Most people who love the movies know the story of Heaven’s Gate. Here it is again in a nutshell. After winning three Oscars for The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor), director Michael Cimino went on to write and direct a western epic about the Johnson County Wars. Due to massive cost over runs and film delays the film ended up being 44 million dollars (while that number seems quaint in an age where the lowliest of romantic comedy costs about 40 Million – BEFORE PRINTS & ADVERTISING – it was an unheard of amount of dough to spend on a film in 1980.) At one point, the cut of the film was 5 1/2 hours long, some say this over-indulgence was mainly due to Cimino’s perfectionism and ‘man of the moment’ status.’ Case in point: After 5 days shooting they were apparently 4 days behind schedule. The film was eventually pared down to 3 hours 40 minutes. After the Deer Hunter, critics were expecting the second coming of Christ (which wouldn’t happen until 2004 with Mel Gibson’s fetishistic passion play) and lambasted the film so bad that the studio waited on the film for another 8 months, and chopped it down by another hour. Nobody went to see the film when it was released, and United Artists, the studio, went bankrupt and was bought at a fire-sale price by MGM (there is no small irony in that MGM has been similarly fire-sold several times, for varied reasons, 20 years onward.)
So how is the film? Well, I liked it. A lot. The class struggles in the film between the rich corporation (i.e. state-sanctioned rape of the working class) and the poor immigrant farmers is as relevant today as it was in the 1890s. I loved the contrast between the Harvard graduation celebrations and the frontier life celebrations. The frivolous game of defending bouquets of flowers with concentric rings of faculty holding hands while the students try to grab the flowers for honour is nicely revisited as a bloody game of survival as the residents of Johnson County defend their escaping families and attack the 50 odd armed bounty hunters. The love triangle of Kris Kristofferson’s rich man behaving like a poor man, and Christopher Walken’s poor man behaving like a rich man with Isabelle Hupert’s confident middle-class prostitute is as interesting for the relationship dynamics as for its symmetry: She charges Walken’s character for sex so as to no be ‘cheating’ on Kristofferson’s character.
I loved the dusty, gritty look of the old west which had it’s islands of civility in a harsh wilderness (expressed explicitly with the repeated ‘wallpaper’ on a tar shack home of Walken’s character). Because the epic film is on the rise again and now the cast of thousands are created digitally, as well as much of the sets, to see this film which does actually employ a cast of thousands, real steam trains, fully constructed towns, etc. makes it stand out as all the more well realized. The film, with the help of and admittedly long run-time has a submersing effect into the environment I’ve not had since Das Boot. For that I give it whole credit. It forgives the underdeveloped characters such as John Hurt’s broken Harvard valedictorian who cannot resolve his moral failures other than with a smart mouth and too much drink, or Jeff Bridges’ tavern owner who is supportive of Kristofferson’s defense of the town, but never feels like much beyond that. In light of Jeff Bridges’ career retrospective Academy Award recently handed out, the performance here is rather middling, but it seems the director thought it was juicy enough to expand the role much beyond the original intent (but then this sort of ‘feature creep’ is the main reason for all the troubles that Cimino brought down on himself during production.)
The last 10 minutes ran a bit too vindictive and hard to swallow, and tragedy for the sake of following the Shakespeare mold of ‘nobody gets out alive’. But overall, why this film was bashed into oblivion is simply beyond me. It stands up there with many of the 1970s gritty epics and Despite precursors in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garret and Billy The Kid (1973), it was somewhat ahead of its time as a revisionist western. Much of the same aesthetics and messages are revisited in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1991), Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) many years after Heaven’s Gate.
A couple more notes of trivia on Heaven’s Gate:
1. The actual story that the film was based on, the government stepped in after the first couple murders, compared to the film wherein the government is behind the 125 man death list from start to finish.
2. The film features a lot of brutality to animals. There is a stunning cock-fight at one point in the saloon which is most definitely not staged. So many horses were hurt or killed in the big battle sequence in the film that animal groups stepped in and from that point on, there had to be a Humane Society observer on films to prevent such abuse (you know that snippet at the bottom of the credits: ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film’).