Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate, a sprawling, revisionist western loosely based on the real-life Johnson County wars, premiered in 1980 after months of being savaged in the press for cost and schedule overruns of historic proportions. Writer-director Michael Cimino had been given free rein thanks to his successful Oscar-winning Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter, and he proceeded to abuse the concept of carte blanche beyond all reason, blowing 44 million dollars of United Artists’ money on his single-minded crusade to make the Gone with the Wind of movie westerns. Heaven’s Gate became, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made.

To put this in terms that the Millenials reading this might understand, the cost to make Heaven’s Gate in 2013 dollars is about $150 million. But that number doesn’t really do things justice, considering the stratospheric rise of movie budgets in recent years. My wild guesstimate is that it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-$250 million to make Heaven’s Gate today. (That much money spent on an overblown, overlong western? Could never happen these days!)

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Accordingly, several critics came to the premiere with their knives sharpened. The reviews were brutal, including a now-legendary thrashing by New York Times critic Vincent Canby that would soon become the gold standard for future critical drubbings.

The Critics Rave about Heaven’s Gate!

Heaven’s Gate is a numbing shambles. It’s a movie you want to deface; you want to draw mustaches on it, because there’s no observation in it, no hint of anything resembling direct knowledge—or even intuition—of what people are about. It’s the work of a poseur who got caught out.” —Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I’ve seen Paint Your Wagon.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“An all-out disaster … Had the movie been filmed entirely in Russian without English subtitles it might have made more sense than it does in its present state.”—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

Heaven’s Gate … fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect. … Mr. Cimino’s approach to his subject is so predictable that watching the film is like a forced, four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.”—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Heaven’s Gate played for a week in New York to mostly empty theaters, and was then pulled so that Cimino could edit the film down from a butt-numbing 3 hours and 39 minutes to “merely” two and a half hours (fun fact: the original cut he delivered to the studio was over five hours). The shortened version didn’t fare much better, and in total, Heaven’s Gate made just over $3 million. In today’s money, we’re talking 250 million dollars spent in the service of earning back 20. It was a financial catastrophe, effectively ending the sixty-year existence of United Artists as a self-contained entity, and it shook Hollywood to its core and forever changed the way movies were made.

And yet, despite all of that, the movie itself is not terrible. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s nowhere near the “disaster” the reviews would lead you to believe. The cinematography is breathtaking, full of wide-open views of the Montana wilderness. The money is all up there on the screen, in the form of exquisite sets and costumes, and with its golden sepia tint, Heaven’s Gate is a movie that evokes a feeling of being in the Old West like few others.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

But beautiful sets and costuming and scenery can only take a movie so far, and the plot is so lacking in substance as to be nearly nonexistent. There’s not enough story here to fill 90 minutes, let alone 219. And trust me, this is not a movie where the time simply flies by; you feel every last one of those 219 minutes.

This movie’s length wasn’t a complete aberration in the context of 1970s cinema, with the likes of Altman, Coppola, and Bertolucci also indulging themselves, but even by those standards, Heaven’s Gate is mercilessly drawn out. Every scene takes twice as long as it needs to, and there are only a handful of memorable moments. Over the course of its massive runtime, there are four, perhaps five characters we actually get to know. Essentially, it’s all the worst excesses of The Deer Hunter (e.g., the longest wedding reception in the history of cinema) dialed up to eleven.

The central character is a marshal named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), who comes from a privileged family, as established by an 1870 prologue where he and classmate James Irvine (John Hurt) graduate from Harvard. It’s a lengthy ceremony complete with dancing, singing, and a protracted speech from Joseph Cotten. I hesitate to even call this a “prologue”, because the damn thing lasts 20 minutes. And all we really learn here is that Averill likes pretty women, Irvine likes to drink, and it’s nearly impossible to make a middle-aged Kris Kristofferson look like a twenty-something.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

This prologue also gives us a huge dance number where the new graduates waltz to the Blue Danube. And the mind boggles at the cost and effort involved in putting hundreds of extras in authentic period clothes for a scene that has almost no impact on the rest of the film.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Cut to Averill 20 years later, arriving in Johnson County to start a job as the local marshal. He learns there’s been an influx of poor Eastern European immigrants to the region, and they’ve been stealing cattle to survive, much to the dismay of a group of rich cattle barons who call themselves the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. (None of this happened in the real Johnson County, by the way; much like Deer Hunter invented the fiction of a sadistic Viet Cong forcing POWs to play Russian roulette, most of Heaven’s Gate bears little resemblance to actual historical events.)

Averill has some history with local bordello madam Ella Watson, played by the badly miscast Isabelle Huppert. One would expect a frontier whorehouse madam to project a certain tough, no-nonsense attitude, and thus it’s a mystery as to why a wispy Frenchwoman was cast in this role, other than maybe a willingness to be naked in most of her scenes. (Cimino settled on Huppert after Jane Fonda and Sally Field passed on the role; the studio tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge.)

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Ella is also romantically entwined with Nate Champion, played by a skeletal Christopher Walken, who’s been hired by the Stock Growers Association to deal with the cattle rustling problem. And by “deal with”, I mean he basically goes around blowing a hole in any immigrant who so much as glances in the direction of a steer.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

The head of the Stock Growers Association is the literal mustache-twirling villain Canton, played by Sam Waterston. Canton is fed up with cattle thievery, and he’s drawn up a “death list” of 125 names which includes pretty much every immigrant in Johnson County, and he plans to hire mercenaries to travel there and wipe them all out.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Averill’s old friend James Irvine, now a member of the Association (and an even bigger drunk than before) passes on the death list to Averill, who discovers Ella is on the list because she accepts stolen cattle as payment. This inspires Averill, and later Champion to throw in their lot with the immigrants, leading to a lengthy showdown between the mercenaries and the immigrants.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

After an interminable sequence of the two groups shooting at each other while covered by a thick cloud of dust (reportedly, this sequence alone was nearly an hour in Cimino’s original five-hour cut), the cavalry rides in and tells everybody to go home. But much like other entries in downbeat cinema of the 1970s, nobody gets out of this thing alive.

And… well, that about covers it. That’s all 219 minutes in a nutshell. Most of the runtime is spent on random interludes involving the immigrants, where they curse and drink and laugh as one monolithic bunch with no individual personalities, making it impossible to give a crap about any of them. Though, if you can pay attention for long enough, you’ll notice these interludes contain early appearances from the likes of Mickey Rourke, Terry O’Quinn, Brad Dourif, and (allegedly—I’ve never been able to spot him) Willem Dafoe.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Also present in most of these vignettes is Jeff Bridges, coincidentally playing John L. Bridges, the owner of a local roller rink/meeting spot called “Heaven’s Gate” (which is all the explanation we get for the title of the movie). This is where, in one scene, a band plays and the immigrants have a big hoedown on roller skates, and from what I can gather, the roller skate hoedown is the only thing people actually remember about this movie. If I had to guess why, I’d wager it’s because it’s the only moment where the film is something other than relentlessly bleak and hopeless and depressing.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

And just in case this movie isn’t long enough for you, there’s a nearly wordless epilogue set in 1903, featuring Averill on a yacht off the coast of Rhode Island with the “pretty girl” from the Harvard prologue. It’s essentially eight minutes of meaningful glances that reveal almost nothing.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate was a perfect storm of an obsessed filmmaker who thought he was making the Great American Movie, a studio headed by inexperienced executives with no idea how to rein him in, and a parent company that was looking to divest itself from the movie business anyway. (One of those UA executives later wrote an entire book about the Heaven’s Gate fiasco, which delves into the story in far greater detail than what I can provide here.)

At the time, highly-regarded directors were mostly given total freedom, a holdover from auteur theory that posited that the director was the final “author” of a film. This is why, in the opening credits of Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s name is just as big as the title. And as the budget spiraled out of control, United Artists couldn’t fire Cimino from the movie, because Cimino was the movie.

The cruel irony is United Artists’ parent company at the time was Transamerica, a multibillion-dollar insurance company, and it only took them a few days to recoup the $44 million they lost on Heaven’s Gate. (And plenty of other movies in the last 30 years have lost more money, even when adjusting for inflation: Cutthroat Island, Mars Needs Moms, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and the aforementioned The Lone Ranger all burned through way more cash—studios these days are simply doing a much better job of spreading around the risk.) The real damage came not from the film’s price tag, but rather from all the negative press this movie generated, which prompted Transamerica to sell UA to MGM, and UA subsequently ceased to exist.

The notion that a single film could take down a movie studio had far-reaching repercussions. Auteur cinema had been on the way out for a while, due to high-profile flops from Friedkin, Bogdanavich, Scorsese, and even Spielberg, but Heaven’s Gate was the period at the end of that sentence. Years later, the death of director-driven films was blamed (most notably by Peter Biskind) on the blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars, but really, that’s a gross oversimplification of what was going on at the time.

Audiences have always been attracted to empty spectacle, and even when moves like Last Tango in Paris and Midnight Cowboy were hugely successful, the box office was still ruled by the likes of The Poseidon Adventure, Airport 70/75/77/79, and the James Bond movies. For a brief period of time (thanks to counterculture trends and the abandonment of the Hays Code), small art-house “New Hollywood” films were making just as much money as “old Hollywood” epics. But it couldn’t last forever; Even if Star Wars had never been made, it’s highly unlikely that the 2013 equivalent of The Last Picture Show would be dominating the box office right now.

With any major flop comes the inevitable reevaluation and reappraisal, which usually involves a number of movie bloggers declaring a film to be a “misunderstood masterpiece”. Naturally, this happened for Heaven’s Gate last year, when Criterion released a Blu-ray of Michael Cimino’s “final cut”. Personally, I have no intention of ever seeing this version. For one thing, I’m sure it’s just as boring. For another, never trust a director who says “this is the movie I intended to make” decades after the fact. Case in point: Cimino used digital technology to remove the golden sepia tint. And while I’m sure the movie looks much better now, it’s definitely not the Heaven’s Gate he would have made 30 years ago.

But still, I won’t begrudge anyone who loves Heaven’s Gate. It certainly has the look and feel of an epic masterpiece. But its core message—that it sucks to be poor in America and the rich make all the rules—is not exactly profound. Personally, I’d love to be able to say this film is an underappreciated classic, but in all honesty? It still feels like a four-hour walking tour of my living room.

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