Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (1980)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (In Competition), Berlinale (Forum), Venice

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2012

A gigantic albatross.  A modern masterpiece.  The worst film ever made.  The best film ever made.

Few films swing so wildly between those two poles of public perception.  No other director experienced so quick a career-ruining plummet from monumental heights.  No other film has had such a wide-ranging effect on the industry at large, effectively ending the era of director-dominated filmmaking and ushering in a time of high-concept studio blockbusters.  This is the legacy of Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980).  His third feature film was his most ambitious project, and resulted in becoming the most expensive film ever made at the time.  However, the excessive stylistic indulgences glimpsed in THE DEER HUNTER (1978) matured fully into a debacle– a box office disaster that sank its parent studio and effectively cut a gifted director down in his prime.

It has been thirty three years since Cimino’s darkest day– more than enough time to pass for a critical reassessment, free of the baggage surrounding its release.  Its 219-minute initial running time cut down to an impotent 149 upon release, HEAVEN’S GATE was recently restored to Cimino’s original vision and premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival— to rave reviews.  Judged by its own merits, HEAVEN’S GATE could be considered one of the greatest films of all time, a staggering masterpiece of epic proportions and scope that rivals the likes of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) or GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).

After the runaway success of THE DEER HUNTER, Cimino chose a long-gestating project originally called THE JOHNSON COUNTY WAR as his follow-up.  Emboldened by his Best Director and Picture Oscars, he was determined to make The Greatest Film Of All Time, the pursuit of which would become his undoing.  Set in Wyoming in the dying days of the Old West, HEAVEN’S GATE tells a version of the eternal American conflict: natives vs. settlers– however, it’s not cowboys and indians that Cimino’s concerned with.  His natives are the American-born men of privilege, the settlers a massive wave of Eastern European immigrants trying to realize their own version of The American Dream.

The settlers have been stealing the cattle of wealthy landowners for food.  As each day passes and more immigrants arrive by the train load, these powerful landowners realize something drastic must be done to rid themselves of their pests.  It’s into this uneasy environment that James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a Harvard-educated man of privilege and US Marshall, arrives at the bustling boom town of Casper, Wyoming.  He immediately comes into conflict with the landowners, led by the cunningly deceitful Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), who have devised a death list that calls out the names of several immigrants suspected of thievery and anarchy.

As he becomes acquainted with the town and befriends the settlers, Averill cultivates a romance with Ella Watson, a beautiful bordello madam.  Promising to take her away from her brothel, Averill vies for her affection in competition with Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), a skilled hunter employed by the wealthy landowners to maintain the law with deadly force.  When they find out a team of mercenaries are descending on the town to execute the landowners’ death list, Averill and Champion find themselves unlikely allies in the attempt to marshall the distraught settlers into defending their home.

The truth is, with a running time of three and a half hours, no short synopsis of HEAVEN’S GATE is going to perfectly encapsulate Cimino’s richly detailed and layered story.  Of all the reason’s cited for the film’s failure at the box office, Cimino contends that it was the neutered running time that excises a substantial amount of scenes necessary for the full impact of the story.  Luckily, now that the film has been restored to its original length and has become the sole version publicly available, we can see the story as it was first intended.

Cimino is well-known for commanding strong performances from his cast.  Kristofferson owns the film, depicting Averill as a weary, principled man uncomfortable with luxury and excess.  His transformation (taking place over the span of thirty years in the film) from wide-eyed, energetic college graduate to dim-eyed burnt-out aristocrat is stunning.  His Averill is a quiet, dignified man that’s equally ferocious as a lover or a fighter.  Walken delivers an equally compelling performance, capitalizing on the success of his past collaboration with Cimino that resulted in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  His Nate Champion, mustachioed and assertive, is a cunning marksman who only shares Averill’s passion for justice when it affects him personally.  Walken is given an introduction in one of the scene’s most iconic sequences, where he’s seen as a shadow behind a hanging sheet through which he mercilessly shoots a settler.  When his face comes into view in the jagged hole left by his buckshot, it is pure cinema.

In a film rife with such masculine themes, French actress Isabelle Huppert’s presence is a refreshing one.  As Ella Watson, essentially a hooker with a heart of gold, she is the crucial motivating factor for both Averill and Champion.  Upon the film’s release, many found it strange that an overtly French woman was living out in the Wild West, and I can’t say that I disagree with them.  While Huppert does perfectly fine in the film, she does take some getting used to.  That said, she gives the film an air of Old World charm whenever she’s present.

Cimino fills out his supporting cast with a number of recognizable faces.  Jeff Bridges returns for his second collaboration with Cimino by playing John Bridges, a bearded saloon owner who leads the settlers to charge against the approaching aggression.  The talented John Hurt, with his shock of red hair, plays William Irvine– an old Harvard friend of Averill’s whose rebellious, rowdy ways have distilled into an uneasy disillusionment with the wealthy elite that he’s surrounded himself with.  Though he fights on the side of the bad guys, he is the sole voice of conscience in their ranks– but even all his of education and sympathy won’t save him from himself.

As the film’s main antagonist, Sam Waterston is the picture of mustache-twirling devilishness.  He’s a hardliner with little regard for the poor and the desperate.  His cowardice– meant to symbolize Cimino’s contempt for the greater cowardice of the self-serving wealthy– is repugnant and deceitful, and leads directly to his end at the hands of Averill.  The underrated Brad Dourif is credited only as “Mr. Eggleston”, a thick-accented immigrant who finds the courage to lead his people into battle.  Curiously enough, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke also show up within in the film, albeit in “blink and you’ll miss it” cameos.  I didn’t see them when I watched the film, but apparently they’re in there somewhere.

To create the film’s sweeping look, Cimino collaborated with his cinematographer for THE DEER HUNTER, the great Vilmos Zsigmond.  Shot on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Cimino’s signature visual style is consistently reproduced.  The striking vistas of Wyoming are well-suited to Cimino’s panoramic frames, and when combined with his well-placed crane and dolly-based camera movements, the film takes on the gravitas of a sweeping epic.

When the film was released, it notoriously featured a heavily sepia-hued color scheme, to the point where it looked like the film had been dragged through mud.  Thankfully, as part of the Criterion Collection’s extensive restoration, Cimino’s definitive cut now features a naturalistic, vibrant and even color scheme that renders his vision with crystal clarity.

Zsigmond’s wide angle lenses capture dramatic skies with startling detail, as well as heavenly shafts of light that stream in from windows for an almost operatic effect.  The symmetrical framing, combined with incredibly deep focus, creates a staggeringly immersive picture.  Art Director Tambi Larsen provides impeccably-detailed production design that allows Cimino to work within a fully realized period environment that can accommodate his more-outrageous demands (a well-known story is that Cimino had the entirety of his Casper town set torn down and rebuilt several times to his specifications).

For the film’s music, Cimino recruits David Mansfield, a young musician who also appears in a bit part onscreen.  His score, adapted mostly from existing Americana folk songs, arranges itself into something more resembling a 70’s style epic.  His use of the violin, the fiddle, and the guitar blends together into a theme that sounds a little bit like Nino Rota’s theme from THE GODFATHER (1972) had an affair with Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western compositions.  The film is also peppered with well-known works like The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Blue Danube waltz, which cleverly re-appears after the climactic battle in a minor key– providing a somberly ironic counterpoint to the jingoistic sentiment and wide-eyed innocence seen in the film’s beginning.

For Cimino, HEAVEN’S GATE was a huge leap forward, mainly from a technical standpoint.  His scope was enormous, calling for hundreds upon hundreds of extras to be present at any given moment.  He more or less built an entire town from scratch and populated it with the characters of his story.  Because of this, his ongoing exploration of the immigrant experience in America is arguably at its most potent in HEAVEN’S GATE.  The scene where the town reacts in horror as their names are read aloud from a copy of the death list is a gut-wrenching highlight, and one of the clearest examples of Cimino’s confident mastery of his craft.

However, no discussion of HEAVEN’S GATE is complete without acknowledging the elephant in the room.  The very same gifts that would boost Cimino to unfathomable heights would also become a curse.  Cimino’s demanding directing style on-set earned him the nickname, “The Ayatollah” from disgruntled crew members.  His indulgence in long celebration sequences contributed to the bloated running time (if cut right, I think a good hour could be cut out of the film without comprising an iota of Cimino’s vision).  The editing team of Tom Rolf, William Reynolds, Lisa Fruchtman and Gerald Greenberg were at the mercy of Cimino’s bidding, so fault can’t necessarily be traced to them.  It’s telling that Cimino reportedly heard that Francis Ford Coppola had shot a million feet of film on APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and felt compelled to beat Coppola’s record.  It probably didn’t help that his producing partner Joan Carelli enabled his excessive tendencies by not reigning him in.

Ultimately, the overwhelming success of THE DEER HUNTER boosted Cimino’s ego into a place where he believed he was infallible.  Careless cost overruns and shooting delays threw the film recklessly over budget, and the subsequent final product alienated audiences enough to stay away in droves.  The resulting fiasco nearly sank United Artists, and ended an era of innovative films that saw the director as the de facto “author” of a film.  For Cimino, the disaster of HEAVEN’S GATEmade him a pariah, effectively throwing his career into a state of dormancy for the ensuing five years.

The glory of Oscar gold and the temptations of infinite money and final cut were the catalysts for Cimino’s downfall.  In the decades since, HEAVEN’S GATE has become something akin to a cautionary tale to would-be directors, warning them of the dangers of excess and ego.  Reactions to the film in recent years are still as polarized as they have ever been.  To me, however, the film is undeniably accomplished– a masterpiece that holds its own against THE DEER HUNTER.  When the baggage surrounding the film’s history is taken away and it is allowed to stand on its own merits, one can clearly see the staggering grasp of craft on display.  While I realize the film is deeply flawed as a result of Cimino’s excesses, HEAVEN’S GATE has aged incredibly gracefully.  DVD culture has given rise to an appreciation to “The Director’s Cut” (retroactively saving many films from failure), and HEAVEN’S GATE is the grandfather of them all.

Cimino’s original vision is a thing of arresting beauty, and startlingly prescient in its subject matter.  The story of HEAVEN’S GATE, indeed a number of Cimino’s films, strikes right at the heart of America’s deepest internal conflict.  America was founded on the idea that all people are created equal, but our society is structured to favor the wealthy and unequal distribution of wealth.  To Cimino, it’s not birth that makes us equal.  Birth only makes us lucky, or unlucky, depending on the lifestyle we’re born into.  The only true equalizer is death, where money and status have no bearing.

HEAVEN’S GATE is the kind of film that I cannot make an unequivocal, collective statement about in regards to its quality.  It’s a film that has to be experienced and judged on an individual basis.  No two people will come to the same conclusion.  What I can say, without reservation, is that HEAVEN’S GATE will elicit a reaction from you.  Whether that’s positive or negative, I don’t care.  Art is art by virtue of creating a reaction.  By that logic, HEAVEN’S GATE thus is, inarguably, a work of true art.

HEAVEN’S GATE is currently available in high definition in its restored, original running time via the Criterion Collection.