Review: The director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate

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Review: The director's cut of Heaven's Gate

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.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_109927” align=“alignright” width=“270”] Blog­ger in Glac­ier National Park[/caption]

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.

Bridges’s tent is the only con­nec­tion with the movie and its title.

Genius.

John Ruberry reg­u­larly blogs at Marathon Pun­dit.

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.

Blogger in Glacier National Park

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.

Bridges’s tent is the only connection with the movie and its title.

Genius.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.