Heaven’s Gate becomes its own kind of hell

Saturday night, I finally saw the film that destroyed United Artists: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as legend proclaimed. Nor was it as good as recent revisionists insist.

The Heaven’s Gate disaster changed Hollywood. In 1979, Cimino was riding high as the writer and director of the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter. United Artists gave him $11.6 million to turn his screenplay, The Johnson County War, into an epic western. Cimino’s perfectionism and runaway ego ballooned the cost to over $44 million – a record-breaking expense at the time. Critics and audiences hated the long, slow, lumbering, self-consciously arty film. It brought in less than a 10th of its cost, and the name Heaven’s Gate became synonymous with an overpriced flop.

The film always had its champions. It was praised at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, and its reputation as something like a masterpiece grew over the decades. In 2011, Heaven’s Gate came in 12th in Time Out London‘s list of the 50 Greatest Westerns. The following year, Criterion released the film on Blu-ray and DVD.

I streamed Heaven’s Gate from Filmstruck, where it’s available through the end of April.

In an odd way, Heaven’s Gate reflects one of John Ford’s best westerns, My Darling Clementine. Like that masterpiece, it’s set in a town balanced between wilderness and civilization. A handful of ruthless men threaten the peace, and a new sheriff is in town.

Yes, that’s a clichéd western plot, but what separates Clementine, and Heaven’s Gate, from other westerns is the concentration on place, character, and atmosphere. Both films ignore the plot’s basic conflict for large periods of time, allowing us to get to know the characters and watch as a settlement turns into a town and a community. In Ford’s film, the good people of Tombstone dance in celebration at a church raising; in Heaven’s Gate‘s Johnson County, they skate to music in the new roller rink.

The big difference, of course, is that My Darling Clementine runs a quick 97 minutes (Ford’s original cut was a bit longer). The current “director’s cut” of Heaven’s Gate runs 216 minutes. This is Lawrence of Arabia territory, without enough material to justify the length.

Watching Heaven’s Gate, it’s easy to imagine Cimino, proud of every beautiful shot, unwilling to cut anything. The simple story is told so slowly that it’s painful. At least a third of a picture – possibly half – could be removed without hurting story, character, or atmosphere. You could easily shorten the movie by 25 minutes by simply removing the pointless prologue and epilogue.

Speaking of atmosphere, Cimino apparently fell in love with loud sound effects. I’m not talking about gunfights, which should be loud. I’m talking about footsteps, crowd noise, and propts. The incidental sound effects are so loud that they often drown the dialog. In one scene, two men talk as one of them refills a flask. The liquid entering the flask sounds louder than the dialog.

On the plus side, Heaven’s Gate just might tie with McCabe and Mrs. Miller
as the best-photographed western ever made. And I’m not just talking about pretty scenery (although there’s plenty of that). Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond almost always gives us a sense of where we are, and how it feels to be there. It’s not just the great outdoors, but the great outdoors at a particular time of day. It’s not just a crowded room, but a room lit by windows or gas lamps, with a sense of joy or foreboding. The clouds seem to tell a story of their own (another similarity for Clementine). Zsigmond, in my opinion the master of anamorphic Panavision, also shot McCabe.

Heaven’s Gate‘s story seems exceptionally timely today. An organization of wealthy men, backed up by the government, create a mercenary army to get rid of the poor, hard-working immigrants trying to build a new life in America.

At least some of the characters are vivid and realistic. Kris Kristofferson gives a fine performance as the new sheriff – an alcoholic with a sense of right and wrong. Isabelle Huppert plays his lover, the county madam, to perfection. On the other hand, John Hurt and Christopher Walken play characters whose purpose seems entirely pointless.

But whatever good is in the film gets lost in the last act. The two big battles, which seem to go on forever, are obscured by so much dust that you can’t tell who’s shooting who. Here Cimino’s and Zsigmond’s talents seem to disappear. All we get is ghostly images of mayhem, capped with an anti-climactic fizzle.

Heaven’s Gate is neither a turkey nor a masterpiece. I’d give it a C+. It has elements of greatness and long stretches of deep boredom. It’s the work of an undisciplined genius, working without supervision, caught in a trap of his own ego.

If you want to read more about Heaven’s Gate, there’s an excellent article on Wikipedia. If you want more than that, find a copy of Steven Bach’s book, Final Cut.