“Heaven’s Gate” is the Schrödinger’s cat of film history. Either the most colossal Hollywood flop of all time or a lost American classic, Michael Cimino’s epic 1980 anti-western exists for most people in the black box of its unseen-ness, neither alive nor dead but somehow both. Initial reports wrote it off as self-indulgent twaddle — the movie that wrecked its own studio. Three decades of revisionism have claimed: Not so fast, there’s greatness here. So, which is it?
The irony is that the movie itself has never gone away. “Heaven’s Gate” was out on VHS by the early 1980s, and in the “legendary, un-cut” 219-minute version, no less. That version — as opposed to the 149-minute cut United Artists forced the director to make after initial reviews savaged the film — has remained available on DVD and even got a brief theatrical re-release in 2005. A painstakingly restored new version of “Heaven’s Gate,” tweaked by Cimino down to 216 minutes, played the Venice and New York film festivals earlier this year to standing ovations, and it has just arrived on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe two-disc package from Criterion.