Averill means to put a stop to this massacre but standing in his way is Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and old friend who works for the association. Complicating matters further, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a brothel madam whom both men are in love with is one of the 125 names selected for execution...

If the plot sounds dense, the film is even more so. At least in it's 219min entirety, Heaven's Gate is one of the most magnificently detailed westerns since Once Upon A Time In The West. As a recreation of Wyoming in the late 19th century the film is big, bold and immersive. United Artists sank some 44 million dollars into the film and much of it is up there on the screen with its huge elaborate sets and one thousand strong extras. Cimino's direction is masterful, the film shows the influence of Griffith, Ford and Lean, fused with the operatic style of Leone and Visconti. A film that is at once beautiful to look at, with its stunning Montana locations, and ugly in its depiction of the American state forged in the fire of casual brutality and savage violence.

Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino's cameraman from The Deer Hunter, returned for Heaven's Gate and lends the film an extraordinary look, working with heavy filters and filling almost every scene with dust and smoke to diffuse the light. There are stories about Cimino waiting whole days for the right weather conditions before stealing a few seconds of footage, but in terms of the picture alone, his meticulousness proved correct.

The film features a large cast and besides the principle actors, there's Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Joseph Cotton, musician Ronnie Hawkins, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O'Quinn, and Tom Noonan. Willem Dafoe had a minor role in the film (his first) but was fired and his scenes were discarded.

Admittedly Heaven's Gate does have its flaws, even in its longer 219min version, the film can be incoherent and difficult to follow, not surprising considering this Cimino-approved cut was a distillation of the 5 hour 25 minute version the director first presented to United Artists. Another problem is the muddy sound mix of the film which often has dialogue lose its clarity amid the clamour of background action. Over the years I've seen the film perhaps 5 or 6 times and I still find myself wrestling with some of the plot points. The performance of Heaven's Gate at the box office was famously dismal and Michael Cimino and United Artists in a desperate effort to save the film, recalled and released it at various lengths, even at one point adding narration to explain whole sequences that were excised. Whatever about the audience reaction to the film (which took in just a million and a half at the box office), the critical demolition job on the film had begun well in advance of the film's disastrous New York premiere 1, and Cimino's great epic was effectively doomed before audiences had made up their mind.

Today Heaven's Gate is mostly seen in its long 219min version. The film is available on DVD in the US (and Australia) and features a decent 2.35 transfer with the odd instances of light print damage. Sound wise, the audio is strong - David Mansfield's music sounds very good but dialogue still tends to loose its clarity at some points. Luckily there are optional English subtitles. The sole extra 2 is a trailer. I can't confirm if the film has had a UK DVD release, if it has it may be cut, as the film when classified for home video ran foul of the BBFC for its cockfighting sequence and some obvious horse trip-falls.

Whether you care for the film or not, Heaven's Gate is required viewing, marking the end of the "Director's Decade" of 70's American Cinema, when art briefly transcended the concerns of commerce, a state of affairs which was swiftly reversed by the failure of the film.

1." It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect" wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. Canby's appraisal of the film was considerably harsh, but more damaging still were some articles reported in the press by a journalist who worked on the film as an extra, describing the huge wastefulness of the budget caused by Cimino's extravagance and his endless takes, plus more sinister stories about the mistreatment of the animals on set.

2. Heaven's Gate remains top of my wish list of future Blu-Ray releases. Hopefully such a release could include the excellent documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, which premiered on the Trio cable network in the US in 2004. Based on Stephen Bach's book, this 78min film gathers together much of the principles who worked on the film including Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, Brad Dourif, Stephen Bach, Vilmos Zsigmond, and David Mansfield. Cimino himself is absent but appears in some archive interviews. Narrated by Willem Dafoe the film chronicles Cimino's film making style, the enormous production delays as well as the fallout at United Artists after the film was released. The film can be seen here. Highly recommended.


  1. Nice! Thanks for that Vincent Canby quote.

  2. great film - the book of Final Cut is also well worth diving into but the documentary has some great modern interviews with the cast.

    What always struck me about the film was how harsh Cimino's version of the west is. Just staying alive looks back breaking.

  3. Thanks for the comment Cinemascream... Yep, Stephen Bach's book is one of the essential film books. So to is Julie Salomon's book The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, about the making of DePalma's Bonfire of the Vanities.

    I just had a quick look at your blog, and I really like it. You have an excellent list of underated films there for your latest post...

  4. many thanks - Read Bonfire last year and am currently trying to get my hands on the updated edition to read the fallout

  5. My Criterion Blu has shipped today - I'm very excited.

  6. Mine is in the post as well - I know some people were complaining that this edition is short on supplements but to have the film alone with the love and care Criterion lavish on their films is beyond a dream come true !

  7. I do want to see this movie - have any of the subsequent releases restored any more of the length - getting us any closer to that 5 hour 25 minute version?

  8. Yes, definitely see this one at some stage. And no... no longer cut of Heaven's Gate has been issued and I think the chances of such thing happening are extremely unlikely. For a long time Craig, I was a person who insisted on seeing the longest possible versions but I went thru a sea change a few years ago when I saw Terence Malick's Tree of Life - apparently a much longer version of that film is waiting in the wings, but I'm not feeling any excitement about such a thing. Same with Thin Red Line - the film was whittled down from a much longer version (with a lot of notable actors hitting the cutting room floor), but as much as I love this film, I'm quite content with the film as it is...