“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.
Yet many moviegoers may still feel they don’t have to see the movie to have seen it. That daunting 3½-hour running time is the least of its problems. The legend of “Heaven’s Gate” doesn’t just precede the film but extends from it in all directions, like an oil spill. This is the movie that was five days behind schedule after six days of shooting. The runaway production whose budget swelled from an initial $12 million to
$44 million ($109 million in 2012 dollars) and that grossed a laughable $3 million in theaters. The putative train wreck whose wunderkind director — Cimino had won best director and best picture Oscars for 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” — went through money and reels of film like a drunken sailor goes through grog. The film that was arguably brought down by a single New York Times review (quoth Vincent Canby, “ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is something quite rare in movies these days — an unqualified disaster”) and that subsequently brought down United Artists, whose corporate parent, Transamerica, soon after sold the studio to MGM.
These and many, many other details can be found in “Final Cut,” the 1985 book written by UA executive Steven Bach about the “Heaven’s Gate” production and its aftermath. “Cut” is one of the great Hollywood tell-alls, and for most people it’s the only good thing that came out of the fiasco. But is “Heaven’s Gate” truly that bad? Or are European audiences and critics who said Cimino’s film never got a fair shake right, and is it truly that good? One wonders: Would “Heaven’s Gate” even be synonymous with catastrophe if it had had a different title — if that tell-tale “Gate” hadn’t been poisoned by Richard Nixon’s shenanigans eight years earlier? Heavensgate: It’s the Watergate of cinema, a black hole of directorial hubris that fatally bent the perspectives of everyone inside it.
In the end, your decision is pretty simple. Here’s a plastic box with two discs in it. Put one of the discs in your DVD player and press play. Watch the movie, now, in 2012. What do you see?
Well, first of all, you see an 1870 graduation sequence set at a Harvard University that, hilariously, patently, isn’t Harvard at all but Oxford College in England. (This may matter less to those outside New England or the Cambridge mythos.) There is a barely comprehensible speech by an aging Joseph Cotton, followed by an almost wholly incomprehensible valediction by John Hurt, followed by a rapturously endless sequence of young couples dancing on a campus green. It’s as though someone told Cimino that the wedding scene in “Deer Hunter” wasn’t long enough — that he could do better, longer, more. There’s a point beneath the obsessive frippery, though: that these are the heights from which entitled graduates like Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) will fall. “Heaven’s Gate” is most properly understood as an elegy for the American Dream, and here is the dream in its most graceful and elitist form.
Still, a full half-hour of setup? The brutal truth is that the Harvard scenes add little to what follows; if “Heaven’s Gate” had been a Weinstein project, Harvey Scissorhands might have snipped out the whole prelude. There’s a comparison to be made with Francis Ford’s Coppola’s “The Godfather,” which Cimino’s film begs with its opening titles and the immigrant waltz that lilts beneath it. But the opening wedding scene in “Godfather” darts and wheels from character to character, deftly sketching their traits and interrelationships. By the time it’s over, we have a firm grasp on who Sonny and Michael and Kay and Tom Hagen are (but not Brando’s Don Corleone, the enigma who holds the film together). By the end of Cimino’s Harvard scenes, we have not a clue as to who’s who and why we should care.
It improves. We’re suddenly in Wyoming, 20 years later, as the Johnson County War between rich cattle barons and immigrant settlers is about to explode. Kristofferson’s Averill is the local marshall and the one decent man of his social class who opposes the barons’ death list and 50 hired killers. If this were a 1950s movie, he’d be Gary Cooper’s Will Kane standing tall against the bad men, but we’re at the tail end of the New Hollywood and the 1970s, when heroism has been laid low by exhaustion and entropy. One of the most frustrating aspects for casual viewers of “Heaven’s Gate” — and one of Cimino’s major themes — is that the lead character is essentially powerless. This is “Hamlet” on the high prairie.
Other characters surface like flotsam along the top of the movie’s relentless mise-en-scene. The young Christopher Walken as Nathan Champion, a genteelly conflicted hired killer who favors eye-liner. Jeff Bridges as the unofficial town mayor, friend to the immigrants and proprietor of the dance hall-roller rink of the title. Sam Waterston narrowing his already beady eyes as the racist leader of the cattle barons. Blink and you’ll miss Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, and a babyfaced Mickey Rourke in his fourth movie.
French actress Isabelle Huppert was cast as Ella Watson, the frontier bordello madam who loves both Averill and Champion; the choice was controversial then and wouldn’t be today, when the likes of Marion Cotillard routinely turn up in Hollywood blockbusters. Huppert is very good, and Vilmos Zsigmund’s camera adores her, painting the love scenes with a golden patina that turns to mud elsewhere. “Heaven’s Gate” is genuinely touching whenever it deals with small moments of intimacy, all the more precious for being so temporary.
The larger picture remains a mess. Aside from one or two characters, the immigrant settlers congeal into a random mob of faces and accents, and the sound-mix fatally buries the dialogue tracks so that it’s hard to hear who’s saying what. (It’s the Robert Altman approach with none of his art.) Cimino isn’t interested in characters, anyway, but the sets, the movements of cameras and crowds, the dust. “Heaven’s Gate” obsesses on the absolute exactness of everything in the frame, and almost every scene takes five minutes to get started — five minutes of marveling over details that quickly pall without a dramatic motor to drive them.
The final battle, as the armed settlers assail the besieged hired guns, has the potential to be something great, but you sense Cimino is the general up on the hill, looking at his troops through the wrong end of the binoculars. The idea (and it’s a good one) was to subvert movie clichés and show the real squalor of armed conflict, but a filmmaker still has to impose some sort of structure — chaos about chaos merely pushes a viewer away. “Heaven’s Gate” stands as the most extreme example of the maverick auteurist ethos that held sway in the 1970s and that allowed directors free rein on self-indulgence. (See: Coppola, Francis Ford; “Apocalypse Now” and “One From the Heart.”)
With this one movie, that ethos hit the wall. Said one producer, quoted in a 1980 magazine article about the “Heaven’s Gate” fallout: “It’s the end of the prima donna directors who can do whatever they want.” And it was. Hollywood had already seen the light of blockbuster audience-pleasers like “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and overnight Cimino became the industry poster boy for on-set waste and arrogance. The entire experience felt unclean.
Yet it’s clearer, all these years later and in a movie culture that knows only how to package and sell us shiny, happy bonbons that never question anything, what Cimino was after: a grand sense of loss. The loss of our national ideals, of the West for the newcomers who first settled it, of democratic community to the monied powers that be. There are lines of dialogue that stick newly in the craw: “It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.” Decades before the terms became fashionable, “Heaven’s Gate” showed the
1 percent putting its boot squarely in the faces of the 99 percent.
Defenders say its politics are what got the movie thrown off the cultural cliff, and it’s true that Cimino’s timing couldn’t have been worse: The film was released two weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan announced that the ’60s were truly over. American audiences were in no mood for a lecture on their historical sins — they arguably wouldn’t be until Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” 10 years later — and certainly not one this ungainly. But the pieces of “Heaven’s Gate” that resonate today are imbued with a sadness for the moments that slip away. A people trying to carve a country out of rock and grass, or a man and a woman dancing to a plaintive fiddle — or a foolhardy man trying to make a personal movie in an impersonal industry.
Even with the box open, “Heaven’s Gate” remains dead and alive at the same time.