Few films have sparked as much controversy as the 1980 western epic, Heaven’s Gate. In addition to being a commercial and critical disaster in its initial release, Heaven’s Gate has the distinction of single handedly bringing the collapse of “director controlled” films. The promising careers of actor Kris Kristofferson and director Michael Cimino were essentially ended, as well as the American Humane Association (AHA) forever becoming a fixture on all film sets to ensure that there is no longer any mistreatment toward animals. Although Heaven’s Gate shouldn’t be held solely responsible, it was the unarguable film that headed United Artists into the downward spiral that it is just becoming rectified. So how is it that 32 years after its initial release, Heaven’s Gate is getting, by far, the greatest reviews and praises that it has ever received?
Before talking about the film itself, it is important to note that in America the only available version of Heaven’s Gate today is the Michael Cimino 216 minute version that is said to closely resemble the 219 minute version that was released in November of 1980. This original version was shown on one New York screen, for one week in 1980. Due to horrible reviews from critics, it was quickly pulled, and in April of 1981, a 149 minute re-cut version of the film began playing without any success either. In November of 2012, the Criterion Collection released the 216-minute film in a “director-approved” edition. That is the film that I saw before writing this review.
Heaven’s Gate opens at Harvard University in 1870. James Averill (Kristofferson) is in the graduating class, along with his friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt). At the ceremony, they listen to The Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) talk about how they need to take what they have learned and go out and help share this information with the uncivilized country.
After a graduation party and dance, the film jumps to twenty years later, as Averill is riding a train from St. Louis to Wyoming, where he is the Marshal. He quickly learns that while he was away the disputes between the immigrant farmers and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) have reached an all time high. Lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), the WSGA has compiled a list of 125 immigrants that they accuse of cattle rustling. With authority from the President Of The United States, the WSGA is offering a hefty reward for the killing of anyone on the list. They hire 25 mercenaries to ride together in an unjustified slaughter against the struggling immigrants.
Averill heads to Johnson County and begins to warn people of the coming trouble. He has a relationship with the local whorehouse Madame, Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and he urges her to flee for her safety. The WSGA has long employed a cattle-rustling enforcer for this county named Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken). Champion is a friend of Averill, and he has also has fallen in love with Ella. Champion also wants Ella to leave the county, but wants her to marry him as well. Ella would rather be with Averill, but wants him to offer the same commitment that Champion has offered.
After Champion learns about the impending slaughter of these immigrants (including Ella), he resigns from the WSGA and pleads with Ella to leave with him. Meanwhile, Averill and a local businessman, John Bridges (Jeff Bridges), begin to prepare the immigrants for the battle against the WSGA, and their hired guns that are coming for them all.
I know that I have the powerful gift of hindsight, but I have absolutely no idea what the critics in New York, during that fateful week in 1980, had going through their heads. Perhaps it was just the times, but I have no understanding as to why this film was reviewed so negatively. I do, however, concede that once the original film was pulled from theaters and 70 minutes was taken out, there was no chance of the newly edited film being anything but a disaster. This particular story couldn’t properly be told in 149 minutes because there is far too much that needs to be conveyed. There is some room for editing, and sections of the film drag on, but I for one am not afraid of having too much back story or detail included in my films. Typically, I am of the opinion that any story that is considered “epic” should be extremely long.
Whatever people have to say about Heaven’s Gate, it stands out to me as an absolutely breathtaking education into the art of cinematography. The legendary Vilmos Zsigmond is responsible for the photography on Heaven’s Gate, and although he is one of the most respected and revered cinematographers of all time, it is this film that I will forever associate with him from this point on. His work goes far beyond that of other films, especially for the early 1980’s, and I don’t have the words necessary to describe how stunning this film looks.
I understand that United Artists was upset about the way this film was handled by Michael Cimino, but I have a hard time blaming anyone except the studio themselves. Cimino was hired to make Heaven’s Gate after the success of his Academy Award winning film, The Deer Hunter (1978). While filming The Deer Hunter, Cimino went way over budget and way over schedule on his way to a 183-minute, highly personal, slow paced, war film. Why did United Artists think that anything was going to be different for Cimino on his next project? If the studio gave Cimino free reign over this film, than they should have expected things to go this way, right? I suppose that if the critics would have given Heaven’s Gate the same recognition as The Deer Hunter, United Artists would have forgiven Cimino for his disastrous shoot, but instead the notorious failure of his film forever destroyed any hope he had of becoming a great director. With that being said, I don’t know that Cimino ever had that ability to begin with. Having seen The Deer Hunter on several occasions, as well as his first film, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot (1974), I truthfully believe Heaven’s Gate to be his best, and most important film.
I hate for any film to be considered a disaster, but it bothers me even more when a film is run down because of things that happened during the shoot or because of its financial success. If Heaven’s Gate was released today, I think that there would be an appreciation for the artistry and poetry with which it was made. It still wouldn’t be a financial achievement because with a long running time the basic principles of how many showings per day effect how many tickets you can sell. In addition, there are a considerable number of people unwilling to invest three hours and thirty-six minutes to any film. I purchased this film on November 20th, when it was released, and I was extremely excited to give the film my full attention. However, it took me over two weeks to find a time when I had the opportunity to watch it all the way through, without interruptions.
Anyone willing to go into this movie without negative, preconceived notions, has an ample opportunity to enjoy their viewing experience. I guess Heaven’s Gate‘s recent resurgence can just be one of those, “better late than never” occasions, and I hope that everyone involved with the project can look back now and be proud of the film that was made.Back to Home for More Reviews