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The Criterion Completist – Heaven’s Gate (1980)

March 3, 2013

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written by: Michael Cimino

produced by: John Carelli

directed by: Michael Cimino

rating: R

runtime: 219 (original), 216 (2012 director’s cut) 

U. S. release date: November 19, 1980

DVD/Blu-ray release dare: November 20, 2013

 

The stories surrounding the production of Michael Cimino’s epic 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate have become the stuff of film legend.  An obsessive, overbearing director, rumors of rampant drug use among the cast and crew members, allegations of animal abuse on set, and budgets spiraling wildly out of control.  At one point during shooting, Cimino told his set constructor that an elaborately constructed street set “didn’t look right”, and both sides of the set had to be torn down and rebuilt, so they could be moved three feet back on either side.

The film’s budget, initially set at $11,000,000, would balloon to nearly $44,000,000 by the end of the shoot.  Executives at United Artists balked when Cimino delivered a 5 hour cut of the film, and made him trim it to a still beefy running time of 219 minutes.  After a lukewarm showing at the Cannes Film Festival, and a disastrous one-week run in New York City, the film was butchered to a leaner 149 minutes and then eventually pulled from theaters amid a flurry of excoriating reviews from critics worldwide.  The end result was devastating:  Cimino’s career, so promising after the success of “The Deer Hunter, was effectively over, and United Artists would eventually dissolve into bankruptcy.  Most importantly however, was that the era of auteur filmmaking in the “New Hollywood” was done.  Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin, who had previously been give almost unlimited reign (and money) over their personal projects, were now subject to tighter oversight and studio control.

 

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But time and the benefit of hindsight has led to a recent reassessment of Heaven’s Gate.  Some European critics had initially praised the film’s bold and bleak version of American history, citing it as an “anti-Western” masterpiece, while screenings of the reassembled “director’s cut” in 2005 were met with general positive reviews.  And finally the Criterion Collection has released this 216 minute version, overseen by Cimino himself, and completely restored from top to bottom.  So now the question remains: is Heaven’s Gate an overlooked and unfairly judged masterpiece, or simply a pretentious, overblown epic?

The film opens in 1870 as Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and his friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) are graduating from Harvard University (though all scenes for this were shot at Oxford University in England, another expensive endeavor).  After a speech from the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotton), the boys all congregate in a giant courtyard, and in a scene similar to the opening of “The Deer Hunter”, stage a dizzyingly choreographed dancing sequence with the collegiate ladies.  This beautiful, stunning scene contrasts starkly with the rest of the film, as we flash forward twenty years to Johnson County Wyoming, where Averill is now a Federal Marshall.  Here, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of wealthy cattle barons led by Frank Canton (Sam Watterson) are in conflict with an influx of poor European settlers who have recently moved into the region, and are stealing the cattle roaming free on the plains.  One of Canton’s enforcers is Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a quiet, deadly man charged with hunting down these immigrants for the Association.  He is romantically involved with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a madam at a local brothel, who is also seeing Averill on the side.  This love triangle unfolds against the secretive maneuverings of the Association, who have created a list of 125 “thieves and anarchists” that they intend to kill.

 

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In Sweetwater, the main town in Johnson County, local businessman John L. Bridges (a very young Jeff Bridges) runs a giant wooden roller-skating rink called “Heaven’s Gate” where many of these immigrants gather for town meetings and events.  After hearing of the Association’s plans to invade their territory with a group of mercenary killers, they decide to form their own homemade army, and eventually confront them outside of town for an apocalyptic showdown.  Averill meanwhile must decide which side to choose: the government sanctioned killers, or the immigrants who are just trying to eke out an existence from this harsh world.

“Heaven’s Gate” is neither a lost masterpiece nor a pretentious bomb.  It is instead a slow-moving, complex take on the Western genre, a somber and melancholy examination of a dark chapter in American history.  The film succeeds in many areas, mainly in its authenticity and attention to detail as every single wagon and costume and building was painstakingly recreated for historical accuracy.  The score by David Mansfield is haunting and beautiful, and perfectly captures the vast emptiness and grandeur of the West, especially the famous “Heaven’s Gate Waltz”.  In the film he plays a roller-skating fiddler and the band he created for the film also play themselves including a young T. Bone Burnett on tambourine!  The cinematography is stunning, and was filmed on location in remote areas of Montana’s Glacier National Park.  Scenes of Jim and Isabelle swimming naked in a river, dwarfed by snow-capped mountains, are idyllic and gorgeous as these environments seem untouched by human hands.

 

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I have never been a huge fan of Kris Kristofferon, but his lean, haggard frame and forlorn eyes fit the role of the conflicted Jim Averill perfectly.  In an interview on the Criterion two-disc edition, he explains that during the shooting he was going through a particularly bad breakup, and that Cimino insisted he used that personal pain in his performance.  The other roles are fine, and it was fun to play spot the actor as the film went on, including an un-credited Willem Dafoe, a young Mickey Rourke, and even Lost cast member Terry O’Quinn as an Army Captain.

Ultimately, at nearly four hours, “Heaven’s Gate” is just too long and meandering.  The ultra-violent climax attempts to make up for the lack of action, but feels almost too much and jarring after the more meditative nature of the first 3 hours.  Fans of westerns and historical epics will find a lot to like here, but it gets bogged down in unnecessary side plots and confusing asides, unless long scenes of people shouting at each other in un-subtitled Slovakian is considered artful filmmaking.  Still, it is worth a watch, if only to see the death knell of the New Hollywood era and overwrought personal epic visions.

The Criterion Collection has outdone themselves with this release.  Besides rescuing “Heaven’s Gate” from an ignominious place in film history, their restoration job is nothing short of astonishing.  A side by side comparison shows the clean-up of film scratches from the original negatives, the removal of dirt and debris, and most incredibly, the restoring of the original color palette to the film, an effect akin to turning on a light in a dark room.  Interviews with Kristofferson, soundtrack arranger and performer David Mansfield and second assistant director Michael Stevenson round out the extra features.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

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