Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/23/05 w/ Additional Edits & a New Closing Paragraph.
Throughout the history of cinema, there had been some notable triumphs and milestones that many people will remember for. Then, there are other films that people remember but for all the wrong reasons. While cinema has had its history of failures since the day it began, by the 1960s, many films that were costing lots of money ranging from $20 million at the most were giving studios a lot of financial woes. At that time, those films didn't really mean anything to an audience driven by politics, the counterculture movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. Even to young filmmakers at the time in the U.S. as they were becoming influenced by the cinema that was coming out of Europe and Asia.
That of course, led to a decade of personal films that meant something to people no matter what genre was as the old Golden Age era was dwindling. Then in 1977, Star Wars came out as the days of personal films that didn't cost a lot of money or make a lot of money were over. Studios knew if they wanted to make a lot of money, they had to spend a lot. This would become a bad lesson as for the next several years, there had been a lot of notable big-budget flops.
Recently, there were films like Gigli, Alexander, Waterworld, Ishtar, and Hudson Hawk. While they became known as turkeys, only a few like Brazil, Once Upon a Time in America (the 3-hour, 45-minute version), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and most recently, Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 big-budget flop One from the Heart found audiences through DVD with critics re-evaulating about those films with the exception of Brazil and the uncut version of Once Upon a Time in America that are now considered as classics. Unlike many of those films, there was one massive failure that not only ended the decade of personal, artistic studio films that was led by the directors of the 1970s, but bankrupted a studio company and destroyed the career of a promising director. That film was the 1980 epic-western Heaven's Gate.
Written and directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven's Gate is an epic-western set in the 1890s during the Johnson County Wars in Wyoming between wealthy ranchers and immigrant settlers in the West. Prior to making Heaven's Gate, Cimino had only made two features and written several screenplays for other filmmakers. After 1974's quirky heist film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, Cimino scored a monster hit with 1978's epic, Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter that won several Oscars including Best Picture and director for Cimino despite the controversy over its portrayal of the Vietcong army and historical inaccuracies. After the victory at the Oscars, Cimino seemed to be the next big thing as he was slated to direct a monster project on the Johnson County Wars. At a time when big budget films were the thing for movies like Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, Steven Spielberg’s 1941, William Friedkin's The Sorcerer, and Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Yet, it was a huge risk with many of them either becoming flops or just barely recouping the budget.
Cimino however wanted full control on how he wanted Heaven's Gate from the detail of the production, the location setting, and historical accuracy while putting a romantic subplot in the film as well. For his cast, Cimino brought in Christopher Walken, who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for The Deer Hunter along with Jeff Bridges from Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. Also cast in the film was country singer/actor Kris Kristofferson, British actor John Hurt, Sam Waterson, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotton, and then-French newcomer Isabelle Huppert, who had just won the Best Actress prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival for Claude Chabrol’s Violette Noziere. While the film was originally going to include a budget of less than $12 million at the most, a production that featured no major stars seemed to be a major risk. What became a much bigger risk was the amount of creative control Cimino wanted and all hell breaks loose.
Cimino demanded more money and United Artists got into trouble as Cimino began to fight with producers and executives during a grueling shoot that lasted for several months. Finally, when Cimino finished shooting and began post-production, it was becoming more problematic. When Cimino finished The Deer Hunter, it was originally shown at four hours until Cimino decided to cut the film to three hours which was well-received from a test audience. In Heaven's Gate, the film ran as long as nearly five hours to the point that Cimino decided to cut the film at a final three hours and forty-five minutes for its late 1980 release. Once the film was completed, news spread about Heaven's Gate as word got out that the film's final budget escalated to a whopping $40 million, which at the present time would be $120 million.
When it premiered in New York City in November 19, 1980, the critics overnight killed the film with a barrage of negative reviews. While Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert admits the attack was unfair, he too didn't like the movie but the worst review of them all came from the New York Times' film critic, Vincent Canby. In his infamous review on November 19, 1980, Canby proclaimed that the film is "an unqualified disaster" while saying nothing in the film works as well as many scenes ran too long. Canby continues to trash the film to the point where no only he talks about the budget but also says watching the film at a near-four hours is "like a forced, four-hour walking tour of one's own living room".
Once Canby's review came out, the film was pulled immediately as Cimino was forced to cut the film to nearly two-and-a-half hours but once it got re-released in early 1981, the film was already dead on its tracks. While Cimino tried to present the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981 in competition, the film was still hurt by its American reception as the film received numerous Razzie Award nominations including a Worst Director prize for Cimino. After that, United Artists nearly went bankrupt and Cimino's never recovered as a few years later, a book on the making of the film came out with many of the blame placing on Cimino and its producers. Now nearly 30 years since its release, Heaven's Gate became a running joke as the ultimate turkey of American cinema while the film has a cult following for those who felt the critics reviews at the time were unfair. Well, let's get to it and see what the fuss is about.
The movie begins in 1870 Harvard at a graduation ceremony where two men are on the verge of graduating. One is an American named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and the other is a British man named Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as Billy is the class valedictorian. After a long speech from the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) who urges his graduates to spread culture through the world, Billy mocks the whole speech claiming the world doesn't need any kind of change. After a huge dance and celebration, the two young idealists are on their way to become a part of the world.
Twenty years later, Averill is a marshal for Johnson County, Wyoming as he arrives to the town of Casper to discuss the growing tension between rich cattle baron and poor immigrant settlers is boiling. Leading the Stock Farmers Association is Frank Canton (Sam Waterson) who has hired an enforcer in Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) to maintain order. After talking to train conductor Cully (Richard Masur), Averill wonders what's going on as he goes to the house of the Stock Farmers' meeting where he meets Billy. Billy has become disillusioned with the increasing tension as he now drinks himself to death while he chooses to stay with the Association for political reasons. After confronting Canton, Averill leaves to return to Johnson County.
After meeting with the town's tavern owner John H. Bridges (Jeff Bridges) and the immigrants' political leader Mr. Eggleston (Brad Dourif), Averill goes to meet his lover and French brothel madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). After presenting her with a new carriage, they ride around town where Averill tells her that things for the immigrants are more problematic as he wants her to leave so she can be safe but she wants to stay with him. After a party with Bridges and Eggleston along with several immigrants, Ella returns to her work one night as Nate arrives where he asks her to marry him.
One morning as Averill stays at the tavern, Nate sees him to talk about Ella as Averill says that Ella is his. Nate, who is in conflict as an immigrant and as Canton's enforcer while Averill learns about the death list of 125 names that included Ella. Averill confronts Nate about Ella's name on the death list leading to a fight. Nate is confused over the news as Averill leaves to the tavern while Nate takes Ella to his cabin where he lives with a trapper (Geoffrey Lewis) and a friend named Nick (Mickey Rourke). Meanwhile back in Casper, Cully sees an unscheduled train pass by as he learns it's Canton and several men including bounty hunters.
Cully tries to make his way to Johnson County only to be killed while Ella stays with Nate for a while seeing despite the fact that he doesn't have much. Averill meanwhile, holds a town meeting with Eggleston and Bridges to announce the death list where the immigrant settlers become unruly. Ella returns home to find a few of Canton's men (one of them is Tom Noonan) as they rape her until Averill comes to the rescue. When Nate arrives, his motives change as he confronts Canton and declares war on him and his men. With Ella unsure on who to turn to, Averill isn't sure if he wants to be part of a war as he quits his job as the town's marshal. With increasing tension mounting, the war between cattle barons and immigrant settlers finally come to ahead in a bloody climax that leads to tragedy and the realization of the American dream.
While the intentions as a revisionist Western to comment on American imperialism seems lost in what Michael Cimino was aiming for. What he offers instead is one hell of a mess in the film's story. From its beautiful yet irrelevant opening scene at Harvard (that was shot in Oxford) to its hazy and enchanting Western scenery, the film doesn't hold itself together. The crime for this film really belongs to Cimino, both in his sloppy writing and his muddy direction. If the film had been shown in its unseen five-hour cut, maybe there would've been more about all the central characters in the film but instead, the audience doesn't really get to know or sympathize with anything.
The film's major fault is in its script. Cimino really should’ve gotten some help in the writing, especially in an epic Western like this. It's because there's not much back-story on some of the characters or why there's tension between Nate Champion and James Averill, or how they even got involved in the Johnson County Wars. Plus, the script really hashes out some very messy dialogue, even in the scenes with immigrants talking in their respective language that really makes no sense. While the portrayal of the cattle barons are well spot-on since their intention is money and power, the portrayal of the immigrant settlers is horribly written. Yes, the audience can understand why they moved West and steal expensive cattle but as the movie develops, they turn from a poor, hungry group of small people into an unruly, violent mob that really loses idea of sympathy as they almost become as sick and depraved as the cattle barons. If an immigrant that came to America saw this, it's likely they would be horrified by the portrayal of the immigrants shown on the film.
The script is really one of the biggest reasons for the failure of this film while it's also one of the first films that puts in a love story set in some historical landmark. While the love triangle of Averill/Champion/Watson is a big part of the story, it really doesn't go anywhere nor does it provide any kind of motivation for its characters. It was something that is needed to give the audience something else other than its Western like settings. While there's some moments in that subplot that works like Averill and Watson dancing in the town hall building or Watson's intimate moments with Champion in their respective houses. It really doesn't add anything to the film except as an unnecessary distraction. Still, it at least beats the soulless love story subplot in Michael Bay's 2001 crapfest known as Pearl Harbor.
If the script a major fault in what Cimino wanted, it's his directing that really screw things up. While he has a great eye for exterior epic-canvas that Sergio Leone would be proud of, in terms of his intentions. It really doesn't do anything for the film. His idea of putting a Harvard prologue to convey the idealism that Averill would bring later on doesn't give any sense of what will happen nor does it do anything for John Hurt's character either. It's a beautiful scene, especially the Harvard dance sequence but for the audience. It seems like they're watching an entirely different film.
There's only a few bright moments in Cimino's directing like the town hall party with a violinist performing on roller skates with Jeff Bridges and Isabelle Huppert dancing in a big circle. Even some parts of the battle scenes are excellent in its classic shoot-out scenario. Unfortunately, it's those same battle scenes that really messes up the film since the audience doesn't know who to root for while at the end, it was supposed to the disillusionment of the American dream for immigrants. Instead, it's just a violent battle were neither party gains anything. Aside from its portrayal of characters, loads of extras, and intentions, the film doesn't really go anywhere and the result is like watching a disaster unfolding right to its ridiculous epilogue scene in the early 20th Century where Averill is on a ship in Rhode Island feeling melancholic by what has happened those years ago. In that ending, it makes the entire movie to be nothing but a complete waste of time to begin with.
There are many reasons why this film failed in the first place aside from its poor script and chaotic directing. The fault should be going to the film's producers as well for letting all of this happen. When the audience look at the film in terms of its production, they will realize how much they spend on extras and the detail of all the buildings they built despite how good they look. What is more baffling was how in the hell did they end up spending $40 million into all of this. This is why both producers and directors should watch out for themselves. Finally, one of the things that is really aggravating was the opening credits where it reads Michael Cimino's... Heaven's Gate that is an example of pure egomania. Sure Federico Fellini and Lars von Trier were also egotistical but they always had strong films to back up their egos.
While the detail of production from art directors Tambi Larsen and James I. Berkey are wonderful to look, notably the tavern and town hall along with the costume design of J. Allen Highfill. The real star of the film in terms of its technical achievements is the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond. Zsigmond's use of sepia-orange colors and lighting gives the film not just a sense of authenticity and a look of what the film should look like if it was set in those times. In its exterior scenes, Zsigmond really does a great job in capturing the epic canvas in what Cimino wanted, even in its smoky, hazy settings of the battle sequences and the locations of the outdoors. In the exteriors, Zsigmond's use of candles, sunlight, and lanterns are very spot on for his emphasis on authenticity. If there's one true positive aspect of this film, it's Vilmos Zsigmond.
Another wonderful achievement of the film is the string-drenched score of David Mansfield with his use of mandolins, guitars, and strings that gives the film a haunting tone along with a melancholia about the plight of the immigrants and its revisionist take. Even in the town hall sequence, the music is very vibrant that is performed well by Mansfield and T-Bone Burnett (who makes a cameo in the film as a musician). While the film's editing manages to create a nice, leisurely paced. Whatever Cimino wanted from his four editors, it seemed like the amount of footage and transitions are often jerky and the rhythm of some of the scenes (notably the battle scenes) is off at times.
Then there's the film's cast that includes appearances from future unknowns like Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth McGovern, and Anna Levine-Thompson while there's nice appearances from Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis, Tom Noonan, and Richard Masur. In terms of the performance, a lot of it is very uninspiring. The only performance that seems to make any sense of the mess that is this film is John Hurt. Playing a disillusioned drunk who is watching everything unfold, Hurt comes off as pathetic but in Hurt's mind. Since he knew it was a disaster, he decided to make his character be the disaster himself. When the film just goes on, Hurt just rambles on and on about how the world sucks and everything and at least was given a fitting departure.
Brad Dourif is a great character actor but his performance as Mr. Eggleston is badly written since he comes off as a pathetic immigrant trying to get his people to be reasonable only to fall into their trap and later, be ousted as he turns to Averill in the end. Jeff Bridges is excellent as the drunken bar owner who tries to be reasonable as he is one of the very few actors who actually does a worthy performance. Unfortunately, because of the situations he's in, Bridges couldn't make his character memorable enough. It would be more memorable, if he channeled THE DUDE. Neither does Joseph Cotten since he's only in the film for 10 minutes delivering a dull speech that will make anyone fall asleep. Sam Waterson does a fine job in playing the villainous Frank Canton with his desire for money and power but really doesn't do anything since the character comes off as very one-dimensional leaving the very talented Waterson to play a very mediocre character.
Isabelle Huppert, who is one of the greatest actresses of international cinema, only gives a slightly fair performance as a naive brothel madam. Though she can bring some chemistry with any other actor, because of the script, Huppert comes out of this film as an idiot who is in love with two men and really has not motivation for what she's doing. Huppert is really given a very one-dimensional part that really doesn't add up, even as she goes out and fight in the battle sequences. Because of Cimino's sloppy direction, Huppert isn't given anything for an audience to remember her by except get naked frequently, even as she takes a bath in the river. That however, despite the fact that it was unnecessary, is a bright spot since she looks great naked and is still an art-house hottie as once some guy sees her ass, that dude will wish he was Jason Schwartman in I Heart Huckabee's and get a piece of that. Aside from that, it's no wonder why Huppert has had a hard time trying to get recognition in the U.S. despite being an icon in her native France and all over the world with an American cult following.
The GREAT Christopher Walken also suffers from Cimino's directing and script despite giving out some great lines and a shadowy presence. Of all of the performances in the film, no matter how mediocre they are, he was the only one who actually came close to actually delivering a great performance only if Cimino hadn't restrained him too much. Walken brings charm and sensitivity to his scenes with Huppert while bringing in a restrained tone to his scenes with Kristofferson. Unfortunately, that restraint almost makes his character dull unless he's in a shootout or killing people. If Walken had his way, he would've made Nate Champion funny and memorable to the point that we would say, "Hey, it's the GREAT Christopher Walken" where Walken would probably sing and dance and do all those great WHOA moments. And if anyone wondered how he acted his way flawlessly in bombs like Gigli and Country Bears, they will see why.
Finally, there's Kris Kristofferson who is a very fine actor but doesn't bring enough charisma or stature that a character like James Averill should be. Kristofferson does well when he's acting tough and can deliver great dialogue but his character also suffers from Cimino's poor script and directing. When Kristofferson tries to look young in the Harvard prologue, he almost looks ridiculous but he looks even worse with its bad makeup and gray hair in the film's epilogue scene. Kristofferson also falters in his scenes with Huppert since he doesn't seem likely to be the kind of guy you want to bed Huppert. Couldn't they have brought someone like Robert Redford or Robert de Niro to play that character? They could've done a better job but they too would probably suffer from Cimino's directing as well. It's a shame too since the film was supposed to be a star-making turn for Kristofferson though he has managed to survive this flop.
It's been 30 years since the release of Heaven's Gate while many of the actors who partook in this notorious film has gone on to do bigger and better things. Though United Artists did come back with the James Bonds films, it was still wounded by the release of Heaven's Gate. While the film did survive in video and got a critical re-evaluation from the LA-based cable channel, Z-channel when it premiered its uncut version in 1982. The film did nothing to help the career of its director Michael Cimino. After turning down chances to direct other movies including Footloose, he went on to direct a couple of more films in the 80s like 1985's Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke and 1987's The Sicilian with Christopher Lambert which got some good reviews but venomous ones from those who still remembered Heaven's Gate.
Things only got worse when a former United Artist executive named Steven Bach released Final Cut about the unmaking of Heaven's Gate where Cimino's reputation was hurt. Cimino would direct two more films in the 1990s, 1990's remake of Desperate Hours with Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins and the 1996 straight-to-video film The Sunchaser with Woody Harrelson. Since then, Cimino has likely disappeared while in 2004, Heaven's Gate was re-released to theaters in the U.S. along with a documentary on the making of the film as many still debate about the film's legacy.
So why is the film so important? It's because of the fact that it's a failure and shows how egomania can destroy a movie that could've great in its potential. Anyone who's a film student should watch this for one reason, what not to do when making a movie. Here's the lessons that should be learned from this film:
1. Whenever you have complete freedom including final cut, you have to understand your limits.
2. When making a big-budget film such as this, make sure you're going to get some money back by hiring some major film stars that can bring in an audience.
3. In terms of writing an epic, make sure you have a full understanding on how an epic works and it's best to get help from other writers, even if only you will have final credit in the writing.
4. If you plan to make a period piece, especially that concerns a part of history. Bring a historian first to help with the script for accuracy and such. Worry about the production later. It's going to take a long time but once you have it right, then you have nothing to worry about.
5. When being called the new hot director, don't listen to anyone that gets into your head. Just figure out what to do and in the meantime, keep your fucking ego in check.
Heaven's Gate is not the remarkable disaster that many claim to be but it's still a magnificent failure. It's a film, despite Vilmos Zsigmond's marvelous cinematography and David Mansfield's haunting score, that reveals how much is too much when the director goes way over his head into creating an epic film. While cinephiles might have something to gain from this film from a historical perspective. Fans of westerns will be turned off by its muddled story along with its disregard towards history. For fans of Cimino, this is probably the one film they need to check out though it is nowhere near the brilliance of The Deer Hunter. In the end, Heaven's Gate is a failure but a failure that is actually interesting to watch no matter how seriously flawed it is.
(C) thevoid99 2010