Heaven's Gate

(USA - 1980)

by Matt White

Cast: Kris Kristopherson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterson, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges
Genre: Drama/Western
Director: Michael Cimino
Screenplay: Michael Cimino
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Composer: David Mansfield

"Heaven's Gate undercut all of us. I knew at the time it was the end of something, that something had died."--Martin Scorsese

"There was kind of coupe d'etat that happened after Heaven's Gate...It was a time when the studios were outraged that the cost of movies was going up so rapidly, that directors were making such incredible amounts of money and had all the control. So they took the control back."--Francis Ford Coppola

Get in to the time machine of your mind and return to a time not so long ago in a Hollywood far far away. A time when the studios opened their wallets, spending fortunes - sometimes even making fortunes! - on directors with artistic pretensions. You know some of these directors and their films: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, William Friedkin and even George Lucas. Others you don't hear of often today, like Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader, were even on the rolodexes of agents and studio heads. The likes of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg were given large budgets upfront to make science fiction movies that did not feature alien invasions or space battles. Who could forget 20th Century Fox gave Akira Kurosawa completion money to mount Kagemusha? Even schlockmeisters like Joseph Levine and Roger Corman were producing or distributing films by Jean Luc-Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini.

So what happened? Most blame Heaven's Gate.

It ranks with Cleopatra in the annals of infamous productions. Planned to fill in a gap in United Artists Christmas schedule for 1979, the studio gave director Michael Cimino a budget of $10 million and the contractual right to exceed said budget to reach its release date. Shooting commenced in Kalispell, Montana at a snail's pace - mainly due to Cimino's perfectionist streak. The budget called for two pages of the script be shot every day, but in reality they were shooting about five eighths of a page. Sets were torn down and rebuilt; extras brought in by the truckload; every shot consisted of 20 to 30 takes. They reached the original budget of $10 million half-way through the shoot. The executives were so impressed by the dailies, their scheduled attempt to discipline the director resulted in congratulations. But production continued to crawl along. Efforts to corral the director were futile until UA fired his producer Joann Carelli.

By that time, production sped up but the press got wind of "Apocalypse Next" (A Time Magazine reference to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a film distributed by UA with an equally disastrous production history) and the movie quickly became a symbol of all that was wrong with Hollywood. $43 million and a ton of bad press later, the movie opened only to be excoriated by Vincent Canby in the New York Times, calling the film an "unqualified disaster". UA, at Cimino's behest, pulled the film from theaters, re-cut it, released it five months later in a two-and-a-half-hour version. However, the damage was done. The movie failed, only grossing $1.3 million. Transamerica, the parent company of UA, sold the company to MGM in wake of the bad press. Heaven's Gate became known as the film that sunk United Artists - the most director friendly studio in Hollywood. Even worse, it was the symbolic curtain call for the New Hollywood.

Before Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino was a controversial director. He remained one afterwards. His films were and are lightning rods for discussion, but since when has that been a bad thing?
Cimino's previous effort, "The Deer Hunter" was criticized for being a "Pentagon version of the war," portraying the North Vietnamese as "savages". Also, there was no known case of the North Vietnamese actually playing Russian roulette, shattering one of the hallmark scenes of the movie. Producer Michael Deeley refuted the charges best: "Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter's portrayal of the North Vietnamese prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The audience's sympathy with the prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some veterans who suffered in that war found the Russian roulette a valid allegory."

Following Heaven's Gate, "Year Of The Dragon" met heavy resistance from Chinese-American activists, alleging the movie played up the stereotype of the "yellow terror" with its gangster villains. I suspect these charges were made before anyone set foot in a theater to actually watch the movie. Did they notice John Lone's nuanced performance as an upstart Triad? Did they see Dennis Dun portraying a conflicted police recruit? How was Dun's performance any more stereotypical than the sword wielding kung fu fighter he played in "Big Trouble in Little China"? Did the same activists complain about John Lone's cookie cutter gangster in the heavily racist "Rush Hour 2"?

Cimino's only crime (or controversy) was objectively trying to tell a nuanced story, along with visual beauty and human characters instead of crafting propaganda that put characters in certain political paradigms or easy-to-understand stereotypes. Heaven's Gate followed this pattern.

Unfortunately, the biggest casualty in the controversy surrounding Heaven's Gate, is the film itself. Few could get past the price tag and just rebuked rather than reviewed the film. Few bothered to look where the money was actually spent.

This article aims to remedy that.

Heaven's Gate is the second part of Michael Cimino's exceptional trilogy using genre tropes to deal with issues of immigration, American identity and the conflicts that arise from that tension. Sandwiched between "The Deer Hunter" and "Year Of The Dragon", "Heaven's Gate" is the unheralded classic (at least in North America) of the group. "The Deer Hunter", dealt with second generation Eastern Europeans living in the mid-west. It followed a group of friends before, during and after the Vietnam conflict. Joe Eszterhas (writer of Basic Instinct), himself a Hungarian immigrant, called it the best celluloid depiction of immigrant culture. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. "Year Of The Dragon", was more in line with the genre tropes of a traditional crime thriller than its predecessors, but still heavily featured the themes of the first two: A cop of Polish descent, with an adopted WASP surname, takes on Chinese gangsters with the help two Chinese-Americans (a beautiful reporter and a fresh police recruit). It did respectful box office and has found its public admirers in the likes of Quentin Tarantino.

Heaven's Gate is not a political film - at least in the strict left/right sense. Film at the time was highly political. I think this was some of the source of the vitriol extended towards Cimino's films - or at least the lack of understanding. The Deer Hunter was not Coming Home or Apocalypse Now. There were no speeches about the evils or inanities of the Vietnam War and the U.S. military. It was not a pro-war film either. It was a general comment on the dehumanization of war on a select group of characters. Heaven's Gate followed suit, telling a story of immigrant persecution amidst a cattle range war. Once again, no speeches; no caricatures, just characters. While there are some common genre conventions present (whore with a heart of gold, Sheriff walking in to town, etc.) Cimino does a good job of rising above genre as a whole. He told his stories using strong visuals, with long scenes of silence or ambient noise. The results are a powerful cinematic experience.

Since Cimino focuses more on visual storytelling, there is a lot of visual poetry at play in Heaven's Gate. Rather than being a "forced, four hour walking tour of one's own living room" (Vincent Canby's description) the film is a visual tour-de-force that has rarely been equaled in beauty or scope. Every cent of the budget is on screen. If beauty really is truth, then Heaven's Gate is one of the most truthful films mounted. Every set has impeccable detail.

The film is visually stunning. I do not think there is any argument there. This is more a credit to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond than Cimino but given the visual strength of the director's other work, I think they both deserve some credit. Zsigmond worked with many strong photo centric directors like Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and John Boorman but his work with Cimino is the most impressive. Unfortunately, some critics, like the New York Daily News' Kathleen Carroll did not agree about the cinematography. She told Tom Brokaw: "The more you saw, there was nothing on that screen - nothing at all." You could say that about a number of films. You cannot say that about Heaven's Gate. If anything it is great to look at. Which once again calls in to question what were Vincent Canby and Kathleen Carroll reviewing? The movie or the production history?

Just because a film has great cinematography alone does not make it great. Hollywood is littered with visual auteurs making vapid movies. What separates Cimino and Heaven's Gate from the Adrian Lyne's, Ridley Scott's and Michael Bay's is how he utilized his eye. Visual detail does help bring an honest performance from actors (ironic, given most of the sets these days are blue or green backgrounds). Isabelle Huppert stated the scale and detail of the sets changed the way she approached her performance. UA executive David Bach thought her performance best of an impressive cast. Quite a feat considering all the UA executives (Bach included) were against her being cast as Ella Watson in the first place.

But even more impressive is the poetry of the visuals (mentioned above briefly) through the editing. Celebrated editor Gerald Greenberg cut most of the film (William Reynolds was responsible for the final battle sequence) and his work on this movie remains unappreciated. Consider the opening scene of the film. A Harvard graduation of moneyed American men followed by a grand waltz on the campus courtyard. A young, almost cherubic James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and William Irvine (John Hurt) with the world at their feet. After the dance, the reverie, and privileged bonhomie what is the next scene? A train in the wilderness; full of immigrants; a tired Averill trying to sleep on said train; an immigrant shot in cold blood by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). The contrast is stark and arresting.

The visuals build and reference each other throughout the film. Return to the opening Harvard waltz: elegant but highly choreographed. Now, fast forward to the famous roller rink hoe down. The immigrants are having their own version of a big waltz, but it is more chaotic and more fun. Averill is the only participant in both scenes. He dances in the opening waltz - a face in the crowd; however he does not dance with the crowd. He only dances with Ella privately. Without words has Cimino illustrated Averill, even though a protector of the settlers, is separated from them? He dances privately with Ella. He loves her, but only in private. Compare this to Nate Champion. He sees Averill asleep and tries on his hat. He too loves Ella but proposes to her. He brings her to his modest cabin, she comments on the wallpaper. He replies: "It civilizes the wilderness." He then dusts off the table in a gesture to tidy up his humble lodgings. Through a series of visual cues, the contrasts in the characters of Averill and Nate are presented: Averill, though a noble Sheriff, is upper class and takes people and things for granted. Nate Champion, a cold enforcer for the Stock Growers Association, is a working class grunt, trying to improve his lot in life. This leads to the moral quandary both men face later on.

Add to this mix the character of Billy Irvine played by John Hurt. A cultured Mid-Atlantic, he is pulled between the force of the Association headed by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson) and old friend Averill. The characters of both Irvine and Averill are visually foreshadowed at the beginning of film: As the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotton) gives his commencement speech about the education of a nation, Irvine plays pranks on his fellow graduates while Averill attempts to take in the speech. 20 years later, Irvine is a drunk court jester at the Association headquarters, while Averill is a Sheriff trying to uphold the law and protect those under his jurisdiction. Irvine protests the actions of the stockmen, though only with jokes and sarcasm, but still indulges the lifestyle of being a part of the association. Averill protests with his gun and exclusion from the stockmen.

The entirety of these visual cues build the respective character arcs and ultimately foreshadow the conflicts of choice each character is forced to make. Averill, a member of the upper crust who has everything cannot understand the immigrants tenacity to stay and fight for their homes. He watches the widow till the land. He sees the workers sleep in dorms with bunks stacked a mile high. He urges a stubborn Ella to leave when she will do anything but. In the end, he decides to stay and fight with the immigrants. He loses everything that is precious to him in the process.

Nate Champion, hired gun of the Stock Growers Association (and hinted to be of immigrant stock) is trying to improve his life. After the rape of Ella, he changes sides. He is killed in a hail of gunfire trying to protect all that he has built.

Michael Cimino told executives his intent was to capture the "poetry of America". There is more to this poetry than the beautifully photographed landscapes of Montana. There is the immigrants on the train; coming to start a new life. There is Nate Champion, a second generation immigrant, building on that foundation. Finally, there is the moneyed Averill who does not understand it all but uses his status to defend the oppressed against the oppressors.

Of course, this is not a story of ideals where everyone joins together to sing the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" at the end. It is a story of war. Cimino said in his infamous interview with Gene Shalit that, "Heaven's Gate in its own way has more to do, in my opinion, with the kind of ethic that produced Vietnam than The Deer Hunter." David Bach then sarcastically and retrospectively chimed in his book(Final Cut, the heavily lauded book on the making of the film) the film was not about "the poetry of America, not the education of a nation, not the things that fade" (phrases Cimino originally used to pitch the film). Whoever said the film's themes were mutually exclusive? There is the poetry (mentioned above) and like The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate is patriotic but not in a naive flag waving way with a grand speech by Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman at the end. No, both films are sober-minded and tragic. They are Shakespeare, not Spielberg.

Just as there are no perfect human beings, there are no perfect countries. This is embodied in Frank Canton (Sam Waterson), the main villain of the film. Canton's character is one-dimensional, pale in comparison to the tapestry of the other cast of characters. He is more a composite of establishment evil: A rich, east coast, cattle baron who sends in hired hands to do the dirty work of killing those who threaten the bottom line. Nate asks him, "You ever kill a man yourself Canton?" All that Canton can reply with is his storied genealogy. There is the problem of Vietnam in a coffee cup: Elites (Canton represents all elites) who thinks they are smarter because of their Ivy League educations or family history ("The Best and The Brightest" as David Halberstam coined the lot), intellectualizing a war and sending off the "lower" classes to die. The poetry of America and the ethic that produced Vietnam meet in the final battle: The east coast cattle money trying to oppress the immigrant ranchers. They are not helpless. They fight to defend themselves with one educated elite providing guidance. The oppressed fighting against inequality.

The two problems with the film are the sparks that lit the critical fire. The original director's cut has a deliberately slow pace. At times it seems too slow. This probably had something to do with Cimino's inflated ego. Michael Deeley sparred with the director over the length of The Deer Hunter and thought Cimino deceitful by turning 20 pages of script in to 50 minutes of screen. The producer stated Cimino wanted the length of the film to match that of Gone With The Wind. That same intent seems present in Heaven's Gate as well. Though it was deceitful to hide his intentions from the producers of both films, I think the artistic ambitions were well intentioned. Cimino was trying to make a grand artistic event. A piece of popular art; something not too common these days. Do some scenes play too long? Yes. Does it come off as pretentious? Sometimes. But once the film is viewed from front to back, the scenes have an internal rhythm, building to a shattering climax. The editing is slow at the beginning. Locations and characters are established. The cuts mount with the tension and violence. Ella's death stops the film like a car crash. The coda, of Averill on the yacht returns to a slow rhythm, allowing us to reflect on the poetry presented. We realize the passing of things. The film could have done with some tightening (it was tightened, probably too much, to a two hour runtime for re-release) but there is artistic intention behind the pacing, not just ego alone.

The ending, a cause of some chatter, fits with the poetic rhythms mentioned above. Averill, old and beaten, is on a yacht with the woman he danced with at the start of the film. He is resigned to his class and disposition in life. He fought for something and lost. He remembers his true love and walks on deck a broken man. A tragic ending, but not cynical or trite. No political speeches about the greatness or evils of America. Just one man's sorrow. A human story not a political one.

Averill's sorrow is all the more impactful given Isabelle Huppert's performance. You really feel he has lost someone special. She is the standout. Ironic given the charismatic cast around her and United Artists lack of faith in her English speaking abilities. The rest of the cast is solid. No one performer reverts to schtick or melodrama. Christopher Walken is Nate Champion not Christopher Walken playing Christopher Walken in a ten gallon hat. Jeff Bridges, considering his talent and past history with Cimino, is curiously lost in the shuffle. He is given little to do or work with. The Dude is a million light years away. John Hurt seemed to have the most fun even though he suffered more than most on the set being a cosmopolitan Brit stuck in Montana for most of the shoot (maybe his inebriation was not a performance). Also, it is interesting to see Brad Dourif act a part before David Lynch typecast him as a resident weirdo. Kris Kristofferson does the job the role demanded. He carries his lines with authority. When he thinks of Ella at the end, a hardened man broken, his pain feels real. In the wake of Heaven's Gate, one of the many things lost is the quiet, stoic hero like Kristofferson. It's a shame.

Heaven's Gate signaled the end of many things. Most people know it was the reason Transamerica sold United Artists to MGM. However, the company was struggling already due to the departure of Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow to form Orion. Heaven's Gate was not even their most expensive film (that honor goes to the terrible Moonraker). Transamerica, like Coca-Cola and Matsushita who had similar buyer's remorse in Hollywood, realized the film industry was unique monster they did not want to deal with. They even turned profit with UA the year Heaven's Gate was released! It was just a matter of time before they dumped the company.

More unfortunate is that Heaven's Gate signaled the downward spiral of Michael Cimino's career. He directed four more films. The proceeding (Year Of The Dragon) continued the themes mentioned above but lacked the poetic beauty of its predecessors. He delivered a police thriller on time and on budget. However, his reputation preceded him. He was removed from high profile projects like Footloose (after working for four months on the movie) and The Pope of Greenwich Village. The Sicilian, the next film Cimino helmed, produced by the disgraced pair of David Begelman and Bruce McNall resulted in a court battle over creative control. After the court decided Cimino defrauded his producers, the film was taken from him and re-edited. It flopped. What followed (a remake of The Desperate Hours and Sunchaser) seem like disappointing footnotes in a promising but never fulfilled career.

Heaven's Gate fared a little better than Cimino's career. After the disastrous theatrical run, Z Channel programming chief Jerry Harvey showed the original theatrical version on the station. MGM subsequently released the film in its original form on home video (VHS and DVD). This allowed cineastes to watch the movie and draw their own conclusions once the floods of bad press receded. The film gained something of following. Due to the Z Channel airing, irony of ironies, the film most associated with the disintegration of director controlled films is the film directly responsible for bringing the idea and term "Director's Cut" in to the lexicon.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees of the entertainment media and their tax collectors (the movie critics) did not know what they were doing when they lambasted Cimino, his film(s) and United Artists. Cimino liked to paint on a large canvas; UA bankrolled it. He went over budget. So what? What exactly is so outrageous about privately held companies spending lots of their own money on what they perceived to be a noble artistic endeavor? The film failed and United Artists does not exist anymore, but as mentioned above that had more to do with negative stigma from the press than the actual financials of the company. Every production of art is a commercial enterprise. Some sort of transaction has to take place at some level for the work to be produced and viewed. At least when United Artists put up their money, they invested in a project with artistic merit. The same could be said for Francis Ford Coppola, another target of the press at the same time. Even though I am not a fan of Apocalypse Now or One From The Heart, at least he sacrificed his own fortune on work he thought to be artistic statements. Where were the Pharisees when Sony spent $258 million on Spiderman 3 or when Disney spent $300 million on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? The budgets Heaven's Gate and Apocalypse Now were a pittance compared to movies now.

The tragedy of Heaven's Gate is not just the disappearance of United Artists or Michael Cimino's career. Big budget productions today like Avatar or The Lord Of The Rings trilogy may be entertaining but they lack the beauty, poetry and meaning of Heaven's Gate or The Deer Hunter. In fact, it's hard to find any films like them anymore - especially in Hollywood. That is the real tragedy.


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