Heaven's Gate (1980)

Dir: Michael Cimino - Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Mickey Rourke, Paul Koslo, Geoffrey Lewis, Willem Dafoe

I - A Cause Célèbre

With a running-time of nearly four hours, Heaven's Gate is one of the longest and most ambitious movies in film history. With a budget of 44 million dollars and earnings of no more than a little over 3 million, it's also one of the biggest flops. It led to the downfall of a studio, United Artists, and gave the final blow (or nearly so) to auteur film making in Hollywood. It has also been slammed for animal cruelty and turning history upside down. In other words: Heaven's Gate is as much as cause célèbre as a movie.

The different versions

The full-length version of 219 minutes opened in New York, November 19th, 1980. It was killed overnight with a stream of negative reviews and the Studio pulled it back after only one week, forcing Cimino to cut it back to a more acceptable length. The "edited version", running 144 minutes, finally showed up in april, in cinemas on the west coast. Reactions remained negative, and box-office results were cataclysmic. In Europe critics were a little more positive, but only after the complete 219 minutes version ("extended version") had popped up on various film festivals (I first saw it in Ghent, in the late 80s), some of them started to champion it as a massacred masterpiece. In 2012 Cimino created yet another version, running 216 minutes ("restored version"), that was first shown at the Venice Film festival. And yet again, some have called it a masterpiece unjustifiably pulverized by critics.

II - The Movie

Heaven's Gate opens with a scene set during the 1870 Harvard graduation ceremony. In his speech the Dean urges the graduates to spread culture through contact with the uncultivated, but his words are followed by those of the class valedictorian Billy Irvine (John Hurt), who says he sees little reason for change in a society that is overall well-ordered. After a dance and a celebration game (won by Billy's friend Jim Averill), we jump twenty years ahead, and arrive in a Wyoming of the 1890s where a violent conflict is about to break out between ranchers and immigrant settlers. A group of local cattlemen have noticed that their herds are being looted by starving immigrants from Eastern Europe, and have therefore, with the approval of the State, drawn up a death list of 125 'anarchists'. Averill (Kris Kristofferson) - now a sheriff - is responding to the Dean's request to associate with the poor immigrants, while Irvine is responding to his own irreverent speech, standing aside, commenting the proceedings in a permanent state of inebriety.

A first impression

The main problem of Heaven's Gate is that it lacks coherence. It has a glorious look, and some of the larger set pieces are truly magnificent, but there are also scenes that go on far too long or are simply redundant. It veers too much from historic fresco to western and love story. In The Deer Hunter Cimino had managed to combine the personal and the epic, and that is exactly what he failed to do here. Hurt's role is so fragmented that the opposition between his and Kristofferson's character (and the clash of their conflicting views on society) remains underdeveloped. The triangular love story, with sheriff Averill and hired gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) both courting the same woman, Ella, a young French brothel owner, almost feels detached from the rest of the film. Cimino tries to create of feeling of coherence through a series of symbolic scenes all using circular patterns: the dancing scene of the beginning, with dozens of people dancing the Viennese Waltz on Strauss' Blue Danube, the rolling rink sequence halfway the movie, and the battle sequence near the end, with a horse charge in Indian style on the mercenaries, who are kneeling down and shooting at the assailants. All these scenes are beautifully constructed and filmed, but their symbolism is empty, purely rhetorical.

III - Accuracy an obsessions

The edited version was nearly incomprehensible, but had at least this advantage that it made you curious about the full-length movie. The problem with the complete version is that - now things all make sense - you become aware of the fact that the script is rather thin. Basically it's the story of settlers, newcomers in a region, forced to fight for the right to settle down, a story often told in westerns. Cimino turned this familiar western fare into a political story of xenophobia, a decision he was fiercely attacked for. Some even called his movie un-American. What was this conflict, known as the Johnson County war, really about?

The Johnson County War

The Johnson County War was in the first place a range war, fought between rich cattleman and farmers who had settled in the region in recent times. The region was in public domain, which means it was open to both open range and homesteading. There was a steady stream of  poor European immigrants in the last decades of the 19th Century, and there's no doubt they weren't always welcomed by the residents. Complaints about rustling led to hostilities and the decision of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (representing the cattlemen) to hire detectives to track down thieves. There are several reported cases of lynching as well as incidents with detectives shooting rustlers. The extremely cold winter of '86/'87 had been followed by a dry and unusually hot summer and the loss of thousands of cattle had led to food-scarcities. Finally the cattlemen drew up their death list and hired mercenaries to settle things once and for all. The immigrants sided with the small farmers and eventually got the upperhand; the army had to interfere in order to save the lives of those who had planned the massacre.

A desire for authenticity

Cimino scores a few points but most historians think he exaggerated the number of  immigrants overflowing Wyoming. The number of names on the death list and mercenaries hired have also been disputed. The attention paid to historic accuracy compares unfavorably with his obsession for composition and period detail. Cimino spent hours to get all people in the right place for some the greater set pieces while large parts of the budget were consumed by his desire for authenticity. He was fanatical about set & costume design, demanded up to fifty takes of relatively uncomplicated scenes and delayed filming for hours until the desired cloud-banks appeared. At the same time none of the key characters were close to their historic counterparts: Jim Averill and Ellen (Ella) Watson were killed before the war broke out (they were lynched) and Nate Champion was a small farmer, not a detective hired by the cattlemen. I know, Heaven's Gate is a movie, but if your movie is supposed to be a history lesson, you'd better have you facts right. Cimino's desire for authenticity also led to these accusations of cruelty to animals. He wanted real (no fake) blood, so horses were bled from the neck and their blood smeared on actors' faces, he wanted real intentins for large belly wounds, so cows were disembowled, etc. The list is long and the reports on it don't make a nice read.

IV - The movie, re-evaluated

My ideas about the movie haven't changed much over the years. I still consider it a film with great moments, but not necessarily a great film. I have always liked the atmospheric and evocative score by James Mansfield (who's also the fiddler in the movie) and I like it even better today. With the exception of Kristofferson, who mumbles himself through the movie, the actors turn in decent performances, making the very best of their ill-defined (or in some cases one-dimensional) characters; Isabella Huppert is particularly strong as Ella. Much has been said about Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography. Many thought it was one of the film's undeniable assets (along with the score), but there have also been complaints about its arty farty nature. Zsigmond filtered the image to create a sepia-toned, occasionally almost monochromatic print of brown and gold tints. The interiors are often of Rembrandt like clair-obscur, with shafts of light fallen through openings in walls or ceilings. Personally I find these endless scenes of silhouettes moving through beams of light and clouds of dust a bit tiresome. Apparently Cimino agrees with this point of view. For the 2012 version, he has neglected all of Zsigmond's intentions and chosen for a far more vivid color scheme. I don't know what to think of it. Watching the movie may be a more pleasant experience now, as Glenn Erisson put it, but the new color scheme betrays the original intentions.

One final note: It's not a complete surprise that younger generations of critics, who watch the movie for the first time, react more positively than those who were confronted with it when it was first released. Some of the movie's aspects seem more poignant and topical today than they did back then. With Texans building a wall to keep Mexicans on their side of the border and immigrants being attacked in the streets of Athens or Rome, we can no longer pretend that the xenophobic elements of the movie are totally out of place.

Feature lengths:
Edited Version: 144 min (2h24min)
Extended Version: 219 min (3h39min)
Restored Version: 216 min (3h36min)
There still are rumours about a version with a 5 hours running-time (approx), but it probably only was a rough cut. Still, it must be said that the editing of the long versions looks a little abrupt ...

* Philip French, Westerns, p. 136-141
* The Johnson County War  - http://www.wyohistory.org/print/essays/johnson-county-war
* Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, a documentary by Michael Epstein
* Glenn Ericsson, DVD Savant Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Blu-ray review


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