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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  • Muthsarah

    1. Great, great choice for a review. Pop cultural hits (and their more obscure predecessors) are always fun, but what I like about this site is that it also includes those other notable misfires that have long since faded into obscurity, and aren’t likely to ever be remade due to how the system today has no interest in its very premise. And while I haven’t seen Heaven’s Gate, it’s still fun hearing a lil’ more about it. Because, well, I’m probably never going to see it. The premise sounds interesting, and the cast…but the best thing I’ve ever heard about (as you echo here) is that it’s not thaaaat bad….but it’s still pretty bad.

    2. The wedding scene (or act, really) was one of the best things about Deer Hunter Spending so much time in one place, seeing so many details of the characters’ world, is not only fun (‘cuz big weddings ARE fun…as long as you don’t have to be there in person), but it provides the kinds of immersion viewers typically only get from live theatre, where you have to spend an entire 30 minutes or more in one scene, with one set. And stage is stage and cinema is cinema, but when something like The Deer Hunter can successfully port over one of the nicest things about one into the other, it’s a treat. Of course, it also helps that it gets so many other things right, but Cimino’s My Big Fat Bitter Drunk Russian Wedding alone woulda been a fun sit, with that cast.

    3. You’ve been very active these last few weeks, Doctor; I even noticed, I think, four of your reviews on the big board this last week. How long does it take you to make these?

    4. “Audiences have always been attracted to empty spectacle”

    …only when they’re empty action films, it seems, or empty comedies, or thrillers. Empty melodramas, empty background-prettiness movies, seem to be passionately hated (I hear people complaining about them as if they were personally offended EDIT: OK, different people from the ones who complain about empty action films, which, yes, has its haters….often including myself). While that’s not a recent phenomenon by any means, it seems to be getting even more common, at least from what I’m picking up.

    I’m guessing the round desire to scapegoat the occasional dud as a ritual sacrifice (or like a victim of “The Lottery”) for both a statement/plea for the good fortune of the rest of society/Hollywood or just for occasional emotional release is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Reading about Heaven’s Gate’s hostile reception does remind me a lot of how movies like, yes, The Lone Ranger, don’t just get panned for sucking on their own, but for being symbolic of something bigger that is unpopular. And even though bloated, super-expensive, troubled productions ARE indicative of problems within the system and DO deserve to be criticized, it usually seems as if that’s not entirely what’s going on when they get panned so passionately from the start. Every now and then, something is just semi-unconsciously chosen – Ouija-style – as being “the one”, and gets thrashed by all to pay, not just for its own sins, but for those of previous (and assumed future) duds.

    • In my experience empty melodramas often do quite well, Seven Pounds being probably the most egregious example. Tyler Perry has even made an entire career out of the stuff.

      • Muthsarah

        Haven’t seen those, actually. The first “empty melodrama” my mind tends to go to is “Meet Joe Black”, as I suspect that its producers A) were under the impression they were making a summer action movie, if the budget is to be believed, and B) ran out of money and thus couldn’t afford an editor.

        • Meet Joe Black still made $140 million at the box office, it’s only its ridiculous budget that stopped it from being profitable.

          • Muthsarah

            *looks up figures*

            Hmm. Well, it was a bomb here. I’ve heard that most other countries’ filmgoers are more receptive to melodrama (and ‘splosions) than the American audience is. For as big as Pitt was in the 90s, very few Americans seemed interested, and I assume, back then, foreign box office weighed much less in Hollywood’s minds than it does now. Seven Pounds was a pretty big underperformer as well.

          • I wouldn’t call Seven Pounds a failure either, it made it’s budget back at the US box office alone and made triple it worldwide.

          • Muthsarah

            It’s a Will Smith film about the Will Smith character with Will Smith on the poster and Will Smith as the appeal. And it, at best, made its money back here. That’s a disappointment. And, unlike most of Will Smith’s previous hits (and Wild, Wild West), it was a melodrama, not an action film. I think it clearly demonstrates how much less appeal a melodrama (shallow or over-the-top) has in the American market as compared with a comparable action movie, even if every other ingredient of a hit is the same.

          • Cristiona

            How much of that was because Meet Joe Black was the movie that got the Star Wars Episode One teaser trailer? Okay, probably not much, but I still wonder sometimes.

    • “How long does it take you to make these?”
      I don’t know exactly, but I know it’s way less time than editing a video. A lot of the reviews you’ve been seeing from me lately started out as video scripts, actually. I’ll probably get back to videos at some point, but at the moment I’m kind of enjoying not having to spend an entire month just to put together one review.

      • AB Fan

        While I enjoy the Agony Booth’s videos, I have to say I am so happy you are also writing reviews again. I still have a ton of your archived recaps/reviews/articles/whatnot bookmarked for when I need a good laugh!

        • I’d like to see some new recaps myself. Those were great.

          • Alan

            The recaps are truly the best things on this site, although I admit I do enjoy everything else this site has (aside from Sofie Liv’s videos, which are just awful).

      • Muthsarah

        Is the (hyperbolic?) month for a 10-20 min video review, or for one of those “six page dissertations on an episode of Star Trek”?

        I’m perfectly happy with video reviews, but, yeah, there’s no substitute for one of those glorious recaps.

        • Nope, 3-4 weeks for a video review is about right. Maybe I can get one out in 2 weeks if I ignore all other obligations in life. But I have a full-time job that takes up most of my time. I’m guessing the reviewers that get videos out faster are either students or self-employed with a much more flexible schedule. And a lengthy recap in the 15k-20k word range takes about 2 or 3 months to write, for me anyway.

          • danbreunig

            Nice to get a look behind the scenes there–I wondered often how much effort it takes for a recap or review. I love the videos but I also enjoy the occasional throwback to the old recaps like this (I miss the funny quips under the stills). Also, as much as I enjoy the videos from everyone, I noticed in the last year or so that the majority of videos are about very recent movies and shows within the last year and no older than ten to twenty years. So it’s also nice to see when reviewers can branch out outside of new or relatively new movies and shows. Which makes me wonder Doc Winston: what made you decide to currently recap Heaven’s Gate of all movies?

          • Why not? Compared to all the random, obscure movies that everybody else is reviewing, I don’t see why Heaven’s Gate needs an explanation. At least it’s a movie you’ve heard of.

          • danbreunig

            I’ve heard the name for sure, but for actually knowing *about* it, I got my quick lesson here; so thanks for suffering for your art once more and making AB live up to its name.

            I’ve got nothing against obscurities or randomness; I love those myself. It’s the recaps about obscurities and randomness that made me keep coming back (Night Of The Lepus, non-MST3K Puma Man, Starflight One, Crapcorde, animated Mister T, The Worst Of Trek, Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny, you name `em), while the videos shifted all that fun into overdrive, which makes me want to stay even more. What I meant was that the movies reviewed can be famous or obscure, or random or expectant–but they can also be more than just mostly these last two decades worth, or only very major everyday properties (how many Star Wars reviews can we collectively really squeeze out and still be funny and relevant?). So it just surprised me a little that someone recapped a 1980 film that’s seemingly all but forgotten now, except as a footnote in movie history.

            I wasn’t trying to complain there. I guess what I’m getting at is I’m a fan of reviews and recaps both when they mix things up and when they come full circle, if that makes any sense.

          • Muthsarah

            Well, they’re not making as many new old things as they used to.

  • Doc Skippy

    First off, haven’t seen Heaven’s Gate. Just want to get that up there.
    Second off, I imagine I’m not alone in being VERY sensitive to movie runtimes. For me, an average movie (that is to say, one of average quality, of any genre, perhaps one that I’ve been dragged to go so) CANNOT exceed 90 minutes or so. When they do, or when I’ve purchased a movie and see that the run time stretches past the hour and a half mark, I start to get REALLY impatient. I start to become a backseat editor, looking for places to trim here, scenes to cut outright there.
    It’s one of the reasons I love 50s genre films. They often get the heck out just after an hour and small change.
    For a movie to push two hours, it needs to be SPECIAL. It needs to be an EXPERIENCE.
    So then, analyzed from a physiological level, perhaps some of the immense critical hatred for Heaven’s Gate stems from the presumption Cimino makes, to wit, that his bloat is worth eating up more than 90 minutes of the viewer’s time and making backsides sore and joints stiffened. Again, haven’t seen it, so I can’t say if it is or it isn’t worth the bloat (sounds like it’s not).
    Nicely written review, Dr. O’Boogie.

    • Muthsarah

      Out of curiosity, why is the balance set at 90 minutes? I’ve heard talk like this from a lot of sources, but I don’t understand what’s so significant about that exact duration, whether it’s only a mere universal average, or if it’s something relevant to a human’s attention span (which, to me at least, seems to be set at a LOT less than 90 minutes for anything other than a movie). What about a 150 minute movie with an intermission? What about home viewing, with a pause button? Or does it stem more from a physical thing, with the soreness of the balance of the audience’s collective ass? Could making seats cushier or changing the posture (something like like lounging) change the way movies are made by shifting that balance? Or is this something that’s destined to change once theatres become mere curiosities, and home theatre systems finally become the universal system for first-runs. There’s gotta be some explanation for why the Bell curve keeps getting centered there, and it seems like it’d be one of the most relevant things about the experience of movie-making and watching. And yet, it still seems murky.

      • Doc Skippy

        I don’t know, I thought Hollywood had lately shifted to longer run times. Seems like even dumb summer popcorn movies are bloating out past the two-hour mark. I dunno why. The economics and logistics of the thing would seem to favor shorter movies (cost less to make, can be shown more times).
        I really don’t know why I favor 90 minutes. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else. I think it may just be age and lack of patience for anything that wastes my rapidly diminishing time. I certainly wasn’t this impatient when I was younger, and didn’t have a kid, and had all the free time in the world.

        • Muthsarah

          Yeah, the thing about summer action movies getting longer IS especially baffling. They’re made for people with short attention spans (not all people, just the producers’ idea of the lowest common denominator), so longer movies would have less appeal. Furthermore, their goal is to make as much money as they can by making their movies as convenient to see as possible, while competing against more anytime-you-want DVR and video games, in which case they’d want to fit in as many showings as possible (so, again, longer is worse), and they charge just as much money to see one 90-minute showing as from a 150-minute showing (so longer is no better). Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone thinking or saying “what? this movie is only 93 minutes long? I’m not watching something that short! (unless that person is me, and the movie is a literary adaptation)”, so shorter wouldn’t mean less appeal.

          Either the writers, directors, and producers have runaway egos unchecked by marketers, editors, and whoever controls the purse-strings (who, being money-conscious careerists, really should know better), or Hollywood is collectively mad by continually doing something that is overwhelmingly, directly against their bottom line and the whole reason for their existence in the moviemaking industry (since, y’know, summer movies sure ain’t about art).

        • Cristiona

          Which is really weird, because I mentally assume average length to be 2 hours, and consider 90 minutes to be the minimum length. I distinctly remember newspaper reviews of movies back in the 80s scoffing at some movies for barely managing to reach the 90 minute mark.

          So while everyone now seems to be wondering what’s the deal with all these two-hour-plus epics, I’m sitting here wondering when short barely-long-enough-to-be-a-movie runtimes became so darn common.

          • CBob

            I’m with you in that I consider 90 minutes to be a minimum (and 2 hours a max), but otherwise I agree with the Doc. Longer than 2 hours isn’t a movie, it’s a miniseries. That’s not derogatory: I like miniseries too, but the key thing about a miniseries is that it’s not meant to be watched in one sitting. Actual miniseries are internally structured with this in mind, but movies are not, so these longer ones tend to stretch out their internal structure like taffy ’till it can’t support itself.

            For me it’s a combo of two things. One is that as I said above, these usually aren’t structured properly according to their length and so they end up being more fatiguing to watch than they should be. The other is that there aren’t normally enough hours in the day for really long movies. A 90 minute movie is a leisurely meal. A two hour movie is an epic campfire story. A three hour or more movie is like a trip to the zoo or an amusement park: it’s great as a once in a while special experience, but it’s not something you can use to fill your ordinary downtime niches.

            I think a lot of it is just that studios are reacting to the success of a few 2-hour-plus films and loosening their previous restrictions on length, more than that they’re encouraging length. I blame Peter Jackson for starting it. Everything he’s done post-LOTR has coupled huge profitability with vanity-project-like disregards for editing and pacing.

      • MichaelANovelli

        Because 90 minutes is the length they calculated back in the day that was long enough to feel bigger than watching a teleplay (which averaged about an hour in those days), while still being short enough to run several times a day.

        • Muthsarah

          Well…yeah, that seems reasonable, to make movies feel more like they’re worth going to the movies to see (like how old Cinerama/Technicolor stuff tried to win audiences by delivering visual quality early TVs never could), though I think the standard was set well before television became a serious competitor for the movies. The old silents were usually roughly 70 (except for the DeMille-types, which could get to five or six hours, something even Wagner never approached), and by the 1940s, it settled somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes.

          Growing up, I had thought 2 hours was the standard, since that’s how long were most movies I grew up watching. Today’s cheapies are usually closer to 80 or 90 (because all they care about is cost:benefit, and shorter is cheaper and nobody cares), as are most animated films (which are usually crazy expensive AND time-consuming to produce, so longer is just impractical), whereas bloated summer actioners are usually closer to 150, including PotC, which came out probably a whole Hollywood generation ago and probably still sets the trend, supported by LotR. For some reason, the more expensive a live-action film is to make these days on a minute-by-minute basis (big stars, huge casts, complicated stories, huge sets, location shooting, endless stunt reels, tons of CGI, long post-production in general), usually the longer its runtime ends up being….I guess they think summer moviegoers want longer films. Don’t know why they’d think that. Maybe they just sink so much money into the production that they can’t justify to their investors their cutting anything.

      • mamba

        It’s the average capacity of the human bladder to hold when you’re drinking 12-24 ounces of liquid over the course of 1/2 hour. By 90 minutes, most people are ready to go pee and most movies longer than 2-3 hours have to have an intermission or people will simply not see all the movie when they can’t hold it any longer.

    • Adam Bomb 1701

      No Doc, you’re not alone. As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be sixty next year), I’ve become more sensitive to movie run times. I don’t have the patience for a long movie any more; that came to light when I saw “The Dark Knight” back in 2008. Also, my poor suffering prostate can’t handle a long movie. That shit hit the fan for me big time back in 2009, during JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek”. I’d rather see a long movie on either disc, on-demand or on streaming Netflix. Where I can watch it spread out over hours or (if need be) days.

      • T. Morrissey

        I lost my shit when I discovered 40-Year-Old Virgin is 133 minutes. That’s the most outrageous movie runtime I’ve ever heard.

  • Immortan Scott

    I’ve seen the “final cut” of Heaven’s Gate. It is definitely worse.

  • I saw the final cut myself when it turned up on Netflix, and like you I found it to be really just okay. There are some good things about it, but it’s so aimless and meandering and it’s attempt at profound social commentary is undercut by what often feels a lot like apathy to its intended message. It really needed to have the burning anti-authoritarian anger of Masaki Kobayashi’s period pieces (Harakiri, The Human Condition et al). While watching it, despite knowing the production history, I kept thinking that if they just cut about a half hour out (including most of the prologue) it would run a lot better. The excellent cinematography is also largely wasted by the fact that every fucking thing in the movie is brown, and Isabella Huppert is often unintelligible (when studio executives pointed this out, Cimino’s response was ‘fuck off’).
    I found the weirdest thing with this film to be the endings. After the battle fades out it cuts to a scene where all the remaining main characters turn up just to shoot each other and then it cuts to Kristofferson moping on a boat. Cue credits. It’s the most tacked-on-feeling wrap-up I’ve ever seen. I also spent the entire film thinking that Kristofferson and Bridges’ characters were brothers because they look identical.

  • Cameron Vale

    “…the box office was still ruled by the likes of The Poseidon Adventure, Airport 70/75/77/79, and the James Bond movies.”

    How about musicals?

    • Adam Bomb 1701

      Two big ’70s musicals noted in the article, Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” and Scorsese’s “New York New York” were major financial disasters. “At Long Last Love” especially so, as it also took a major critical drubbing. Musicals were kind-of out of favor in the 1970’s, as so many of them from the late sixties tanked big time. (“Hello Dolly” and “Paint Your Wagon” are two examples).

  • Adam Bomb 1701

    The Medved Brothers’ 1984 book “The Hollywood Hall of Shame” really ripped this pic. IIRC, the brothers wrote that the prologue was added to the movie after principal photography had been completed. Cimino not only managed to secure $5 million more of United Artists’ money, he managed to talk the suits into letting him film at Oxford University in England. Even though the college that Averill was graduating from is Harvard. Which is located in Massachusetts.
    From what I remember, “Heaven’s Gate” originally played at exactly one theater in New York City – the hoity-toity Cinema 1, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was originally a reserved seat engagement (when was the last time you saw that for a movie?). Once the reviews came out, and (I assume) reserved ticket sales dried up, it played for one week on a general admission basis, and then was pulled. Due to its long running time, they only ran the pic three times per day. The release of the edited version, in April 1981, played in more theaters; that was pulled after two weeks, due to poor box office.

    • Harvard doesn’t let people film on their campus after some of the buildings were damaged during the filming of Love Story (which is why The Social Network was shot elsewhere).

  • Michael Weyer

    This “final cut” is not what Cimino wanted. As related in the fantastic book “Final Cut” by then-UA exec Steven Bach, after setting a record for the most feet of film ever shot, Cimino finally showed his cut to the execs, talked about maybe standing to lose fifteen minutes…then showed them a FIVE AND A HALF HOUR movie.
    Another reason for the movie’s infamy is that the battle scene (which, in that original cut was the length of most feature films) ended up maiming and killing so many horses that it’s the reason every movie today has the “no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture” credit line. And don’t forget such gems as wasting four hours every day driving cast and crew to and from the remote locations, knocking down an entire town to rebuild it a few inches higher and insisting on so many takes (36 for a scene of a whip being cracked) it’d make Stanley Kubrick go “dude, that’s way too much.” Oh and the Bach book implies that the casting of Huppert was Cimino falling for her and insisting on having her close, no matter how wrong she was for the role.
    Yes, the movie isn’t horrible. But there’s the fact that it THINKS it’s so much more important than it really is. It just drags on and on and really no true weight to it, making it a movie that could have been good if it wasn’t trying to damn hard to be classic.

    • It wasn’t just the battle scene. The guy who gets shot by Walken at the beginning’s guts are real horse guts they killed a horse for and the cock fight was real as well, among other things.