Heaven’s Gate: Cimino’s Controversial Epic Deserves Second (and Third Look)

Michael Cimino died July 2, 2016 at the age of 77.
heavens_gate_poster.jpgAmbitious in intent and scope, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is far from a flawless, or even a good film, but it’s also not the unmitigated catastrophe, or total disaster, that some critics consider it to be.

It all depends on which version you are dissecting and discussing?

Over the years, the movie has been charged with bringing down a whole studio, United Artists (well documented in Steven Bach’s popular book, “Final Cut”). And some scholars consider its release date as signaling the end of the age of auteurism and personal works in the New American Cinema (although that happened a few years earlier, around 1976-1977)

The movie was critically panned in its initial release by most reviewers, particularly the influential N.Y. Times, due to its overbloated publicity, hugely excessive budget (over $35 million), and the fact that its theatrical release was butchered in post-production, resulting in a feature that is 70 minutes shorter than the director had intended.

heavens_gate_3.jpgNonetheless, a second, fresher look suggests that Cimino’s epic Western contains some powerfully lyrical and sensory moments, a rather impressive elegiac tone, sharp (but inconsistent) criticism of greed and racism. In other words, given a chance to play as it was meant to, Heaven’s Gate is overall a more decent picture than most critics acknowledge.

The film’s major shortcomings always were–and still are–the poorly written narrative and the badly constructed characters (and central romance).  This was the first film in which Cimino functioned as the sole writer–he has always been a more skillful director than screenwriter, even when he collaborated with others on the scenarios.

The original 222-minute director’s cut has seldom been shown outside of its aborted November 1980 New York premiere engagement. However, the long version was theatrically released around the world and it’s been available on video and DVD.

In this follow-up (his third feature) to the 1978 Oscar-winner The Deer Hunter, writer-director Cimino explores the tensions that led to the Johnson County War of 1890, in which a group of immigrants were persecuted and hunted down by a ruthless corporation.

heavens_gate_2.jpgThe tale begins with an (over)extended sequence (close to half an hour), set at Harvard University graduation ceremony of 1870, centering on James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a man of privilege. We hear John Hurt’s valedictorian speech, which is incoherent, perhaps because of its reliance on various sources. We can’t help but notice that both actors are considerably older than what is supposed to be the age of the characters they play. Add to it location shooting at Oxford University (standing in for Harvard) and you have lack of authenticity right in the first reel.

Shifting to Wyoming of 1890, the saga finds Averill a federal marshal for a territory that’s populated by a heavy influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The newcomers are despised by the local cattle barons, who all seem to come from the East Coast and from old money. They are led by Sam Waterston, who perceives Averill as a traitor to his class and an obstacle to his notion of justice.

heavens_gate_1.jpgChristopher Walken plays Nathan D. Champion, the leader of a group of hired guns, who enforces vigilante justice on the immigrants. The conflict gradually escalates into a full-blown scale, barely halted by the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry.

The morality of the narrative is ambiguous (sort of gray): Cimino encourages the viewers to make up their own minds as to who is right and who is wrong. He depicts the plight and lifestyle of both the immigrant farmers (whose crimes of stealing food may stem from their needs to survive) and the stockholders.

heavens_gate_4.jpgWhat’s clearer is that Cimino, like other directors (Altman, for example) mourns an idealized vision of the Wild West, lamenting the end of the classic American Dream, absorbed by immigrants who came to America with aspirations for a better and freer life. He suggests that, unlike the Old World, the oppression in the New World is not religious or even ideological, but economic and ethnic, a result of greedy capitalism.

Relying on stoic glances and few words, Kristofferson gives a stiff, understated performance as a tormented man who’s out of his element. No matter what he does, he is in a no-win situation. On the one hand, he is scorned by the ruling class and on the other he is not respected even by those he is trying to protect.

heavens_gate_5.jpgHis love interest, Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson, a bordello madam, is played by French actress Isabelle Huppert (who might be miscast).  A shrewd operator, Ella is using her sexuality to build a small frontier business, and she is not above playing the men of the town against each other, manipulating them to her own advantage.

Worse yet, the Central romantic triangle of Kristofferson-Huppert-Walken doesn’t work, because Huppert doesn’t convey any heat or passion for either man, and all the love (and nudity) scenes are rather tedious. Her heavy accent resents just another problem.

Walken and John Hurt render serviceable (but no more) performances as the cold-hearted, ruthless killer and the Harvard wastrel, respectively.

Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif play advocates of the immigrant masses, and you can spot newcomers Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe in smaller parts.  Vet actor Joseph Cotten plays the Harvard dean in the first act.

The whole movie may be too detached for its own good, with Cimino looking at both communities from the outside.  Moreover, the violent clash at the end is observed by Cimino from a distance. It is visually depicted in a circular motion that resembles the dances at the Harvard graduation in the first reel and the roller derby line dance that the migrant workers perform in the middle of the film.

Some critics had complained at the time that “Heaven’s Gate” harbors anti-American sentiments.   According to Cimino, the standoff at “Heaven’s Gate” is inevitable, reaffirming the belief that not much has changed in American class and racial structures over the past hundred years.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is expectedly striking, offering vivid imagery of the vast plains of the Wyoming wilderness. The film’s attention to detail is impressive and so are several more intimate emotional scenes.   Visually, Cimino conveys the struggle through sepia tinged images and grainy film stock, which suggest the tone of nostalgic yearning.

About the director:

Michael Cimino began his career as co-writer of “Silent Running” (1971) and Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” actioner, “Magnum Force” (1973). Eastwood helped launch his career with “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” which enabled him to get funding for The Deer Hunter, the 1978 Oscar winner, still his best work—by far.  Cimino has never been able to recover from the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, and most of the films that followed were either artistic and/or commercial flops.

With only seven features to his credit (the last complete feature was Sunchaser in 1996), Cimino has become a prime example—and cautionary tale—of a bright and ambitious director, who dared to dream big, a potentially brilliant artist who had never really fully realized his talent.

He died in 2016 at the age of 79.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Tambi Larsen; Jim Berkey


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners were Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley and Michael Ford for Spielberg-Lucas adventure “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in a context that included “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Ragtime,” and “Reds.”