I saw Heaven's Gate on its opening week nearly twenty years ago. Tickets were sold in advance based on the great anticipation of seeing Cimino's long in the making follow up to his 1978 masterpiece "The Deerhunter." The reviews came in and critics trashed the film with vehemence. An influential New York film critic led the way and most critics followed suit, and the 3hr. 40-min. film was pulled from distribution. United Artists had Cimino shorten the film by about an hour and it was re-released many months later to equally horrible reviews and to dismal business. The film at that time cost about 40 million dollars (now considered low budget) making it one of the most expensive in history and Cimino had free rein on the project with endless retakes despite it being only his third film. "The Deerhunter" had also received a negative backlash based on a perceived political ideology, which was not popular. I mention all this to present a possible bias building up against Cimino. At the time I thought the film was very good and when I saw the shorter version it was still very good only less so. The film showed up again in a museum in the early 1990's. They were supposed to show the long version but they could not find an existing print. Nevertheless, seeing the film years later I now thought Heaven's Gate was a masterpiece. Finally, the long version started to appear in a few select cities, I got to see it recently and it was well worth the wait. Heaven's Gate begins with the graduation ceremony at Harvard University. Two of the graduates are Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt and we some of the flaws in their characters early on. Despite the mandate Joseph Cotton gives in his speech to the graduating class to use their education to enlighten and improve their country, many of the graduates behave as if they are part of an elite country club. The film flashes ahead 20 years to Johnson County in Wyoming. A cattle company called "the Stockholders Association" has hired poor people to shoot 125 poor immigrants claiming they are cattle thieves. Kristofferson sides with the immigrants while John Hurt is part of the Association. Although Hurt is totally against this insane action he is too ineffectual a character to do anything about it. A massacre takes place but the immigrants do well in defending themselves. A United States Cavalry comes to the rescue of the Association to allegedly arrest them after most of the damage has been done when in fact they sanctioned the mass killing. Kristofferson also suffers a great personal loss and the film ends with him years later as part of the elite class of his Harvard days married, bored, on a yacht, living but dead on the inside. This is a very complex film which is brilliant in every department such as it's themes, structure, direction, cinematography, writing, music, editing, set designs, and acting. Kristofferson, Walken, Hurt, Huppert, Dourif, Bridges, Waterston, and Cotton are all excellent portraying very complex characters. Some of the major complaints I read about this film state that is ugly to look at, incoherent, too long, that the characters make no sense and that the words are often unintelligible. In its defense, Heaven's Gate has the look of photographs of that period just as "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" did. Some of the scenes are smoky looking to suggest the industrial revolution or sometimes horses, wagons, people are passing by from all sides creating a sense of reality.(The critic who called it one of the ugliest movies ever made likes to use his thumbs a lot.) But in spite of all that, the composition of each frame and the cinematography are impeccable. The film makes a great deal of sense if you pay attention to it. Everything is not spelled out for the viewer and one has to observe closely to understand the motivations of the characters or its themes. As to its length, it is a beautifully structured piece, at times moving, poetic, exhilarating, or devastating with virtually one great scene following another. At times some of the words are unintelligible especially in some of the scenes bustling with activity. But one could understand such a cinematic film as this through its use of film language, the glances between characters or their actions. One day soon this film should be re-released in its full length so that people and critics could give it a second chance. Do not let Michael Cimino become another Orson Welles- under appreciated in his lifetime and not able to make the kinds of great films he is capable of making.
A dramatization of the real-life Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, in which a Sheriff born into wealth, attempts to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests.
March 23, 2020