"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heaven's Gate (United Artists, 1980)

Oh, For Heaven's Gate


What to say about this famous multi-million dollar turkey? It is gigantic, it is famous, it is pretentious, it is visually beautiful. It nearly killed off the Western genre single-handed as studios shied like unbroken broncs at making another in fear of another huge loss. It almost forced United Artists into bankruptcy (UA was bought by MGM).

After The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino could do no wrong and he seems to have been given carte blanche to make the biggest Western of all time. But you know something’s wrong with a Western when twenty minutes in and we are still in the East (so far in the East, in fact, that the Harvard scenes were filmed in Oxford, England). Impressive, graceful, even beautiful as the endless shots of the class of '70 waltzing on the university grass are, you do kind of wonder. You think the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter went on too long? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The plot (written by Cimino himself) is meandering and slow. There is action, usually with a cast of thousands as extras, but it is episodic, explosive, insufficiently explained. There are gruesome instances of apparent cruelty to animals. I hope they were staged and not real.

The story is interesting in that it deals seriously with immigration and resistance to it. There are endless trails of immigrants walking or huddled on top of trains, as if Wyoming in the 1880s were like Europe after World War II. Much of the dialogue is German, Bulgarian or Ukrainian. The cattlemen are ludicrously evil. The resemblance to history is entirely coincidental.

The movie is miscast. New Yorker Christopher Walken and Englishman John Hurt emphatically do not convince in the West (the latter has nothing to do in the story but drink) and while Isabelle Huppert is attractive (and often without her clothes) she is inadequate as a frontier madam.

The film is interminable: the original was over five hours long and even in the cut-down version it lasts two and a half hours. It's a real test of stamina for the viewer.
The photography of Montana locations by Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) is stunningly good and I love the roller-skate ball with its marvelous music but otherwise, forget it. Of course the French auteuristes took it to their hearts and love it but hey, no accounting for idiocy. Most people in the world think Heaven’s Gate is a multi-million dollar clunker. Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and one or two others think it’s a great movie.

Watch it. Maybe you’ll agree with them. Oh look, there goes a flying pig.


  1. I find Heaven's Gate to be like a car wreck. It slows you down and keeps you from getting from point A to point B. It irritates you and wastes your time, yet, somehow, you find you can't look away when it's right in front of you. There are so many ways that this movie could have (should have?) worked, yet it does fail miserably. Great cast, great cinematography, interesting plot, and a director that appeared to have been on the rise. The fact that his career crashed into virtual nonexistence after this is no accident.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Steve. I find it now unwatchable. Certainly it would give Mr. Cimino a place of honor in the Western Film Directors' Hall of Shame.

  3. Well, I am happy be one of the idiots - and far from an auteuriste...- deeply appreciating the film, a true epic with its sudden bursts of violence more like a russian saga than a classic western hence its construction but it does not lack of rythm. Maybe Cimino would have made a TV show in 3 or 4 episodes as the story deserved it 10 or 20 years later. I do not understand the recurrent critics about the actors' origins. Why a Newyorker - to me Walken is magnificent and Kristofferson is close to any classic tragedian actor, an other final "loner" on his yacht - an English or even a French could not play in a western !? Many of the Wyoming Stockgrowers association cattle barons were brits or scots, if you look at the 7th cavalry at Little Big Horn, many soldiers were coming from Germany, Italy, Ireland etc. From where the westward move was coming from ? From the east mostly ! The film has a certain authenticity - costumes, weapons, daily life on the range, fights, even the rolling breastworks did exist ! - and is well documented historically. The real Frank Canton was far more horrible than San Waterston... And how astonishing and strangely premonitory is the scenario if you look at the current situation of the migrants here and there. Cimino was surely megalomaniac having trouble in editing his films, he was not the first one, think of Peckinpah !
    For a good sum up of the true and extraordinary story, read http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/johnson2.html
    You will see that the film is not far from it even if I agree with Jeff saying that we are not looking for history lessons when watching a movie.