In his interview on the Criterion Collection release of the 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate, a craggy-looking Kris Kristofferson makes a strong appeal for the roundly maligned Western as being a potent work of political cinema. As a leftie who had been at the time going down to Nicaragua and El Salvador to see first-hand the devastation still being wrought by American imperialism, Kristofferson sticks up for Cimino’s indictment of Manifest Destiny and robber baron greed at the end of the 19th century. Of course, he did star in the thing. But still, this is the iconoclast’s take, and an unpopular coming after more than two decades of popular film history telling us that not only was Heaven’s Gate one of the greatest disasters in film history (it took in less than ten percent of the $40 million budget at the box office) but that it single-handedly ended the free-wheeling era of American filmmaking.
Kristofferson’s view is echoed in an essay in the accompanying booklet (gorgeously put-together, it must be said) by film programmer Giulia D’Agnolo, who notes approvingly the film’s cynical take on American expansionism:
“Strangely enough, when the film came out, few critics commented on its take on the historical facts. Some accused Cimino of foggy Marxism, but most preferred to forget the film’s subject, concentrating their attacks instead on its cost (roughly $40 million) and its dramatic structure, or lack thereof.”
Agnolo goes on to position Cimino’s film against a couple of its more successful contemporaries: The Empire Strikes Back, released just a few months earlier, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which hits screens the following year. She’s right in noting the “Manichean spirit” and “comic-book” nature of those films, against which Heaven’s Gate looks like a “beautiful anachronism” out of touch with the good-is-good and bad-is-bad Reagan era. Cimino’s mumbly dialogue and soft-focus cinematography does more to the previous decade’s auterist works of floaty disconnection than the jazzed-up movie-serial blockbusters that audiences were delighted to have on tap.
However, it’s wrong to suggest, as Agnolo and others have, that Heaven’s Gate is any kind of overlooked and misunderstood epic. Just because Cimino buys into a reflexively cynical worldview that served as the template for the kinds of films that studios would no longer bankroll after his epic failure doesn’t, after all, mean that his film achieves any kind of depth. There is arguably no more true complexity of thought to Cimino’s script than there is to Lawrence Kasdan’s for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The body counts are roughly the same and the villains just as one-note. The great differences are that Cimino’s heroes are much thinner on the ground and he doesn’t bother with much of a story. If this makes for a masterpiece, than there are any number of student films that might be worth taking a look at.
The script is a baggy mess of a thing loosely inspired by the Johnson County War of 1892. Just as in reality, here masses of mercenaries in the pay of a cattleowners’ association flood into a Wyoming frontier town looking to restore order. They plan to do this by executing a list of 125 “thieves and anarchists”, all with the apparent blessing of state and national politicians. On one side is Sheriff James Averill (Kristofferson), facing down the invading army of gunmen led by Frank Canton (an effectively oily Sam Waterston). But even this much of a story takes forever to emerge from the film’s murk.
The greatest sin Cimino commits here is not actually playing fast and loose with the facts. (Although far from a docudrama, his film hews closer to the rather shocking actual events than many Hollywood films would.) What he doesn’t manage to do is carve any semblance of engaging drama or spectacle out of it. Handed a story that seems to embody all the amoral bloodthirstiness and political cynicism that typified America’s Westward expansion, Cimino spends little time examining the roots of the conflict or its larger context.
First, he buries the opening in a long and ultimately pointless sequence set at Harvard in 1870, where friends Averill and Billy Irvine (a cock-of-the-walk John Hurt) are graduating. There’s something grand and thrilling about these scenes at first, with all those sons of the landed gentry pouring through the school’s grand stone hallways (Oxford, actually, but who’s checking?). Bafflement begins after a convoluted speech by Irvine whose insouciance has the students roaring and the faculty grimacing but which makes little or no sense. Confusion mounts when, later in the film, Irvine is only spotted occasionally in the shadow of Canton, calling into question why his friendship with Averill is made so notable early on.
Then Cimino cuts to 20years later out West. Just as in The Deer Hunter, he’s fascinated by the tribal ways of Eastern European immigrants, here seen flooding by the hundreds into a small Montana town. There’s something grand in Cimino’s overkill here, with his trainloads of newcomers pouring down the fresh-built streets in improbably numbers. It’s like the Lower East Side on the Prairie. Although it never singles out any of them as actual characters (one of many factors that keeps viewers at an arm’s distance here) the film will keep coming back to these immigrants, particularly in a gorgeously shot dance sequence in a gigantic roller skating rink that seems to be there only to mirror a dance scene from the Harvard sequence and to show off David Mansfield’s thrumming and ribald period score. (T. Bone Burnett can be seen jamming on the dance stand.)
If Cimino had been able to sustain that level of zeal throughout, with his impossibly beautiful bright green and blue mountainous vistas and sepia-smoked interiors (shot with particular care by Vilmos Zsigmond) and rapturous dances and celebrations, he might have had some kind of cracked masterpiece on the order of Coppola’s similarly crazed and unfocused Apocalypse Now from just the year before. Like Coppola, he also ends his film in a flurry of violence, though Cimino’s final battle—assumedly meant to be an ironic comment on Custer’s Last Stand—is so illogically chopped together that it inspires head-scratching instead of gasps of awe. Cimino is smart enough to let artists like Mansfield and Zsigmond loose to create sonic and visual vistas of aching poetry, but unable to do the same for himself.
As the film’s hero, Averill is vanishingly inadequate. Cimino is content to let him wander frowningly through the immigrant crowds and have the occasional dalliance with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the hooker with a heart of gold who’s also having a thing with one of Canton’s enforcers, Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken, alternately feral and spacey). But then, as she puts it to Averill, “I never cheated on you. I always made Nate pay,” so perhaps calling it a love triangle is a bit much. Champion’s arc is just about as confused as Averill’s, as the two of them tragically dither in the face of seemingly inevitable annihilation. The same could be said about the creatively dithering and fussy Cimino, who doesn’t seem able or willing to generate credible interactions between his characters, so obsessed he is with ensuring that, say, the type of nails being used to knock his town together were accurate to the period.
On its first release, Heaven’s Gate ran 219 minutes, the cut included on the Criterion release. After a battery of vicious reviews, United Artists released it again in a 149-minute cut that also failed to generate much interest. Its failure could easily be blamed on critics or audiences who just didn’t understand its dark critique of the American mythos. But to say that not only pretends that what’s on screen is more competent than it is, but also ignores the fact that anti-Westerns from The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)—the latter of which Cimino borrows much of his aesthetic from—had been undercutting the heroic myth of American westward expansion for years.
Sometimes, both audiences and critics get it right the first time.