* * (1980, 219 minutes, Rated R)
This movie be goin' on and on, on and on, on and on, on and on...
We live in an age of formulaic movies that are typically remakes or rehashes or reimagineerings of
existing properties (or worse, brands), and I think we can pretty all agree that it’s mostly lame. And
for that, we can all thank Heaven’s Gate.
Because it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when films weren’t studio-driven, high profile
financial investments but passion projects driven by the blood, sweat and tears of one visionary
and/or tyrannical control-freak: the director. When such a focused (or maniacal) devotion to a
single vision worked, it gave us such epic films as The Ten Commandments and Apocalypse Now.
And when it didn’t work? This is the film your mamma warned
you about... Director Michael Cimino had just won a bundle of
Oscars for The Deer Hunter (quality flick, but could've been a
good 20-30 minutes shorter), and was pretty much given carte
And man, did Cimino carte blanche it: Production was behind
schedule almost from the get-go. Cimino reportedly had a
street built to his exact specifications, and then had it
completely torn down and rebuilt because the spacing
between the two sides of the street “didn’t look right” (the crew
argued that he could just rebuild one side farther away, but
Cimino refused). It was the kind of production where over 220
hours of footage was filmed, where an entire day was spent
on a shot that lasted less than a second in the film, where
Cimino would delay filming until a cloud he liked rolled into
frame. And that’s not even going into the accusations of
Every now and then, Nolahn will take a break from
reviewing crappy films no one has ever heard of to review
spectacularly bad films that everyone has heard of. Brace
yourself for another installment of...
CRAP OF THE TITANS!
love of such quality fare. When we sent out the call to our Friends of The ‘Bin for challenges,
TGWD was the first to respond with this haymaker of a film…
Heaven’s Gate ended up costing approximately $44m, which may not sound like much today, but
consider that it was 1980 and that the film’s original budget was $7.5m. Coupled with the
extensive and wide-spread negative press, Heaven’s Gate also ended up destroying Cimino’s
career and torpedoing United Artists, which was taken over by MGM. Such widespread devastation
from a single film wouldn’t be seen again… until 15 years later.
Okay, so I should actually talk about the film itself, eh?
On paper, Heaven’s Gate should rock: Sporting a cast of Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken,
Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Sam Waterston (not to mention the film debuts of Willem Defoe and
Terry O’Quinn), Heaven’s Gate is an epic Western based on the Johnson County War. The story
spans decades, following the path of a man who ultimately turns his back on his breeding to do
what’s right -- and there's a love triangle and a humdinger of a gun battle to boot. With its lush
sepia palate, Heaven’s Gate was clearly meant to be The Godfather of Westerns
And it is a pretentious, indulgent, sprawling mess.
The film opens with a (very) lengthy prologue, where Kristofferson’s Jim Averill and John Hurt’s
Billy Irvine graduate from Harvard. We then jump 20 years to 1890, where Averill (now sporting the
|Kris Kristofferson (above) and his
Kristofferson beard) is a worn-out marshal in
Wyoming. How did Averill go from the civility of Harvard
to law enforcement in the uncivil West? You’d think
somewhere in the 219-minute runtime, we’d get a hint
at that -- as that appears to be central to the overall
story. But no. Then we wouldn’t have time for all those
scenes of parades and endless dancing and late night
singing and weird scrums around a tree.
It takes about an hour for the central conflict to come
into focus: The influential and moneyed Wyoming
Stock Growers Association, lead by shit-weasel Frank
Canton (Sam Waterston of “Law & Order” fame), has
decided that there are too many immigrants in Wyoming “stealing their cattle” and put together a list
of 125 immigrants to be shot dead. And I thought Arizona was bad.
Hurt’s drunken Billy Irvine (redundant in this film), points out that maybe -- just maybe -- mass
murder isn’t the solution to their immigration issues. He disappoints me by not asking Canton if
his family was Apache or Cherokee. Canton’s argument is that he’s related to a lot of high-ranking
people and has the support of the President. No one questions whether or not the President of the
United States would actually endorse shooting immigrants on site, because YE-HAW!
And then, an extended cockfighting scene. Ew, not like that -- with actual chickens.
Now we’re off to see Averill go home to Isabelle Huppert’s Elle. There’s some nice character work
here, and I appreciate the decision to have Ms. Huppert run about in her birthday suit… but did we
really need to wait an additional half hour to mention that, ayeah, Elle is not Averill’s wife but a
madam? And did we have to wait until after we see Elle take up with Christopher Walken’s Nate
Champion (who is in the employ of The Association, naturally) to get that cleared up?
And did we need to sit through the roller skating sequence before clarifying the love triangle that
dominates the middle portion of the film?
|The Old West, as everyone knows it.
I get that roller skating was a Big Thing at the time
this film was shot. And this may in fact be
historically accurate (though little else in this film
is). But this scene isn’t getting past anyone's b.s.
Also: If you want to show how happy and simple
the immigrants’ life is, that can be conveyed in one
scene. Six scenes isn’t necessary.
So: We have fetching immigrant madam Elle on
the “death list,“ Walken’s Nate Champion hunting
immigrants even though he’s in love with Elle and
Kristofferson’s Averill, who is a friend to all immigrants, hates what the Association is doing and
has the authority to stop them, but doing nothing. Heaven’s Gate could have explored their inner
conflicts, but instead settles on playing folk music as the actors stare off into space.
We finally do get a big ol’ battle scene when the immigrants rise up against Canton’s mob, and it is
very impressive. I certainly don’t mind some confusion during battle scenes, but don’t like thinking
that Averill was in the battle only to learn he wasn’t, or have it all end when Canton shows up (wasn’
t he holed up with the rest of his mob?) with a cavalry to… make everyone go home? And I don’t
even know what to make of the final scene, set in 1903. For a movie that’s nearly four hours long,
Heaven’s Gate does a terrible job of explaining what the hell is going on.
What I find tragic about Heaven’s Gate is that there is a really good movie in there: The
performances are solid, the battle is impressive and the film is visually gorgeous. What it needed
was someone who knows how to actually tell a story. I’ll bet you the folks behind The Phantom Edit
could chisel out a better movie from this unwieldy mass of film.