By John Ruberry
Over the last few years I’ve been encountering snippets here and there about how that 1981 movie bomb, Heaven’s Gate, was in fact, a better film than the reputation that surrounds it.
After the success of The Deer Hunter, which gained him a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar, Michael Cimino, the director, was essentially given a blank check for Heaven’s Gate, a movie loosely based on the Johnson County War, a series of skirmishes and lynchings in late 19th century Wyoming between cattle barons and homesteaders. That “war” has been served as the central plot, or the backdrop, of many novels and movies, most notably Shane, one of the greatest Western films. The novel is pretty good too.
The story behind the Heaven’s Gate debacle goes back to The Deer Hunter. After the Vietnam War epic’s success, Cimino was deemed a genius by the movie intelligentsia. And Cimino believed it, and that was his harmatia, his Greek tragic flaw. So Cimino needed to film another epic–one bigger and greater not only than Heaven’s Gate, but one that would surpass any cinematic achievement. Even greater than Citizen Kane, which is why he probably cast Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles’ friend and rival in that masterpiece, to be part of the useless graduation scene you’ll learn about later. Filming costs of Heaven’s Gate were about $44 million, an astounding amount for its time. The box office receipts were a paltry $3 million. Cimino’s “genius” was his undoing.
So last week on the Starz Westerns channel I endured the 3 hour and 40 minutes long directors cut of Heaven’s Gate. And do you know what? Cimino’s Battlefield Wyoming deserves its tawdry reputation.
While westerns aren’t as popular now as they were in the mid-20th century, studios keep making them. The popularity of the genre centers on three things. The expansion of America and freedom is the theme of many westerns, and that plays into the second element, gorgeous cinematography with wide open vistas of plains and mountains. Or Monument Valley, as you’ll see in many John Ford films. The third component is the struggle of good and evil. George Steven’s Shane has all of those pieces.
I didn’t see the original release of Heaven’s Gate–few did–but I’ve read that Cimino, who died in 2016, cleaned up some of the overuse of sepia. But like a stained diaper, there is only so much you can do to remove the brown. But Cimino couldn’t airbrush the smoke and dust that he purposely threw onto many scenes. You see, Cimino, like many directors of revisionist westerns, wanted to demystify the Old West. “It wasn’t beautiful, the West was ugly,” he would probably reason. Then where are the manure piles? Oh, in the first brothel scene of Clint Eastwood’s vastly superior Unforgiven, the Old West is artfully deromanticized in one minute.
Most of Heaven’s Gate was filmed near Glacier National Park in Montana. And while Cimino seemed to have an indifferent opinion the Rocky Mountains, it is people he didn’t seem to care for at all. The main characters here are the members of a love triangle–yes, Deer Hunter had one too–James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). They perform well despite the flat and forgettable lines Cimino–he also wrote the script–feeds them. The Genius doesn’t care about his leads–why should the viewer?
Because this is a revisionist western, you won’t find the traditional stock characters settling Cimino’s Old West. Replacing the Midwestern farmers, the Civil War veterans, along with the occasional Swede, are a rabble of eastern European immigrants. The men seem to all wear “commie hats,” that is budenovkas, and the women, babushkas really, are adorned with black head scarves. Early in the movie the immigrants are riding on the tops of rail cars or pulling wagons by themselves, because most of these “starving” immigrants cannot afford draft animals or third class seats on a train.
It appears that Cimino was trying to remake Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin on the open range. And as for the immigrants, it’s as if a touring company of Fiddler On The Roof arrived in Montana in costume and they were hired as extras on the spot. Precisely where are these people from? Most reviewers assume they are Russian, but in some of the scenes I forced Mrs. Marathon Pundit, who speaks Russian, to watch, she picked up no Russian at all. In the first scene with a foreigner, Nathan Champion guns down cattle thief Michael Kovach (Aivars Smits) who yells out his last words, “Who are you, what do you want,” in Latvian, my wife’s first language. Later in the film his widow (Gordana Rashovich) bellows out some words in a different language–but she cried, “I love you” in Latvian after her husband was murdered. Other characters, most nameless, shout out to others in their presumably native tongues expecting everyone to understand them. Here’s the kicker–there are no subtitles. If Cimino doesn’t care about what these people are saying, why should you?
Even today there are few Latvians in Wyoming. In Heaven’s Gate there are no Chinese and no blacks, and let’s assume there were more of them in 1890 Wyoming, when most of the film is set, than there were Latvians. However, if you are black or Chinese, not being associated with this pile of buffalo chips is probably a good thing for your self-esteem.
You’ll hate Heaven’s Gate if you are an animal lover. Four horses were killed during filming and there is an actual, not staged, cock fight.
The plot of the movie, such as it is, involves the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s decision to execute 125 people, mostly immigrants, who the big honchos claim are cattle rustlers. The conflict ends in a long battle obscured by dust clouds, where the immigrants in wagons–a babushka militia–repeatedly circle the US Army. As if they were Indians. I guess there is some irony there. Then again, maybe not. One wagon ends up in a creek and of course the wreckage is surrounded by dust.
Heaven’s Gate begins in 1870 at Harvard University as Averill and his friend, William C. Irvine (John Hurt), who appears, always drunk, here and there later in the film, graduate. The Harvard scene, filmed for whatever reason in England, is 20 minutes long and all that it establishes is that Averill knew this minor character twenty years prior. If that makes no sense to you, the ending, set on a yacht in 1901 off of Newport, Rhode Island, is even more incomprehensible. In between the film is only a little better. The best scene is a musical segment in the Heaven’s Gate tent where fiddler David Mansfield, on roller skates, kicks off a roller rink dance number where the otherwise dour immigrants enjoy Cimino’s version of a hoedown. Shane made do with a traditional dance on the Fourth of July. Exactly how the Europeans–remember they are starving–can afford to own or even rent roller skates is not explained. But Cimino proceeds to ruin the scene by having the proprietor of the Heaven’s Gate tent, John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges), vomit when the music stops. Averill carries Bridges off and dumps him into a wagon, while Bridges is still wearing his skates. That’s a unique way to demystify the West. On the upside for movie lovers, two future Academy Award winners, Bridges and the tambourine player in the Heaven’s Gate band, T Bone Burnett, later won Academy Awards for their work in Crazy Heart. They met during the filming of Plan 9 From Michael Cimino.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.