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Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) occupies as prominent a place in the annals of failure as in the annals of film. What set it apart from other legendary flops Cleopatra (1963), Ishtar (1987) is that it sank an entire studio. Its $40-odd million price tag, and negligible grosses, finished United Artists. Joseph Cotten, whose career largely consisted of providing gentlemanly backup to charismatic mythmakers, most notably Orson Welles, devotes only 11 lines to it in an autobiography as intelligent and graceful as Cotten invariably was onscreen. Writing about finally realizing a childhood ambition to appear onscreen at Radio City Music Hall, he wryly notes: "Imagine my delight when... my dream came true. I appeared in a movie called Heaven's Gate. It cost over $40 million dollars and was the most expensive picture ever to open in the Radio City Music Hall. I figured it had to be great...Well, this picture certainly had one marked distinction: it was such a disaster that it closed the Music Hall. Heaven help Heaven's Gate. All that heaven could do was open the gate and let it in...but not out."
Cotten's remarks remain among the mildest about Cimino's failed epic. Mainstream critics nuked it. Yet in one generation, Heaven's Gate has gone from legendary fiasco to beautiful loser. Cotten has only a small role in it as a reverend doctor at a Harvard commencement in 1870. But he brackets the big theme Cimino wanted his film to encompass the rape of the American West, financed by the Eastern Establishment, and all the elected officials it could buy. Cotten's clerical authority figure is followed by John Hurt's valedictorian. Each in his own way smugly offers a self-serving rationale for Manifest Destiny in other words, we've got it and deserve to get more, no matter how brutally and unjustly. The theme expanded by revisionist critics from the grabbing of the land from Native Americans to the moral ambivalence attached to Vietnam -- pushes off from the slaughter in Jackson County, Wyoming, of recently-arrived Eastern European immigrant farmers in 1890 by cattlemen who didn't want them taking away their grazing land and cutting into their profits.
While teeming with extras and period detail, it's driven by three characters Kris Kristofferson's marshall, denounced as a traitor to his moneyed class, Isabelle Huppert's brothelkeeper and embodiment of obsessive materialism, and Christopher Walken's mercenary, betraying his immigrant roots, lost in isolation. Deliberately, Heaven's Gate flies in the face of movie Western conventions in its moral ambivalence and stately build to the climactic bloodbath. Flawed character development is a major liability. So is Vilmos Zsigmond's lush visuals deliberately at odds with the film's grim, unsparing subject matter and deluge of death. Filmed against Montana's Rockies (standing in for Wyoming's), they seemed an end in themselves, swallowing the narrative. Certainly the slow pacing didn't help. It works against clarifying characters who often seem walking allegories, not fully formed individuals, although the steely doggedness of Huppert's pert little survivalist, Ella, makes her one of the most appealing of Huppert's roles-- mostly European, mostly reined-in, if not actually cold-hearted, characters.
Walken's bounty hunter works for the cattlemen, led by Sam Waterston's icy Eastern embodiment of arrogant entitlement. Rounding up an army of mercenaries, he literally puts prices on the heads of the Eastern European immigrants, relegating them to the status of animals to be exterminated -- $5 a day plus expenses for each mercenary, plus $50 for each peasant shot or hung (Holocaust presage alert!). As in few movies before and since, Walken is given an opportunity to project a certain ambivalence in the hired gun he plays. This goes beyond his sentimental way of going sweet on Huppert's prostitute entrepreneur. It's projected in the occasional surfacing of a shy little smile and the way his eyes project vulnerability. He's a killer, but not a cold-blooded one. Although these days he often seems to retreat into androgynous zombie mannerisms, glints of sweetness flicker from his otherwise appraising eyes at this early stage of his career.
Kristofferson's character is the problematical one here, partly because he has been deliberately distanced, an observer surrogate. His character's hands-off approach to his environment and the people in it, despite his determination to not make life any easier for those who have branded him a class traitor, is not calculated to add allure. Until the violent climax and its aftermath, he spends a lot of time brooding. Cimino means to depict Kristofferson's Jim Averill at three stages of life exuberant youth, experienced mid-life, then ruefully perched on the brink of a hollow old age on his yacht moored off Newport in 1903. It might just be that Cimino doesn't intend to offer anyone an easy out. Even the immigrants about to turn victims have no qualms about grabbing and exploiting the land. They just do it less rapaciously than the richer and better-organized cattlemen. In their haste to homestead free land, they swarm all over and on top of the railroad that cuts through the majestic landscape like a gash, making the railroad itself -- a fixture in Hollywood's mythologizing of the great Western land grab a far from heroic incursion.
The ethnic cleansing of the Eastern Europeans, hard on the heels of the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, helped finance the Eastern Establishment luxe of the Gilded Age (with a Western luxe to follow, starting with the film's handsomely appointed Cattlemen's Club). In the otherwise interesting balalaika-flavored score, the lush orchestral Strauss waltz played by a string orchestra at the beginning is reprised as a more-exhausted sounding Strauss waltz on a guitar at the end. It's sonic shorthand for spiritual burnout. The gorgeous visuals snow-capped Rockies, sunlight turning rocks golden, light slanting through spaces between raw, hastily-hammered-together planks aren't a distraction. They provide ironic backdrops, the better to set in higher relief the collisions of tough, violent people leading brutal lives. Even Kristofferson's officer pledged to the rule of law, however everywhere subverted, turns swift, efficient killer when events force him down that road. And the point is made that no matter how Pontius Pilate-like he tries to be, his hands will never wash clean of the blood of the voraciousness driving the film and its savage capitalism.
Perhaps Cimino did get lost by over-focusing on the authenticity (at high cost) of the 1890 lace-up roller skates in the communal roller-skating scene, as had been widely noted. It may have been his way of denying the fact that the bigger picture was eluding his grasp, or, rather, never was encompassed by it. Yet there are wonderful things in it. To dismiss Heaven's Gate as mere ego-tripping by a hubristic director whose weapon of choice was a checkbook is to willfully deny it its lofty thematic ambition and more than a few magnificent moments among its 219 minutes (restored from the 153 minutes Cimino was pressured to cut it to after its disastrous initial release and subsequent poisonous buzz). Yes, it's uneven, and yes, its characters are left too rudimentary by Cimino's screenplay. Yet the restored Heaven's Gatereminds us that time, and shifting perspectives, may not heal all wounds, but can supply scar tissue for a damaged reputation.
Producer: Joann Carelli
Director: Michael Cimino
Screenplay: Michael Cimino
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Art Direction: Spencer Deverill, Maurice Fowler
Music: David Mansfield
Film Editing: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald Greenberg, William Reynolds, Tom Rolf
Cast: Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotten (Reverand Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak).
by Jay Carr
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, by Joseph Cotten, Mercuty House, 1987
Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, by Steven Bach, William Morrow, 1985
Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino (Filmmakers, No. 8), by Michael Bliss, Rowman & Littlefield, 1986