Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 6th August, 2013

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate – to give the full contractual title – is the great and beautiful suicide note of epic American cinema. Spellbindingly extravagant, full of elegiac self-love and self-pity, it tells the story of a Western gunslinger hero who lost his battle and an American nation with a self-immolating soul. Its runaway production and botched release are what made it an emblem for the implosion of the auteur reign in New Hollywood followed by the lockdown of safe, corporate moviemaking, but it’s all right there in the film’s content, too: We dreamed, we fought the system, we failed, we mourn.

Maybe not a lot of people want to hear that story, and certainly many stumble over its maudlin pretension, but there are those of us who find Heaven’s Gate endlessly fascinating and moving – not because it’s intellectually sophisticated, but because its contact high engorges us beyond reason into high emotion, as might an exquisite dirge.

Everybody knows that the movie went overschedule and cost $35million on a $7.5m budget, causing United Artists to be sold off to MGM and effectively ending Oscar-winner Michael Cimino’s career as a major director. That Cimino had demanded endless retakes, and shot a million and a half feet, or about two hundred hours, of film stock. That there were reports of horses being killed and extras being injured, leading to animal rights groups in several countries boycotting the film. That the press had knives out, and the movie’s calamitous premiere in December 1980 saw Vincent Canby of the New York Times call it “an unqualified disaster.” That it was yanked from release, cut from 219 minutes to 149, and flopped anyway. That it is, or at least was, a byword for filmmaking out of control.

And by now everybody who cares about movies should know that after the dust settled – and this is a movie of considerable dust and smoke, caught in the glow of twilight – Heaven’s Gate was hailed as a masterpiece by a handful of critics in the UK and France, and has been undergoing a steady revival of appreciation for the past thirty years. When it had one of its first major resuscitations, at the BFI in August 1983, Alexander Walker wrote, “This, I hope, will be Gate’s positively last opening: I begin to feel caught in a revolving door.” But Heaven’s Gate is the film that nobody ever quite got right and some of us don’t want to let go. Now it’s been restored by the Criterion Collection, tightened from its premiere version to 216 minutes, and is touring cinemas worldwide again. Sorry, Mr. Walker, but I saw it at the BFI just this past weekend.

The film’s subject – the 1892 Johnson County War, where the Wyoming Stock Growers Association drew up a death list of 125 homesteader immigrants suspected of cattle rustling and went after them with a gang of 50 mercenaries – had already inspired stories like Shane and The Ox-Bow Incident by the time Michael Cimino wrote a script about it. Indeed it was intended as a calling-card Western to star John Wayne or Steve McQueen before Cimino won an Oscar for 1978’s three-hour Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, got his deal with United Artists and decided it would be a good idea to try and make the Great American Movie. Then Heaven’s Gate became not just a range war picture but a tripartite gargantua, bookending Kris Kristofferson’s lead character Jim Averill’s time as the doomed marshal in Johnson County with his lavish, hopeful graduation ceremony in Harvard twenty years before and his bitter remembrance in Newport, Rhode Island at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Cimino strings together a series of vast, mostly thrilling, sometimes baffling set pieces: a mass courtyard waltz; a bustling, smoky railroad city; a horse-and-cart ride out of control; a whole town dancing on rollerskates; impassioned public meetings; a dirty, cacophonous battle sequence when the association’s gunmen and the resisting immigrants finally face off. Heaven’s Gate exists on a big scale but slowly weaves in small, tender, telling moments: Kristofferson’s Averill and Isabelle Huppert’s bordello queen Ella, frolicking and skinny-dipping. Christopher Walken’s Nate Champion, an ambitious son of immigrants who has become an association killer and a contender for Ella’s affections, childishly practising his handwriting and unconfidently, self-contemptuously attempting to propose marriage. Averill’s upper-class paternalism and Champion’s bootstrap ambition catch Ella in the middle, and their love triangle is Cimino’s metaphor for a doomed attempt to “civilise the wilderness” in a world where brutality and conflicting interests assert themselves over peaceful dreams.

Heaven’s Gate is full of evocative sensations. Everyone always praises Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, which uses magic-hour lighting to suggest a sepia tinge, not too far from his work on McCabe & Mrs Miller. They often forget to mention the music by David Mansfield, pulsing and stirring with dreamy guitar and string riffs. Huppert, originally rejected by UA for not speaking great English and for having “a face like a potato,” is luminous as some kind of cross between a faithful little girl and a hard-headed businesswoman. Kristofferson has the haunted gravitas necessary to carry the fate of the West on his shoulders, and Walken, perhaps more than any other performance he has given, complicates his stark, domineering side with fumbling tenderness. There are small moments not just to establish the preciousness of the Western dream, but to offend us with evil: Sam Waterston’s murderer-baron Frank Canton executing a chained man to prove his mettle, an association lackey in a tent calmly ticking names off the death list as everyone around him does battle. Cimino’s style adopts the Coppola and Friedkin sense of setting up grand stages and poking around them with documentary scruffiness, Leone’s grubby disillusionment, Visconti’s sense of the ornate. It’s the biggest, craziest and most intoxicating of revisionist Westerns.

There are problems, some of them fundamental. If you see the movie in six-track stereo, the soundtrack suffers from dialogue drowned out by the masses of horses, extras and steam trains. (“I couldn’t hear anything,” shellshocked UA executive David Field is reported to have kept repeating after seeing the first five-and-a-half-hour workprint.) The pacing of the film eschews momentum, instead easing out in novelistic chapters, and sometimes cuts nonsensically between night and day.  In the first salvo of the battle sequence, it’s not totally clear that the immigrants are circling the invaders with their wagons – there’s a lot of riding around in smoke and dust, but you have to work to see who is doing what to whom, and where.

“Garbled,” Pauline Kael called it in The New Yorker, in a review that articulates a lot of things I like about Heaven’s Gate, even though she hated it. Kael, like a lot of people, not entirely unfairly, thought the film had no real personalisation in its presentation of the immigrants under attack: “Cimino is big on hubbub,’ she said, and compared it to Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 version of The Champ, “full of hearty peasants clustering in courtyards and forming patterns for the camera.” On the female lead: “Huppert appears, strips, and rushes outdoors; she’s a little woodland nymph gambolling about.” The film was “a movie addict’s version of the class struggle… the movie exists in a fugue state.” And: “It’s the work of a poseur who got caught out. This poseur does have an eye, though; he may not be able to think straight but he’s a movie director.”

Cimino was treated as Madison Avenue huckster who discovered injustice and got his hippie bandana too late, as America was moving into Reagan era. He “ached for greatness” with “a mood piece improbably disguised as a political passion play,” according to David Ansen. Myself, I think it’s enough that the images and sounds and characters “ache for greatness” – that there’s something fundamentally moving about go-for-broke spectacle with a point of view, even if the point of view is opportunistic. Movies are sensory, visceral propaganda, and if Cimino inflated a small story and a few archetypes with ravishing textural detail as his method of drawing out Big Themes, sometimes that’s the stuff of the most riveting cinema.  It is true that the immigrants are only vaguely characterised, but that doesn’t affect the instinctive repugnance you feel when rich men violate their humanity by planning to exterminate them. Another reason they’re ill-characterised is that this is Jim Averill’s story. Veronica Gems meant it as a criticism when she wrote “he loves the sensations of hopelessness” and “Cimino wanted to make a frontier Hamlet… Kris is a man who can’t make up his mind,” but that’s what the movie is about – an aristocratic dreamer who tried to ennoble and protect the little people, didn’t really get off his high horse to connect with or commit to them, and who got beaten. That message might be fatalistic and self-involved, but it has a colossal weight.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about whether some compromise between the 219-minute premiere cut of Heaven’s Gate and the 149-minute 1981 release cut could have been reached into a better movie. Rare, and mostly unseen and ignored by cineastes, the short version is in some ways a clearer and more focused film. Dramatic pauses are streamlined from almost every scene, peripheral lines of dialogue are looped into some of the crowd sequences, there’s a voice-over transitioning from the Harvard sequence to Wyoming (though that didn’t stop critics complaining they didn’t understand why Kristofferson had ended up a rural lawman.) Scenes are reordered to make Champion more obviously a major character early on and to crosscut more clearly between the immigrant town of Sweetwater and the advancing cattlemen’s army. Key events from the ending play out as flashbacks in the Rhode Island epilogue. There are also more scenes of the immigrants individually asserting themselves than in the 216-minute rerelease.

Having finally seen Heaven’s Gate on the big screen, and having rewatched the short version again soon after, I’ve concluded that actually, I am happy to love the film, and even call it a masterpiece, as the gigantic monster it is. The short version, still excellent, does deflate the project back into a more conventional Western. The longer versions, for all their sometime maddening opaqueness, move to their own odd, enchanting rhythm. You have to settle into Heaven’s Gate, and absorb all its drawn-out beauty, brutality and folly – and when, at the end, it surveys all its own lonely wreckage, from Ella Watson to the counterculture, from the dream of a fair America to Michael Cimino’s desire to be hailed as a genius, you understand what it has lost, and why it weeps.

NOTE 1: Heaven’s Gate was rereleased in the UK by Park Circus Films on August 2, 2013.

NOTE 2: To illustrate a point about how ill-defined the immigrants were compared with the central characters, here’s an excerpt from the official press book from 1981, which has some absurdly detailed fictional biographies of the main characters (who took their names from actual people), but includes only one of the fighting immigrants