Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Michael Cimino directs Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken in the epic Western where a frontier US marshal and brothel madame protect their neighbours from a government sanctioned death squad hired by the cattle barons of Wyoming.

I probably first watched Heaven’s Gate at about fifteen or sixteen. Its reputation was one of a notorious flop. I found it tedious. And I’m guessing that’s the two and half hour version.

After watching the three and half hour original release this time, I read Steven Bach’s book Final Cut. Bach was de facto Head of Production at United Artists during the debacle. He details the studio’s legacy of supporting work of artistic merit and creative freedom. The politics of the era that saw the company owned by financial giant, Transamerica, and lose the business leaders who fostered that fine reputation. The new execs greenlit Heaven’s Gate on the strength of Cimino’s unreleased but hotly tipped The Deer Hunter. They had inklings from the off that he was troublesome, excessive, slow working and evasive. But they wanted to prove that United Artists could still secure and collaborate with directors of note. The $11 million they sanctioned for Cimino’s next project, an unfashionable love triangle western, turned into a money pit. The final tally was closer to $40 million, a film reviled in the press, that was pulled from its release to have an hour hacked out of it, a studio that was sold off to MGM in the aftermath, and anyone associated with the film behind the scenes stuggling to find meaningful work again.

Does Heaven’s Gate deserve its reputation as a studio killer? The death blow to a Hollywood that produced big budget mature fare by directors of vision? Looking at Bach’s book dispassionately these overspends were symptomatic of the early 1980s. Production costs and inflation rapidly tripled many major movies projected final cost from script to release. The problem with Cimino was he lacked humility and generated hubris. His film was always unlikely to find an audience, his attitude unlikely to seduce the critics and his fractious working relationships produced little loyalty. You can read Bach’s book as a defence of the suits, finding them strapped into a rollercoaster they knew would derail before it finished its loop yet with little practical recourse but to ride it out. Bach makes a good case that Cimino was combative and impractical to the point of madness. Isn’t that just an easy scapegoat? An “It wasn’t me” defence from someone equally as culpable? You do mull it over reading the book (and if you are interested in film history it is an excellent one).

Is Cimino being thrown under the bus for all of Tinseltown’s overspends and executive clashes? But then you only have to read about Cimino’s later troubles on The Sicilian, where he again worked slow, blew his funds, produced a film well over its stipulated running time, lied about his previous deals to gain creative freedom and in an act of petulance delivered a final cut with all the expensive, marketable action cut out to spite the producers and fulfil his contract… you have to admit the guy, though talented, was a bit of a prick.  

A bit of prick that made a beautiful turkey. Heven’s Gate is gorgeous. The magic hour skies and the sepia interiors sing to your eyes. Isabelle Huppert is luminous in her role as the prostitute turned warrior woman. She’s the best thing in it, especially considering how cruel Steven Bach is about her begrudged casting in the book… he compares her to “a potato”. There is a fabulous but entirely unnecessary wooden roller disco sequence. Walken gets a few iconic shots. His introduction for example, framed in bullet hole, is chilling and lasting.

Yet Heaven’s Gate still is really tedious at junctures. It grinds its wheels, contrarily avoids getting the plot moving, the lengthy Harvard prologue and pointless epilogue exist only to make it seem more than a western… put a robot narrating it and an alien on the poster… it is and always will be a western. The muddy battle sequences last an hour but seem parodically cruel and directionless. I’m pretty sure the resolution is everyone just eventually gives up. Visually, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond saves this film. Whether capturing the wide open landscapes, the dusty sundappled sets or Huppert’s curvy young flesh, he produces aesthetic magic. The trudge of no plot, then half hearted romantic entanglements and then wearying battles get in the way of the glorious look of a movie untethered by caring about who is paying for it… at either end of its economic life cycle.



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