An epic migration was taking place when Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was being shot; the 1970’s had begun with audiences flocking to the epic period/family drama The Godfather, but Coppola couldn’t repeat the trick, and lovingly-shot, sprawling late 70’s fare like A Wedding, Days of Heaven, or Comes A Horseman didn’t attract the same kind of audience. White-hot on the back of The Deer Hunter, Cimino took full creative control over Heaven’s Gate, a majestic love-story set against the background of a cattle-rustling war. An ambitious folly of considerable brutalism, it’s a film worth re-discovering in the full cut, just short of four hours long, on MGM’s streaming channel.
So let’s deal with the elephant in the room; most the reviews of Heaven’s Gate focus focus their ire on the film’s high budget and profligate use of the money; Steven Bach’s book Final Cut is your standard issue resource here. But unlike many other financial black-holes, Heaven’s Gate is a proper film; like it or loathe it, this is the work of considerable talent. I’m a big fan of Cimino’s nimbler work before (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) and after (Year of the Dragon). Both engage with a mythic sense of America, and Heaven’s Gate is positively marinated on complex reflections about what’s good and bad about this great country. The money is, for once, all up there on the screen, and interest in the film’s accounts stifles discussion of the quality of the film-making; if you’re really interested in wasted money, check our Timeline, or A Sound of Thunder, or all manner of duds that sunk without the seismic ripples featured here.
The real problem with watching Heaven’s Gate today is Cimino’s ban of animal protection during the shoot of the film; from cock-fighting to falling horses, there’s a number of moments on-screen to make sensitive viewers flinch. Similarly, there’s a rape-scene that’s also hard to watch, involving bordello-owner Ella (Isabelle Huppert). The scene is of-a-piece with the tough feel of the film and is anything but gratuitous in terms of the plot, but the sexual politics of the film are intended to repel. Ella is any man’s woman, and seems undecided about whether to shack-up with cold-eyed killer James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) or even colder-eyed killer Nathan D Champion (Christopher Walken). Despite the poster-art below, Gone with the Wind this is not; the relationships couldn’t be more squalid, and involvement levels are knowingly diffused by the nihilistic qualities displayed by the main characters. Cimino wasn’t interested in selling toys or theme-parks here.
But elsewhere, Heaven’s Gate soars with a poetic, lyrical view of the Old West in Johnson Country, with bustling settlements, stunning snow-capped mountains, epic battle-scenes and plenty of surprises, running from a couple of electrifying speeches at Harvard (from Jospeh Cotton and John Hurt) to a roller-skating interlude with Jeff Bridges, plus Mickey Rourke dying quite a death and even Willem Dafoe’s supposedly in here somewhere. The look and feel of the film is unique, with some cherishable images and plenty of imagination in the compositions; Cimino’s interest into shooting holes in people, and shooting his film through holes in objects, is a constant.
Cimino must have known that audiences wouldn’t take to the dour un-romantic triangle at the centre of the film any more than they’d embrace the two throw-away scenes at the ending which betray everything the film seems to have been working up to. But this is one of the last gasps of auteur cinema, and the film more than delivers the massive, angry, confused, intense polemic that Cinino intended. It’ll never be loved, or even respected, but Heaven’s Gate is an unlovely masterpiece, an important, historically-inaccurate, creatively untethered film about what’s wrong with America, and one the slipped into exactly the kind of soulless nowhereland that the film-maker tries to describe here. It’s a mammoth, exhausting film that, in this full version and with some provisos, is well worth recommending as the greatest American film you’ve never seen.