Heaven's Gate has become the cautionary Hollywood tale of the excessive and the unrestrained. I need not recount such a legendary tale of the artistic coriolis effect spinning around the toilet of business when it's become such gargantuan story, but needless to say it deserves its legend. If you don't know the story, I highly recommend the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate and the Steven Bach book it's based on Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists! Needless to say the cautionary tale and the legend are both true. Writer/ Director Michael Cimino's vanity piece ballooned to over three times its original budget. In 1979 forty million was no small slice of change, especially when the finished product was decidedly noncommercial, harder to watch than one of those Boar Hunting videos and the final audience was less than that of TV's Manimal!
Yes... it's safe to say that the legend of Heaven's Gate, all that went wrong with it, all of the self-indulgent inclusions, all of the ego, all of the allegations of animal cruelty, all of the shattered careers, all of the truth about the destruction of the once independent and virile United Artists, all of the sarcastic and mean-spirited reviews and the fact that a compost-heap of those reviews were really quite true... all of this precedes Heaven's Gate. It's become shorthand for overwrought vanity pieces and vastly big budget disasters we can see coming from seven hundred million miles away.
When a director gets too much power, takes too long to deliver or skyrockets the budget into the realm of the unbelievable, studio executives (and the press) commonly declare "Looks like we've got another Heaven's Gate on our hands! When Costner's expensive post-apocalyptic adventure Waterworld water-ballooned way beyond its budget it was even savagely nicknamed "Kevin's Gate"! When Cimino himself exceeded the budget of Footloose in four months of preproduction with scarcely anything to show for it, Paramount famously fired the man and replaced him with another director, declaring that the couldn't afford their own Heaven's Gate!
Knowing all of this preeminent gossip and easily verifiable Checked Facts, it's easier than a piece of some strange, unholy blend of Cake and Pie (we'll call it... "Pike") to presuppose that Heaven's Gate sucks toes. The truth is... it's not so good. I'm admitting that right now. Knowing what happened behind the scenes is bad enough, but the self-satisfied sense of entitlement and masturbatory self-congratulation and epic intent is smeared across virtually every frame. However, Heaven's Gate is also, quite honestly, and I admit this begrudgingly, not that bad either and even with said frame-tainting, it is as true as it is hard to admit that every frame is beautiful to look at!
Cimino brings this color film into a vaguely sepia-tinged Western postcard where every still image looks like it belongs in a museum. It should, of course, as Cimino reportedly demanded over fifty takes of each scene and wasted more time than Congress waiting for clouds he liked to blow into camera range, but hey... credit where due, dude.
The story itself (a fictionalized account of real people in Wyoming leading up to a chapter in American History known as The Johnson County War) is easy enough to follow. It's the individual, episodic units within this film and how they fit together that becomes incomprehensible. Cimino might blame this on the fact that his original cut was around five hours and twenty minutes long and this "mere" three hour and thirty-nine minute cut doesn't represent his TRUE vision (ha ha), but I can't imagine more of Heaven's Gate would necessarily be better! Another black (or would that be "Sepia") mark against Heaven's Gate is the sound. In his zeal to make a realistic experience, Cimino seems to have elevated ambient noises to the forefront so that the actual (often key) dialogue is buried beneath other conversation, background sound and unrelated audio clutter.
On one hand the acting can be really quite fascinating and many of the actors are well-cast. Kris Kristofferson is believable as both the gritty Marshall and the ivy-league gentleman that make up the dichotomy that is James Averill. the surprising choice of French actress Isabelle Huppert to play prostitute and Madame Ella Watson actually works out pretty well, considering, and hers is one of the easier to understand accents in the varied cast (she also looks great naked, a fact that both she and Cimino appear to be well aware of). Fresh from his Oscar win on The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken is excellent as Nate Champion, Averill's rival for Ella's affections and the proverbial good guy on the wrong side of a difficult issue (he finds himself an enforcer for the evil cattle ranchers holding a death list for over a hundred Johnson County denizens). Richard Masur even gives one of the best performances of his career as Train Conductor Cully and Jeff Bridges is great, as always, as the noble and sincere John L. Bridges (renamed from his original character's name so that Jeffy-boy could portray an actual ancestor of his from the area - true story).
On the other hand you've got major parts that are so arbitrarily cast, I have to wonder if Cimino was just trying to needle UA. While certainly a good actor, Sam Waterston plays the clichéd guy in the black hat, Frank Canton and, let me tell you, Sam Waterston is about as convincing as an Old West villain as Darth Vader would be as a Ballerina! John Hurt's role as Billy Irvine could be argued as vital to the plot, but he hangs around for most of the story adding almost nothing but brief quips, stretched out sporadically throughout the excessive runtime probably just because he is John Hurt. (Amazingly Hurt's character was apparently in even MORE scenes, but had to be cut to allow him to leave for the production of The Elephant Man. I have to wonder what the hell else he had to say.)
After a while, Heaven's Gate starts to look like a who's-who of late 1970s Hollywood as recognizable actors pop up in small, underdeveloped roles that do little, if anything, to advance the story without convoluting the hell out of it even further. One of the most noteworthy, yet still easily cut-out with no noticeable difference, of these would be smiling Mickey Rourke, Genius, who plays Nick Ray, who... um... exists, I guess. Good old Geoffrey Lewis pops up to play dirty-ass "Trapper Fred" for seemingly no reason but to pump a little Irony into the story. Brad Dourif's Mr. Eggleston shows up for just enough screen time to make us all say "Hey isn't that that guy who was in that movie that time?" Similarly, the "he looks familiar" prize might fall on such actors as Joseph Cotton and Ronnie Hawkins while, on the flip side, one might be shocked to find Willem Dafoe as an extra and a very hairy Terry O'Quinn in a very early (and memorable) role. Then again, should one sit through the credits (all eight minutes of them), one might utter the words "Dude, Tom Noonan was in this thing? Did I fall asleep?"
Well, if you did fall asleep, you wouldn't be alone. This is one overlong, ponderous Ponderosa with every major plot point designed to look and feel important, even (and especially) when they make no sense whatsoever. Take note, true believers, much like Zardoz before it, Heaven's Gate, the story of Nefarious Cattle Barons sending out hooligan death squads to kill immigrants on disputed land for allegedly stealing Cattleman Association cows (whether they did or not), comes off as so very self-important and haughty that it seems to want anyone in the audience who doesn't get or appreciate each pretentious element to feel incredibly stupid. The condescending adage "Oh, you didn't like it? Then you didn't GET it!" is tattooed on every frame.
Still, while this film certainly gained a strong and long-lasting legacy, it was probably the exact opposite legacy that Michael Cimino and United Artists had hoped for! In truth, there are a lot of stale-crust crumbiness in this film. The surprise is that taking just what we see on screen and forgetting the rest, it's really not all that bad and manages to be beautiful in places, shocking in others and amazing quite often !This is especially in the surprisingly adept score of newcomer David Mansfield, who had been hired as an actor, but expanded into the role of the film's composer when schedule overruns caused Johnny "Star Wars" Williams to drop out and Ennio "The Good, The Bad & the Ugly" Morricone literally fell asleep during the meetings for this movie. Amazingly, the score is one of the best parts of the film and worth hearing all its own.
Yes, Heaven's Gate is an incredibly expensive flop, only made profitable in that it forced Transamerica to unload the suddenly ailing United Artists to MGM. Ironic indeed. At some point, once the cobwebs of the cautionary tale and the prime example of why artistic freedom (while the primary force behind movies) can't always supersede the business sensibilities that fund it, have all been swept aside the surprise might no longer be what went into Heaven's Gate to drag it down, but what comes out of Heaven's Gate to keep it from being a complete disaster (artistically, anyway). It's nowhere near great, but it's also not all that bad, earning somewhere between Two point Five and Three Stars out of Five. It could be fun to continue to give "El Cimino" the black eye he may well deserve for creating this self-satisfied "Epic", originally slated at a bit over seven million bucks, expanded to 11.5 million and finally exceeding 44 Million (with estimates of a final post-production and advertising included tally of 52 million dollars) that only pulled in, and this is true, folks, $3,484,331 in gross revenue. Yes, it flopped bigger than Catwoman and even Ishtar... but, hell... there really are some good parts.
This review has just gone over budget and overtime, so I'm signing off and I'll see you in the NEXT reel!!!
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