HEAVEN’S GATE (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Michael Cimino, 1980
The restored director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate has been released in the U.K.
It’s past time to resuscitate the reputation of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Remember how they shot it down? It was known after its release (before its release too, actually) as Cimino’s Folly, Cimino’s Trainwreck, the out-of-control, over-expensive epic that all but bankrupted United Artists and made a laughingstock out of its Oscar-winning filmmaker. Most of all, it became famous as the object of numerous journalistic attacks and of Stephen Bach’s venomous making-of book, “Final Cut.”
Blasted mercilessly by some of the leading critics of its day (including, notably, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby), it was praised by a handful of others (including me, at Isthmus of Madison), and has steadily grown in stature and positive assessments over the years. Like Sergio Leone‘s also-abused (if not as much) but glorious epic western Once Upon a Time in the West, Heaven’s Gate deserved better than the audiences and critics of its era gave it. Maybe this superb Criterion package will garner the film a little more respect, or at least another chance.
It deserves one. In retrospect, Heaven’s Gate—in the original version, a sumptuously shot near-four-hour saga costarring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert and Jeff Bridges—looks more and more like a film convicted and massacred unjustly. “Cimino’s Folly” now seems one of the major movie Westerns of its day, an esthetically-visionary, politically-daring and sometimes staggeringly beautiful picture, rather than the spendthrift, pretentious catastrophe Bach describes in his tell-all. It was an ambitious movie that realized many of its ambitions, an audacious, sometimes great picture that fails big when it fails, but succeeds magnificently when it succeeds.
Set in Wyoming cattle country, largely in 1892, Cimino‘s movie—a longtime labor of love from the filmmaker who won 1978 Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Deer Hunter—is, like Francis Coppola‘s similarly troubled 1979 Vietnam saga Apocalypse Now, a phenomenon show. It’s one of the few American movie epics that can be compared, in scope, historical sophistication, daring and beauty, to the great post-1960 European film epics like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard or Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1900. (Both those films had problems too, and violent detractors.)
As with The Leopard, the politics of Heaven’s Gate are leftist and the esthetics classical. Cimino‘s story, taken from historical records, was based on a real-life “class war”: The Johnson County War, fought by the immigrant settlers of that region against the all-powerful ranchers of the Wyoming Cattle Grower’s Association and a cabal that included that state‘s Governor. The impetus for the war was the ranchers’ insistence that the settlers were rustling their cattle. But more likely, it seems, the spur was the aggravation of these gentlemen at having to share the grasslands with anyone else. So, importing gunmen from Texas to Caspar, Wyoming, the cattle growers—led in the film by arrogant cattle king Frank Canton (Sam Waterston, in evil mode)—became determined to wipe out their neighbors, beginning with 150 people they have on a private ranchers’ private death list.
Trying vainly to keep the peace is the film‘s main protagonist, the local marshal James Averill (Kristofferson) —an honest law enforcer who is also involved in a blazing love triangle with the local Madame, Ella Watson (Huppert), and one of Canton’s hired enforcers, Nathan Champion (Walken), who turns on his own leader. All three of these characters, considerably altered, come from life, and the Harvard graduate Averill is Michigan State and Yale graduate Cimino‘s obvious surrogate.
We first see the young Averill, robust and gleaming, one of the proud and happy young Eastern elite, in his vast, elaborate college graduation ceremonies, decades earlier at Harvard, where the Greeleyesque (and unnamed) Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) exhorts the young men to Go West. Averill does, but by the time we see him again, he has become an embittered and cynical lawman, alienated from his own gentleman’s class (the killer-ranchers led by Canton), in love with a whore (his legal wife is back east), and full of grudging admiration for the mercurial gunman Champion. Averill is the main witness to the carnage that ensues: the slaughter of over a hundred settlers by the Wyoming cattle country elite.
Heaven’s Gate‘s detractors often accuse the movie of having no story, or if it does, of having a murky and unfocused one. But Heaven‘s Gate is not especially hard to follow and it has plenty of story — including the political battle, the three-cornered romance, the clashes between Marshal Averill and the gentleman ranchers and his alcoholic old Harvard classmate/friend Billy Irvine (played with brittle melancholy by John Hurt). What the film doesn’t have — its major flaw — is enough dialogue and dialogue scenes to perfectly round out the characters of Averill, Ella, Jeff Bridges’ John L. Ridges, Canton, the settlers’ spokesperson Mr. Eggleston (Brad Dourif), and the others.
It’s fine for Walken’s Champion to be a man of few words; it suits his charisma. But Cimino likes to tell his stories more in pictures than in dialogue, and a movie like this, and characters like these, needs more talk, and more personality conveyed through the dialogue. Cimino instead likes to create big, sweeping, epic and mostly wordless scenes—like the wedding party in The Deer Hunter, and here, the dance on the Harvard campus, the settlers’ roller rink celebration, the furious ambush of Champion by the enforcers, and the final bloody Johnson County War—and to avoid too much conversation. Those great, lavish tableaux are part of what makes him interesting as a filmmaker. But they’re also so arty and intentionally overpowering that they irritate some observers.
The Deer Hunter had the same paucity of dialogue. (Cimino‘s Clint Eastwood actioner Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, didn‘t need it.) But when the film‘s major internal emotional conflict is that of an academically gifted Harvard man, adjusting to the shock and awe of the frontier, it would have been better to let him and the others open up more, even if part of the point is that Averill, once a young Eastern gentleman, has adjusted to his more terse, more laconic Western environment.
At any rate, here now is Heaven’s Gate, in the more complete 216-minute version that played a week or so in New York City and then was eviscerated—first by the critics and then by the studio. Cimino’s 1980 movie was blasted both for costing too much, for not being a masterpiece—and for not giving us characters we could love, instead of the flawed and vulnerable Averill, Champion and Ella. In any case, Heaven’s Gate has survived, been restored and looks better today. Its very high ambitions and historic sweep are what we miss in most of our epics today. The picture could be better—almost everything and every movie could be better, except Citizen Kane and The Godfather and The Rules of the Game and Singin’ in the Rain. But it’s definitely not a catastrophe. The studio should have stood behind it.
I remember when I saw Heaven’s Gate first, in New York City. I rushed off to the theater the next day, because movie people were sure that Canby’s review had killed the film, at least in its “final cut,” and that, if and when it played in the rest of the country, it would be severely edited, as Greed was, and made, as best anyone could, into something more commercial and ordinary, like the RKO cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. (Both those films, of course, were masterpieces, even in the mutilated versions.) The crowd gathered in the moviehouse that day, some defiant, and we watched the triangular love story and the class war, and the charging horses and the grasslands and the firelit bordello, and we looked at Isabelle Huppert, that wonderful actress—whom Steven Bach called, I think, a “potato-face” in his book. We watched the bullets blazing into the house of Champion, turning the walls into latticeworks filled with streams of light and death. And after a while, someone in the front rows yelled “Fuck Vincent Canby!”
Then David Mansfield’s little waltz came on, and the audience quieted. Perhaps we realized it wasn’t fair, that the anger was misplaced. Canby didn’t kill the 1980 Heaven’s Gate. At least, not alone. He was backed and encouraged by a studio and by accountants and a film community and an establishment, and maybe by a list, and most of all, by a state of mind, and a sense of class. Listen, I apologize to Vincent Canby. He was a gentleman.
Extras on the Criterion Collection DVD: New restored transfer, supervised by Cimino; Audio interview with Cimino and producer Joann Carelli; New Interviews with Kristofferson, composer-actor-fiddler Mansfield; and assistant director Michael Stevenson; Teaser and TV Spot; Booklet with a 1980 interview with Cimino and an essay by Giulia D‘Agnolo Vallan.