Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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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.

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