Canon Entry - Heaven's Gate (1980)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Heaven’s Gate has been overshadowed by its reputation as one of the biggest box-office bombs ever. It was a revisionist Western when the Western was supposedly going out of fashion. It was apparently plagued with tons of production problems, mostly instigated by obsessive director Michael Cimino’s outrageous demands such as to tear down a whole set because he didn’t like how the buildings were spaced out, even though they had been built to his specifications. It is also apparently responsible for killing the auteur driven 70’s as well as its studio United Artists.
The more that I have read about the story however, the more I feel the myth didn’t hold up. For one thing, Heaven’s Gate wasn’t even United Artists’ most expensive picture. It was mainly guilty of being more expensive than originally planned. Also, westerns were far from dead as the 80’s and even the 90’s would be host to be many big budget Westerns such as Silverado, Young Guns, Pale Rider or, hell, even Back to the Future III. Even if you made the argument that the general public didn’t have the appetite for big period epics with Marxist leanings, Reds came out just a year later and was a critical and commercial success.
Despite all the lore I heard around this movie, I thought it was a masterpiece. Taking place at the end of the 19th century, the movie focuses on Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), an educated man who has been appointed marshal of Johnson County, Wyoming. The country is flooded with immigrants who are being taken brutal advantage of by the cattle barons who want to use the land for their own profit, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). They put out contracts on 125 undesirables, “criminals,” who are really just innocent immigrants who are unfortunately in the way of their progress. Averill finds himself stuck in the middle of this class conflict while at the same time, he is in a love triangle with a bordello madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), an enforcer for the barons.
It is clear that Cimino is not telling a simple underdog tale, of the poor vs. the rich, or rather, that he is not satisfied telling just an underdog tale. For one thing, technically, Averill, on whom most of this movie rests, is not an underdog. The movie starts with Averill at his Harvard graduation ceremony (nearly 20 min. long), clearly a product of wealth and privilege and could easily make his world his oyster. Kris Kristofferson has to get a lot of credit for his performance. Though he plays the stereotypical white savior role, he restrains himself from any impassioned, self-glorifying speeches, a lesson that Kevin Costner very definitely did not take for his own revisionist Western, Dances with Wolves. He is more quiet and conflicted, thrust into his position unwillingly and not sure about how to negotiate between the opposing forces.
Cimino is more concerned with giving as vivid and lush a portrait of American society as possible. To serve this end, this movie is host to some of the most stunning cinematography I have ever seen. Cimino and Vilmos Zsigmond of Deer Hunter and Close Encounters fame love magic hour more than Michael Bay does, making the stunning landscapes, of which there are many, take on a sepia tone, placing them firmly in the land of myth and dreams. Even indoor scenes such as in the Heaven’s Gate roller rink have this same tone, giving a marvelous visual consistency in this film. This movie may have gone over budget, but I think every cent appears on screen.
There are definitely parts of this movie that could have been cut out. The Harvard commencement scene could have been hinted at in flashback, or even cut out at entirely, with Averill merely mentioning Harvard in some random conversation. Yet showing Harvard, and specifically, when its student body was exclusively male, sets up the boys’ club that will be the main villainous force in the movie. Or perhaps the love triangle with Isabelle Huppert. Not that Isabelle Huppert wasn’t good in this film, but the love triangle with her, Averill and Champion is underwritten, and she is not given enough so that we can feel with which man her affections lie. However, her character is Averill’s and Champion’s connection to the disenfranchised, especially when her life is among the 125 named. In fact, any scene that seems to value the spectacle over the content could probably have been pared down, but any substantial cut would be valuing the story over the epicness of the film.
And it is the epicness that Michael Cimino is going for. In the films I have seen of Cimino’s, masculinity seems to be the main concern. In his entertaining Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the real star of that movie is the relationship between Jeff Bridges’ and Clint Eastwood’s characters and how those two men seek an understanding in professions that don’t naturally foster closeness among men. In The Deer Hunter, the bonds of brotherhood and friendship are tested to the absolute limit against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and the breaking of these bonds is perhaps the worst condemnation of all of that very misguided and senseless conflict.
Cimino took this theme because he keenly saw how that same sense of masculinity and the entitlement that it entails had shaped the fabric of American society and how its worst excesses could destroy the lives of innocent people. The story had to be epic to show how wide-reaching destructive this influence was and everything else about the movie had to reflect the ambition of his ideas. Cimino most definitely was a pain in the ass and extremely demanding, but time has proven that he had a story worth telling and a film that told the story he wanted in a befittingly grandiose manner.