Movie Review: Heaven’s Gate (1980)
“What one loves about life are the things that fade.”
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt
Synopsis: A Johnson County farmer attempts to protect immigrant farmers from cattle ranchers intent on clearing them from the State.
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Probably the most notorious film in Hollywood’s history, Heaven’s Gate is famous for stalling the careers of its director, Michael Cimino and leading man Kris Kristofferson, and for almost bankrupting United Artists. Cimino’s obsession with the authenticity of the sets, costumes and performances saw the film’s budget immediately spiral out of control, and within five days of the start of shooting it was already four days behind schedule. After a protracted six month shoot, Cimino handed in a near five-and-half-hour working print to United Artists with the assurance that he could probably trim fifteen minutes from its running time. A four hour version was quickly pulled after scathing reviews, to be replaced a few months later by a 140 minute version which was equally reviled. The film cost $44 million to make, and recouped just $3.8m on its initial release. There have been other big budget flops since, but Heaven’s Gate is the title that has become synonymous with failure.
So, is it as bad as you’ve heard?
Well, yes and no. Vilmos Zsigmond’s radiant cinematography transforms Cimino’s vision of the old West into a hazy, ethereal feast for the eyes, even when it’s roaming smoky brothels and dusty cockfight pits. You don’t need to hear the stories of Cimino’s excesses to know that, visually at least, Heaven’s Gate is stringently true to the American mid-West of the 1890s. And no one can say that Cimino doesn’t have an instinctive eye for a captivating image. Time and again the movie lingers over shots of the expansive plains, of a twilight sun descending between distant mountain peaks. But one of Cimino’s problems is that he doesn’t know when it’s time to move on and pay some attention to the people who live among all that breathtaking scenery, which gives rise to major problems with pacing.
For the most part, Heaven’s Gate ambles along at a sedate pace, and the overwhelming impression is that, somewhere along the way, the plot became secondary to the look of the film, to the obsessively faithful recreation of the era. Cimino was clearly aiming for an epic feel and, as with so many large scale epics, he built Heaven’s Gate around the most intimate of situations: two men’s rivalry for the love of a woman. One of the men is James Averil (Kris Kristofferson), a sheriff in Johnson County, Wyoming in the 1890s, which was a time when the state was experiencing an influx of Eastern European immigrants hoping to begin new lives as farmers. Some immigrants, finding that life in their new home isn’t as easy as they had expected, are driven by hunger to steal and kill cattle to feed their families, which provokes Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) the black-hat head of the powerful Stockgrowers Association, into drawing up a death list of 125 immigrants marked for assassination and hiring a small army of gunmen to work their way through it.
The second man involved in the love triangle at the heart of Heaven’s Gate is Nate Champion (Christopher Walken – Eddie the Eagle, The Jungle Book), one of the gunmen attracted by Canton’s offer of $50 for the life of each immigrant on his list. But, although we’re introduced to him as he slays an immigrant who’s in the process of butchering a steer he has killed, Champion’s not quite the black-hearted villain we might initially expect. He’s in love with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert – Valley of Love), the madam of a local brothel, who just happens to be Averil’s lover, and his moral questioning of the task he has been hired to carry out is complicated by the fact that, because of her habit of accepting cattle as payment from immigrants for the services of her girls, Ella’s is one of the names on Canton’s death list.
While the story that Cimino weaves around the factual details of the Johnson County War has the potential to be a compelling one, the film’s languid pace drains it of any dramatic impetus and prevents any tensions between the central characters from taking hold. Huppert is pretty to look at, but lacks the kind of aura necessary to captivate two strong men like Averil and Champion. Then again, their characters are too bland to create any kind of lasting impression, either – a problem that Walken’s command of his profession goes some way towards counteracting, but which leaves the less talented Kristofferson floundering. Supporting characters are even more poorly served by Cimino’s script. John Hurt (44 Inch Chest, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Jeff Bridges (Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, The Big Lebowski), two fine actors, are wasted in roles that are completely superfluous to the story, while Sam Waterston’s scenes are so few in number that he never has the chance to rise above generic bad guy status.
Heaven’s Gate is a movie which everyone with an interest in cinema should watch at least once – not to see how not to do it, but to gain an insight into just how easy it is for a filmmaker of some talent (and no small ego) to make a poor movie when freed from the usual disciplines and restrictions under which a director normally works. It’s no exaggeration to say that Cimino’s life and career were both affected by the failure of Heaven’s Gate, but it’s also fair to say that United Artists are just as culpable for placing him in the firing line.
(Reviewed 10th October 2016)