Over the years Hollywood has had its share of debacles: movies that despite the best of intentions became unmitigated turkeys. Today, box office is so inextricably linked to that measure of success that one easily tends to forget a goodly number of artistic masterpieces– justly acknowledged today (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, It’s A Wonderful Life, etc.) - were, at least in their own time, colossal financial flops. But in 1980 one film so typified the definition of ‘unqualified disaster’ that even 33 years later it remains synonymous with blind egotism and even blinder industry faith run amuck.
Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is really two stories mashed together – the making of the movie and the film itself. This is perhaps true of all movies. But in the case of Heaven’s Gate the point must not only be made, but taken at more than face value. Few movies in the history of movie making have been so maliciously excoriated and emaciated by the critics and so repeatedly brutalized in the editing process (from 5 ½ to 3 ½ down to 2 ½ hrs. of salvageable footage). It therefore becomes necessary to deconstruct the myth from the reality before proceeding. Consequently, because of this lingering pall any fair review of Heaven’s Gate – the movie – must also begin with an assessment of the industry that fostered its inception. Hence this review will be considerably longer than most.
Whether based on the stuff of legend, truth or eviscerating backlash both Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate have remained the earmark of an epic implosion of unprecedented scale. The indictment goes well beyond the critics who prematurely threw down their gauntlets back in 1980 and collectively relished dissecting Heaven’s Gate with their chortling vitriol. The most expensive movie ever made up to its time, the film’s $44 million budget was effectively eclipsed by an astronomically anemic $1.3 million gross that has since all but obfuscated Cimino’s artistic merit. In the midst of heated tempers and absolute panic inside United Artist’s (UA) front office, Heaven’s Gate was pulled from general release, re-edited and paired down, effectively validating that critical response and fueling even more critical counterattacks.
Indeed, Heaven’s Gate was a movie that destroyed several careers and effectively closed the doors of one of Hollywood’s most prestigious production companies. In the aftermath of Heaven’s Gate the executive brain trust in Hollywood did a collective about face, rescinding director-driven control and, in effect anchoring all creative talent to a studio’s fiscal responsibilities. This concept was hardly revolutionary. In fact Hollywood’s golden age was managed by moguls overseeing every frame that passed through their vast empires. The primary difference in the 1970s was in the industry’s infrastructure. The moguls – having either retired, decamped or died off – had been replaced by executive management from without, who quite simply and even more often understood success only in terms of the bottom line. Hence, by 1980 movie studios were little more than vast warehouses and distribution apparatuses for independently produced product bought outright and marketed by the studios.
Yet throughout the 1970s the new Hollywood had emerged, leaner and meaner, while placing its entire trust in the creative aegis of the director. For a brief time such loyalties seemed justified. Indeed, Spielberg, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Lucas and Friedkin had all emerged with distinctive box office successes. However, by the end of the decade this love affair had quietly cooled. Each of the aforementioned star directors had managed to balance his triumphant feat with, in some cases, an earthshattering thud (example, Spielberg’s Jaws compared to his 1941, Friedkin’s Exorcist vs. the horrendously mismanaged remake of Wages of Fear, Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show pitted against At Long Last Love, and so on).
Unlike these contemporaries Michael Cimino had cut his artistic teeth on making commercials for television. These exhibited his flair for pictorial visualization but could hardly be counted upon to establish his strengths for narrative structure. But Cimino had the very good fortune of gaining an ally in Clint Eastwood on his very first film, and even more astounding, he had won 5 Oscars for his second feature, The Deer Hunter (1978). A scant three months later Cimino was invited by UA executive David Field to pitch his own project. Cimino wanted to do The Johnson County War – a super colossus of a western that he boldly told Fields and UA he could make for roughly $7 million - the cost of an average movie back then.
At any other studio Cimino’s claim would have immediately raised a few flags. First, westerns were hopelessly out of fashion by the late 1970s. Second, the complicity of Wyoming’s governor and even the President of the United States in sanctioning the murder of 125 eastern European homesteaders to satisfy a local rancher’s association, presented a very dark, disturbing and undeniably unflattering portrait of the American west – a domain universally portrayed on film as majestic, untapped and brimming with the promise of America’s high ideals, virtues and optimism. But UA was a studio unlike any other. Co-founded by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. UA was run by talent – not moguls – and in the many decades since their departure it had built a reputation on an enviable history of independence; including Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, The Apartment; Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Manhattan; Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to say nothing of the James Bond, Rocky and Pink Panther film franchises.
But by the late 1970s UA’s reputation within the industry had sunk from golden to red-headed stepchild, thanks in part to a bitter break between its President Arthur Krim and parent company Transamerica; who felt UA’s release of the X-rated Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris did not bode well with their company’s reputable corporate identity. Rather than belabor the point Krim quit, taking most of his executive brain trust with him to form Orion Pictures. UA was left with a middling roster of executives who had never helmed either a movie or the studio before and Transamerica had a lot of egg on its face. Suddenly finding themselves in charge of the studio co-executives David Fields and Stephen Bach were acutely aware of UA’s tradition in fostering artistry with minimal intrusion from the front office. Moreover, Michael Cimino’s 5 Oscar wins for The Deer Hunter seemed to suggest he was a film maker ready to fall into line without their supervision. Regrettably, Fields and Bach were unaware of the director’s penchant for deliberate pacing and his pursuit of perfection whatever its cost.
This fundamental lack of communication ultimately led to several major spats; the first over Cimino’s insistence on casting French actress, Isabelle Huppert in the major role of a Montana madam in love with two men. In truth, the part had been shopped around to virtually every major female star including Jane Fonda, Sally Fields and Meryl Streep, each turning it down. But UA’s lock on co-stars Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken ensured star cache. And Cimino had fleshed out his roster with several prominent up and comers including Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Sam Waterston. The initial understanding between Fields and Cimino was that if Huppert’s accent proved too pronounced and inaudible during her audition Cimino would agree to recast the role. Regrettably, Cimino reneged after the fact, infuriating Fields who later attempted to bring Cimino’s reputation and credibility into question in his own attempt to quash the making of the film.
Instead UA green lit the project. It was a decision both they and Cimino would live to regret. Within the first week of shooting Cimino had exposed more than $900,000.00 of film, of which roughly three minutes were usable. In scope alone, Heaven’s Gate was a staggeringly ambitious undertaking – commandeering whole towns and converting them to period at a crippling cost. Cimino, however, was not going for scale but rather authenticity, shooting take after take, often forgoing lunch and breaks to work his cast and crew eighteen hours at a stretch. It was not uncommon to shoot 50 or even 60 takes of a single scene – experimenting with even the subtlest nuances in the script.
From here on in the specifics about Heaven’s Gate become sketchy, with Cimino working in near secrecy to produce what he alone had come to regard as his ‘Gone With The Wind’. There are those among actors and crew, including producer Joann Carelli who continue to extol Cimino’s craftsmanship as both comprehensive and professional. Indeed, although Cimino’s pacing could be described as glacier, it was impossible for anyone, even at UA, to argue with the impressive dailies, yielding Cimino’s keen eye for unprecedented scope and quality. But when the money men began to articulate the cost of such meticulous focus Fields confronted Cimino with a decision that ultimately became counterintuitive to the whole enterprise; appointing Derek Kavanagh as UA’s inside man to oversee the Wyoming shoot. Determined his authority on set remain absolute Cimino fired off a memo later used to illustrate his seeming unwillingness to comply with the edicts of the studio. It read “Derek Kavanaugh is not to come to the location site. He is not to enter the editing room. He is not to speak to me at all.”
For UA, the time had come to lower the boom. Fields and Bach refused to fund the project beyond $25 million. Bach fired Carelli, in effect rewriting the terms of the contract so that Michael Cimino became an employee of UA rather than its joint partner in the production of the film. Under these revisions Fields ordered Cimino to pick up his pace or face losing his approval on the final cut – arguably, the only aspect remaining dear to Cimino’s heart. Unable to contest the revisions, Cimino increased his workload. The initial budget mushroomed to well over 500%. But even more damaging to Cimino’s credibility was an article written by reporter Les Gapay that went viral in all the major papers across the country. Gapay, who had been rebuffed as a journalist on Cimino’s closed set, broke the wall of silence by joining the production as an extra incognito to write his story. According to Gapay, Heaven’s Gate was not a masterpiece but a fiasco.
Because Cimino had stayed within budget for the rest of the Wyoming shoot he retained final cut and had earned the opportunity to shoot the film’s prologue at Oxford. Harvard had been the ideal, but when the school denied UA access to its grounds, Cimino chose Oxford instead, cobbling together a gigantic tree for its courtyard out of live tree parts and cement. For months thereafter Cimino and his editor Lisa Frutchman toiled on a rough cut. But in light of Gapay’s brutal review UA’s private screening of Cimino’s 5 ½ assembly not only met with indifference, but infuriated Fields and Bach, lending further credence to the argument that Cimino had taken the studio for a ride.
By the time of the New York premiere Heaven’s Gate had already sustained an avalanche of bad press branding it with the scarlet letter of failure. Cimino managed to whittle down his epic to just a little over 3 hrs. Regrettably, the audience did not respond. The critics were even less circumspect. New York Times’ Vincent Canby led the charge of insults, likening the movie to a “four hour walking tour of one’s living room” while NBC’s Rona Barrett ridiculously found “absolutely nothing” to recommend. Perhaps the most venomous and obtuse attack yet came from Gene Shalitt who, during his carpet-hauling of Michael Cimino in a taped interview accused the director of profligate spending on a commercial enterprise whose sole purpose – to simply make more money – had utterly failed in its primary objective. Publicly Cimino took this deriding in stride, but it ruined his reputation in Hollywood.
The effects on UA were even more devastating. Within days UA pulled Heaven’s Gate and delayed its general release. Cimino returned to edit the film down to just a little over 2 hrs. Still nothing could stop the bloodletting in negative publicity. Finally, UA dropped their own bombs on the enterprise, firing Fields and Bach. Transamerica, who had written off the entire cost of the film and momentarily lost a half point off their stock (recovered the next day) announced their sell off of UA to MGM – a purchase that effectively put a period to UA’s days of funding independent film projects. The impossible had occurred. A single movie had wiped out an entire Hollywood studio.
But what of the film itself? For when all is said and done, it really is the film that should either sink or swim on its own artistic merit. And Heaven’s Gate, despite Rona Barrett’s globular rebuke, is a film of considerable artistic achievement with many of Cimino’s aspirations for its visual integrity left intact. Had Heaven’s Gate been made at the height of the 1960s it would likely have achieved the enviable status as a great American western. Most certainly it remains a lyrical – if somewhat dower - anachronism to all the fluff ball pop-u-tainment from its own generation. Still, the unromantic fact of all movie making remains that whatever a film’s assets, the whole of the enterprise rests squarely on the shoulders of the average ticket buyer whose mean demographic average in 1980 ranged between the ages of 18 to 21. Arguably, Heaven’s Gate was never intended to appeal to this average; its themes more frankly adult.
Cimino’s script begins presumably at Harvard in 1870 with two young graduates, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) listening to the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) speak on the association between “the cultivated and uncultivated mind”. Obviously drunk, but intellectually superior among his fellow classmates, Billy expounds his own irreverent views as their valedictorian. This sequence is followed by some spectacular revelry on the university’s front lawn, a lavish waltz and candlelit serenade by the male students to the ladies present, including Jim’s girlfriend (Roseanne Vela). Cimino advances the story by twenty years, juxtaposing the pie-eyed optimism of this moment with a dower, aged Jim arriving in the boom town of Casper Wyoming, just north of Johnson County where he is the marshal. Met at the station by his old friend and station master, Cully (Richard Masur), Jim witnesses the obsequious relationship between a local group of wealthy cattle ranchers and the law, who look the other way as some of the migrant homesteaders are terrorized and even murdered in an attempt to drive them off their land.
It seems the destitute European immigrants have come into conflict with the established cattle barons. Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) is one of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s bounty hunters, assigned the gruesome task of executing 125 homesteaders suspected of being thieves and anarchists. In truth, the cattlemen are bigoted and cruel. Their strength derives from their wealth and the backing of not only Wyoming’s governor but also the President of the United States. Billy, a member of The Association listens in utter disbelief as its chairman Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) informs the rest of the membership of their impending dark purpose.
Leaving the room in protest, Billy finds Jim in the upstairs of the club playing billiards. He tells him about the ‘death list’ before being ordered from the Association by Frank. The two begin an altercation that results in Jim knocking Frank down. Later that same evening, Frank recruits more mercenaries to take up The Association’s cause. In the meantime, Jim returns in a brand new rig to his lover, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle in trade for use of her prostitutes. Ella is pleased with Jim’s gift of rig and horse, but has begun a fickle romance with Nate. Jim and Ella enjoy a spirited, mud-splashing ride in the rig through town and later a roller skating party inside ‘Heaven’s Gate’, a dance hall built by entrepreneur John Bridges (Jeff Bridges). Jim obtains a copy of the death list from a U.S. army captain and reads it aloud to the homesteaders, creating a momentary frenzy.
The middle act of Heaven’s Gate is bloodthirsty indeed. Cully observes the arrival of Canton’s hired guns and rides to warn the settlers. Regrettably, he is murdered and Ella’s bordello is broken into by some of the posse who rape her. To avenge his beloved Jim kills all but one of the men responsible for her assault. This derelict has escaped Jim’s wrath, but is later hunted down by Nate and also killed. Nate, who has wisely assessed the Association’s intent to exterminate Ella along with the rest, resigns his commission. Canton and his mercenaries confront Nate’s friends, Trapper (Geoffrey Lewis) and Nick (Mickey Rourke), telling them, presumably in the spirit of fair play, to warn Nate of their arrival. Instead, Canton’s men open fire, killing Nick and then Nate as Ella makes her escape from the deluge.
The homesteaders decide to make their stand at Heaven’s Gate, a move that sustains heavy casualties on both sides. Billy dies in this first assault led by Bridges. Canton is momentarily surrounded but escapes to bring back the U.S. Army as his reserves. After much bloody carnage the battle is declared a victory by Canton. Bridges, Ella and Jim, who have all miraculously survived, make ready to depart the region for good. But they are ambushed by Canton and his men who shoot Bridges and Ella dead. Jim regroups, murders Canton and his men, before collapsing in grief with Ella’s body nestled in his arms.
Once again, Cimino considerably advances the narrative – this time by ten years. Jim, now impeccably tailored and beardless, struts about the deck of a sizable yacht moored near Newport Rhode Island. After some quiet introspection he goes below deck where his old Harvard girlfriend (presumably now his wife) quietly stirs and asks for a cigarette. Complying with her request, Jim lights the cigarette before returning topside. Thus concludes Heaven’s Gate on a morally ambiguous note.
Like it or not movies are art made by committee – a concept that seems to have eluded Michael Cimino on this outing. I suspect Cimino of having envisioned himself a director on par with David Lean – attempting to fulfill Lean’s own mantra that “directing has to be a very selfish job. The more a movie is one person’s vision the better.” Yet, in his fanatical obsession to make Heaven’s Gate the most sublime western masterwork ever committed to film, Cimino’s imprint has been blunted by a most spectacular and even more tragic inability to make the necessary sacrifices along the way that might have saved Heaven’s Gate from his own creative turpitude; seemingly too close and too enamored with the particulars to see its misfires.
Clearly, at least some of the back story upheaval has made it onto the screen, with Cimino so isolationist and driven for perfection in every frame that he has gambled all of his integrity as a film maker on the bloated micromanagement of intimate details without first weighing the consequences against the bigger picture. This is not to suggest Heaven’s Gate as the unmitigated calamity so many of its naysayers claimed it as in 1980. In an industry where failure is more the norm than success, Heaven’s Gate is hardly the ‘crash and burn’ of the decade – much less the century. Yet it remains imperfect storytelling, primarily for its pro-and epilogue; too rehearsed and far too removed from its central narrative timeline and theme. One wonders why Cimino chose to bookend his western opera with these decidedly lavish, though utterly incongruous moments of spectacle because the film really doesn’t need them.
But the question persists, what went so disastrously wrong on Heaven’s Gate that it should monolithically retain its cult status as a cautionary tale; regarded as more the reckless folly of excess and incompetence then as an ambitious, if minutely flawed western colossus? Two things: bad press, and, an angry studio. By Stephen Bach’s own admission, the penultimate battle sequence of Cimino’s 5 ½ hr. rough cut ran longer than most full length features. Surely, Cimino could not have expected the powers in the front office to embrace his lackadaisical and spendthrift disregard, not only of their studio balance sheet but also for his expectations as to what the average contemporary ticket buyer would be willing to sit through with blind admiration and dollops of praise.
At the end of his shoot Cimino had exposed 1.5 million feet of film, a staggering 225 hours of raw footage. The momentous task of assembling this into a narrative movie alone marks Cimino’s Herculean venture as praiseworthy, even with all of Cimino’s savage degree for visual gluttony. Remarkably, the rhythm of the film is hardly interminable, though it clearly frustrated audiences back in 1980. Amidst all the backlash from the press Cimino, obviously exhausted by the task of making, then editing, then re-editing the film on which he had once pinned such high expectations for himself, took out an ad in Variety addressed to UA, saying “So much energy time and money have gone into the making of this film please pull it from distribution so that I can present it to the public with the same care I exerted while making it. – sincerely Michael Cimino.”
Perhaps this was the final nail in the coffin for Heaven’s Gate – a personal and very heartfelt cinematic vision misunderstood by everyone apart from Cimino and those who had worked closely with him on it. It’s difficult under the best circumstances to revise history. In the case for Heaven’s Gate, the prospect seems damn near impossible. Is it a masterpiece or a catastrophe in search of some critical redemption that will never be?
Let us say that Heaven’s Gate is a remarkable visual achievement - for that is very much closer to the truth. Removed from its hype and its grandly disastrous production history Heaven’s Gate is more than competent film making. Visually it is a work of art. But exquisite master shots alone are not enough to make a great or even good movie. Yet even then, Heaven’s Gate yields something more than simply Cimino’s blind ambition to make the biggest western of his generation. The tangibles – the performances notwithstanding, Vilmos Zsigmond’s lush soft filtered cinematography and David Mansfield’s sadly reflexive underscore - these are self-evident to anyone with the power of sight and sound at their disposal and, as Cimino once pointed out speak for themselves.
Back in 1980 a singular note of praise – the highest Heaven’s Gate would ever receive in print - came from LA Times film critic Kevin Thomas who wrote: “Heaven’s Gate is a movie that leaves you feeling you have witnessed a true screen epic. The acting is splendid and the level of craftsmanship can scarcely be higher. It is time to sit back and enjoy all that Michael Cimino has wrought.” Later, after his contemporaries had eviscerated the film and Cimino to their heart’s content, Thomas was to offer one final footnote, “I do not think in twenty years of movie reviewing I have ever been so totally alone.”
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Heaven’s Gate leaves something to be desired. The film has only been mastered in 2K resolution, and at a time when 4 or even 6K have become the norm. Criterion’s 216 minute edit has been director approved, but it lacks the overall visual clarity and ‘wow’ factor we’ve come to expect from this art house brand. Flesh tones are frequently piggy pink, particularly during the prologue. Despite being remastered from original separation elements - with vast overall improvement to color correction - the film still suffers from infrequent muddy hues. When the image snaps we are treated to some spellbinding visuals of the great Wyoming wilderness. But there seems to be some slight mis-registration of the elements, creating undue softness and some minor blurring that erratically crops up now and then. Ditto for edge enhancement. The 5.1 DTS audio is also problematic. During the prologue we get a tiny ringing sensation in dialogue. Joseph Cotten’s oration as the Reverend Doctor sounds as though it’s been funneled through a drum – very thin and strident indeed.
Criterion has mercifully placed all of its extras on a second disc. These include new interviews with Cimino and Joann Carelli, David Mansfield and Kris Kristofferson. Curiously, we’re missing the comprehensive documentary: Final Cut – the making and unmaking of Heaven’s Gate. For those fascinated by the movie itself, Youtube features this documentary cut into 8 equal ten minute parts. For the rest, we get a restoration demonstration, teaser and trailers, plus extensive linear notes including an interview conducted with Michael Cimino for American Cinematographer. Bottom line: Criterion’s Blu-ray bests MGM’s pathetic DVD release from a few years ago. But it’s not perfect and that’s a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)