Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Unsung!: Heaven's Gate

This column will be super long and way over budget. The critics will be unforgiving.

Heaven’s Gate was infamous for being one of the worst films ever made and for closing United Artists Studio. Neither is true. This is yet one more example of the STINK that gathers around certain films, a stink that has nothing whatsoever to do with the films themselves or, for that matter, critics thinking for themselves.


Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece, albeit a slow-moving one.

GUILTY ADMISSION: I had never seen it, until recently. Oh, I had read about it in Stephen Bach’s Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate and the Medved brothers’ sneering “Worst of…” books, but until the recent Criterion Blu-Ray was released, it was yet another film that had slipped through my personal viewing “crack.”

(No jokes, please. Patrick has never seen Jaws.)
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: In 1870, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) graduate from Harvard University. The day includes speeches, dancing, and a curious ceremony involving a tree. Twenty years later, Averill is the Marshall of a small Wyoming county run by the greedy cattlemen of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, of which Irvine is now a member. The cattlemen have decided to hire a band of unsavory mercenaries to murder the county’s immigrants – poor, hardworking families who homestead on grazing land and sometimes, to keep from starving, rustle cattle. Local bar owner John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges) is a friend to the immigrants and a friend to Averill. Local madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) is an even better friend to Averill; unfortunately, she is also sleeping with Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), one of the cattlemen’s hired thugs. The mercenaries keep rivering in from out of town. When Averill discovers a “death list” of 125 names, the immigrants decide to arm themselves against the cattlemen’s hired guns. What follows can only end in tears.

The movie was inspired by true events; many people object to the liberties that writer/director Michael Cimino took with published history. One IMDb user took umbrage that Cimino used the real names of historic figures in this largely fictional tale and actually went on to suggest, “The movie could have been much more interesting if it had dwelt on the political ramifications of the Federal Government intervention in a State Government's affairs and what happened after the [Association] gunmen were saved by the Calvary.”

Yes, that sounds much more dramatic than Cimino’s tale of lawlessness, whores, and bloodshed. Most moviegoers, when polled, will choose “political ramifications” over “Isabelle Hupert’s naked left breast” EVERY TIME. Why don’t more practicing screenwriters and directors listen to these “anonymous geniuses” on the IMDb?

Opinions differ on how much Heaven’s Gate actually cost – estimates range between $33 million and $44 million, equivalent to as much as $248 million in today’s dollars. Ironic, isn’t it, that the budget for this summer’s The Lone Ranger was almost this exact amount—and that was a shit fest! (Sorry Adam Riske, but this is not an opinion; Armie Hammer’s head was literally dragged through shit.) The budget for Star Trek: Into Darkness was $190 million; for Iron Man 3, it was $200 million. So, yeah, $44 million? No one would EVER want to spend that much on a MOVIE. (And Heaven’s Gate is almost TWICE as long than any of those other three, and has more roller skating!)

Many critics at the time were only reviewing the budget, as many small-minded, mediocre critics still do today. They express outrage that so much money could have been spent making a film—as if they are being asked to pay part of the budget themselves. Don’t most movie tickets cost the same? What difference should it make? This same “budget review” bias killed last summer’s John Carter (which, incidentally, reports the same $250 million budget as The Lone Ranger.)
Many other critics piled on Heaven’s Gate because the film features supposed examples of animal abuse. According to legend, this is the film that sparked the ASPCA to monitor all animal action in films. At the time, I remember Orson Welles got his enormous underwear in a bunch and denounced the film. I am not advocating animal cruelty; I simply think then when discussing the merits of a film, this is a separate discussion. The Birth of A Nation race-baiting is unforgivable; Francis Ford Coppola slaughtered an ox for Apocalypse Now. Both films are masterpieces – troubled and troubling, perhaps, but masterpieces nonetheless.

In the case of Heaven’s Gate, a single lawsuit was filed; it was settled out of court. Orson Welles subsequently apologized for taking such a strident position.

Of course, the film’s reputation was not helped when terrified studio heads recut Heaven’s Gate after a disastrous opening weekend in New York. The film’s original running time is 216 minutes. If you did not get to see it during that single week in New York in 1980, the version you saw was the studio’s cobbled-together 148-minute recut. In a recent conversation Patrick reminded me that almost the same thing happened four years later with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America and a year after that with Brazil. He commented, “There’s a masterpiece somewhere… too bad people were not allowed to see it.”

My son and I occasionally trade affectionate vocal impressions of Martin Scorsese (“Well, if I remember correctly, that was a picture…”) We remind ourselves that one thing we like best about Scorsese (besides his FILMS) is his penchant for calling his movies “pictures.” I have to think that this is deliberate: it reminds us all that film is a visual medium.

Heaven’s Gate is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen. I am not usually one to fawn over scenery, but so many images in this film are breathtaking: the waltzing scene at Harvard; the endless Wyoming sky; the smoky, authentic look of the interiors. They built an entire, working steam locomotive for this movie, and then built an entire town in Glacier National Park to run the train through. The money is certainly on the screen. The long shots are full of teeming humanity; no one fills the frame like Cimino. I would like to think that the democracy of his long shots (Cimino lets the audience choose what to look at) is somehow tied to the deeply democratic theme of his film. This movie is nothing short of a visual feast.

CAVEAT: The dialogue is incredibly difficult to understand. Perhaps Cimino was aping Robert Altman’s famous multi-layered soundtracks to accompany his multi-layered visuals, but understanding the dialogue is a chore, even when watching the new Criterion Blu-Ray, which claims the soundtrack was re-mastered to make the dialogue more pronounced.

With its theme of class warfare, Heaven’s Gate is still trenchant, perhaps even more so today than when it was first released thirty years ago at the dawn of Reagan’s election and the new “morning in America.” I do not want to get on a soapbox here, but perhaps when we go to the movies we do not enjoy being reminded that, in both big and little ways, we are being fucked every day of our lives by the very rich. In this way, Heaven’s Gate joins the parade of other “social problem” films (Intolerance and Salt of the Earth, for example) that are misunderstood and vilified upon their original release.
Heaven’s Gate is an unconventional picture. It does not hew to the firm outlines of genre pictures. It is its own thing. When it comes to film fare, I find many people are like four year-olds with food—they do not want to try anything new, and they do not always know what is good for them. I find the picture Heaven’s Gate most resembles, structurally, is Cimino’s own The Deer Hunter, with its journey from social occasion (A wedding in Hunter/a graduation in Gate) to danger in an untamed place (Hanoi in Hunter/lawless Wyoming in Gate) to horrific violence (the infamous Russian Roulette scenes in Hunter/the “Johnson County War” sequence in Gate) to concluding regret and disillusionment (the climactic sing-along in Hunter/the Rhode Island yacht epilogue in Gate). Heaven’s Gate is an even more ambitious film than The Deer Hunter; I wish it had received similar critical acclaim.

TCM/DVR ALERT: The Twelve Chairs, which I wrote about two weeks ago in this very column, is being shown tomorrow night (Wednesday, July 24) on Turner Classic Movies. It is part of a night of Mel Brooks, featuring the very entertaining AFI testimonial dinner, a television interview he did recently with Dick Cavett, and screenings of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs. F-Heads! Now is your chance to see this film!


  1. JB which is your preferred cut of this film? I became aware of this film a few months ago and was looking for a print to watch, though I never got around to viewing it. During my research on the film I seem to remember that there many versions of this film floating around. (drastically different run times) Which do you recommend?

    1. The new Criterion disc features Cimino's preferred cut of the film, which runs 216 minutes. This is the only version I have ever seen. I almost wish that Criterion had included the studio cut, which is 148 minutes, as a bonus feature the way they did on their disc of Brazil. The Wikipedia entry for Heaven's Gate lists the scenes that were lost in the 1981 studio recut.

  2. Thanks for the heads up JB on the 12 chairs replay on TMC, It also gives me the chance to watch The Producers for the 80th time (I am wet and hysterical!). I have seen bits and pieces of Heaven's Gate over the years but never sat myself down to the whole piece, didn't realize it was from the same guy who directed Deer Hunter. Speaking of Deer Hunter, its a great film but it's not one I feel the need to revisit too often as it's SO dark, and not just the russian roulette scenes but pretty much everything after the wedding party is such a jarring tone shift. It's like if after Carl landed the house from Up in the jungle the movie became a gritty survival story with Carl ending up eating Russell and fashioning a makeshift tent out of Kevin's carcass, I dare you to make that movie Pixar!

  3. Heaven's Gate has a stunning first act, and the Harvard sequence alone is a marvelous piece of work. The film holds together really well until about the midway point, but by then the languorous pace really starts to get to me (it does pick up at the battle scene). The Criterion Blu Ray is terrific, but the viewer would be advised to watch it with the English subtitles turned on. On a supplemental interview Cimino reveals himself to be the same self-centered douche he was depicted as in Bach's Final Cut.

    It seems that there has been a "reverse double backlash" regarding Heaven's Gate. Where the film was initially attacked, it is now revered in some circles while the executives behind it get lambasted. I highly recommend reading Final Cut after first seeing Heaven's Gate. If any book can make you sympathetic towards a movie executive, that one can. And I think Bach is more than fair towards both Cimino and the film. I'm grateful that the film got made, but I understand entirely how Bach probably wishes he had never met Cimino.