Heaven’s Gate is best known as the colossal financial disaster that sank United Artists and sent celebrated director Michael Cimino into Hollywood purgatory.
After winning two Oscars for The Deer Hunter (only his second film), Cimino was given free rein to direct his script of Heaven’s Gate based on the Johnson County War of 1892. Budgeted at $7.5 million with a release date set for Christmas 1979, Cimino was said to be five days behind schedule after six days of shooting, and eventually spent $44 million, accruing over one million feet of footage by the time it was finished in late 1980
Nothing about this film makes much sense. Harvard is really Oxford, Wyoming is really Montana, and the plot, dialogue, story, action, cinematography and editing are really stupefying.
Not five minutes into this empty epic, John Hurt delivers a speech to Harvard’s graduating class of 1870 that bores even the people on screen. Then there’s a waltz sequence on the lawn that has nothing to do with anything that follows.
Then we get railroad cars, peasants pulling wagons through the dust, boxcars filled with refugees and all kinds of pioneer poetics, and it’s twenty years later.
Kris Kristofferson, one of the Harvard grads, is a marshal in Wyoming and his friends are planning to murder 125 immigrant farmers who have been stealing cattle from the local cattle barons for food.
Just one of the thousands of questions that result from Michael Cimino’s demented screenplay is how all those Harvard lads ended up on the uncivilised frontier in the first place, instead of in nice government jobs in Washington.
For three hours and forty-five minutes, it’s Kris Kristofferson against the cutthroat villains, one of whom (Christopher Walken) has become an enforcer for the cattle barons. Both are in love with Isabelle Huppert, who plays a bordello madam named Ella.
This movie looks even worse when you try to explain it than it does on screen.
Scene after scene unfolds without a clue to the time, the year, the place, or the relationships of the people on the screen. Men fiddle while the whole town roller skates and Vilmos Zsigmond captures it all with camera lenses that appear to have been sprayed with sherry.
But banjos, cockfights, blazing Winchesters and thousands of extras running into each other in mass panic do not a movie make, and by the time Kristofferson finally gets around to the big shootout at the end, like John Wayne in The Alamo (1960), the movie may have you dozing.
You know who the villains are because they all wear grey coats and carry rifles. You know who the victims are because they all speak with subtitles. But what the hell are they doing and who the hell are all the other people who mumble incoherently behind clouds of dust and filters?
All John Hurt does is drink and make cynical noises. All Sam Waterston does is squint his rodent eyes and wear fur hats. All Isabelle Huppert does is disrobe for the entire cast whenever she has to speak more than a paragraph in a single shot.
The now-familiar Western scenery is pretty when we can see it through all the Vaseline, and Kristofferson toils valiantly in a role that makes about as much sense as the Book of Deuteronomy printed backwards.
The rest of Heaven’s Gate is pretentious bilge.
Nathan D Champion
John H Bridges
Mary C Wright