Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino) 1980

Production costs: Initially $7.5 but moved up to about $50 million
Worldwide Gross: $4 to $6 million
Subsequent earnings: $1.5 million

You want to talk bombs?  This one bankrupted an entire studio!

Michael Cimino made a name for himself with his Academy Award winning film The Deer Hunter.  He was seen as the next big thing in film and United Artists jumped at the chance to produce his next movie.  Cimino came to them with the idea of a Western based on the Johnson County War.  Westerns aren’t always the most profitable genre to work in, but with the relatively small proposed budget, they didn’t see how they could lose? DUM DUM DUUUUUM

What they didn’t count on was that Cimino was a complete perfectionist.  They say on the fifth day of shooting, they were four days behind schedule.  He built entire towns to his specifications. “At one point during filming, Michael Cimino decided that the spacing of the buildings on one of the sets didn’t look right, despite it having been built to his exact specifications. He ordered both sides of the street razed and rebuilt at a cost of $1.2 million over the objections of his crew (who reasoned that it would be easier to knock down one side of the street and rebuild it twice as far away, for half the cost).(IMDb) “The final battle sequence featured in the original cut film that Michael Cimino had screened for United Artists executives is rumored to have been the length of a full length motion picture.”  He shot over a million feet of film.  Near the end, Cimino felt he needed to add a prologue at Harvard and an epilogue which cost an extra 3 million dollars.  Here is the plot summary

“Michael Cimino’s bleak anti-western based on events in 1890s Wyoming. Sheriff James Averill attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests, and also clashes with a hired gun, Nathan Champion, over the woman they both love, Ella Watson. Both men find themselves questioning their roles in the furious conflict between wealthy landowners and European immigrants attempting to build new lives on the American frontier, which culminates in a brutal pitched battle.”

The original cut of the film was 5 hrs and 25 minutes.  After the critics savaged the film and it had an opening weekend of $12,000, Cimino thought it was in his best interest to trim a little.  He cut it to about two hours but it didn’t help.  UA was panicking and tried to sell it to anyone, ANYONE who was interested.  Critics still didn’t like it and thought it was too murky and too hard to understand the dialogue.  UA was bankrupt, and it was their minor hit of For Your Eyes Only that helped them sell to MGM.  Cimino never really got another job again and while the movie has a small (tiny) cult following, it will never make its money back.  It is the bomb to which other bombs are compared to.

Is it any good?  Yeah, I like it.  I realize I am in the extreme minority here.  But for those that liked The Deer Hunter, I think it has the same feel.  With the distinction of bankrupting a studio, its hard to live down the negative press, and it does have its problems.  First, the title sucks.  Heaven’s Gate is the name of the skating rink that some of the characters go to.  What does that have to do with anything?  It only serves to confuse potential viewers.  Second, there is a problem with some of the dialogue.  The Harvard scene is the best example of it.  John Hurt goes up and delivers a speech which I can’t hear, but everyone at the graduation laughs like its Seinfeld up on stage.  Third, for most people it is too long.  I have incredible patience when it comes to movies but to everyone else, the 3hr 20 minute DVD cut will be a little too tedious.  The acting is great though and the final battle scene is cool.  It simply didn’t need to cost that much.  If UA had given him a set budget and stuck with it, this never would have happened.  The Deer Hunter cost $15 million and he didn’t go over.  Still if you are curious, you might wanna check this out.  Be warned though of everything I’ve just written.

Re-review:  People were a little surprised by my initial review like I was being generous or temporarily insane or something.  I realize this movie, while not the biggest (money wise) bomb ever, this is kind of the poster boy.  This movie bankrupted a studio, ruined the career of IMO a bright young talent, and essentially killed the artist driven movie industry of the 70’s.  This movie showed how destructive an artists ego can be and this changed from giving the director control back to a more structure studio pictures.  So yeah, I can see how it is hard to separate the real life from the movie.  But that is kind of the point of this blog.  I have now seen this near 4 hour movie three times and I still contend that it’s a good movie.  Strip away all the bullsh*t baggage and stories from the set and just focus on the movie itself, and it is good.

This movie was a little ahead of it’s time as a revisionist western.  Granted you had a few movies like The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller here and there but revisionists didn’t really hit their stride till at least the 90’s.  The movie is about a class struggle set in 1870’s Wyoming (based on the Johnson County War).  The struggle is between small immigrant landowners and the larger rancher organizations.  The law is on the side of the immigrants but the ranchers engage in ruthless tactics to get the land.  They paint the immigrants as “anarchists and thieves” and get supposed permission from the President to kill them.  The ranchers create a death list with 125 immigrants and hire a band of mercenaries for $5 dollars a day and $50 dollars for everyone on the list they kill.

In that historical context we get our more personal story of Sheriff Averill (Kris Kristofferson).  He is someone (vaguely alluded to) probably born of money however he rejects that for a simple life.  He is content to live a small life in this immigrant community with a local prostitute Ella (Isabella Huppert).  The complications arise when Averill’s friend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) not only is a hired gun for the ranchers, but is caught in a love triangle with Ella.

I found this personal story very involving.  Averill is a guy who is tortured by the reality of the situation and his morality.  He really wants to reject his money background and live happily in this town.  At the same time he sees the writing on the wall and knows the immigrants have no chance in winning against the wealthy ranchers.  No matter what, the ranchers will buy their way into victory.  Because of that, Averill is trying to get Ella to move away with him probably back to the safety of his family wealth.  You also have Champion who at first you think is a bastard, but you see how much integrity he has.

The acting in this movie is great.  Kris Kristofferson has the right look and act of a grizzled stoic lawman.  While he is the most moral upstanding character he still has his flaws.  He is an emotional wreck prone to alcohol and doesn’t express himself to Ella.  I really love Walken though.  I like funny campy Walken like anyone else, but look at his work in the 70’s to see what a truly great ACTOR he really was.  I could mention Huppert’s performance but with her being nude almost the whole movie I seemed to forget how well she acted.  It’s the damnedest thing.  Also special shout out to Sam Waterson as the smarmy evil rancher.

The direction is also very good.  The movie is long, but Cimino paces things out well.  We really get into the lives of our characters and we really get to care about them and share in experience of the town.  Contrast that with some really brutal and bloody shootouts to keep the action up.  The movie is also gorgeous to look at with some iconic shots (it should for $44 million).  The movie also has the right balance of personal story combined with the larger epic and has great commentary on class warfare (literally and figuratively).  The musical score is also memorable.

Now there are still issues with the movie.  I do have some problems with the sound on this movie (I do not think it is just the DVD) where the dialog will sometimes get drowned out by the ambient noise of carriages driving by or large crowds.  Most of the time it’s not too bad but sometimes I couldn’t hear what the hell they were saying (I had to piece some things together with the Spanish only subtitles).  Also I have to hand the Biggest Waste of Space Award to John Hurt’s character.  Seriously, cut his character out; you will not miss him.  He contributes jack sh*t to the story as a whole.  Also the movie does tend to drag in the third act and ends rather abruptly.  You know what?  I have sat through 3 hours and 30 minutes of this movie.  I have invested that much time with these characters.  You can give me an extra 5 minutes to wrap things up with the characters.  No rush man.  Seriously.

I understand the running time will be the big thing keeping people from watching this movie.  It is not like I am asking you to check something out that will take only 90 minutes of your time.  For many (including me) this was an afternoon event.  I prefer to think of this movie in the same way you would a miniseries.  I think if you break it up into more palatable chunks this movie will resonate better with you than a 3 ½ hour grind.  Sorry, for all it’s faults and the stories behind the production, I still have to admit I really like this movie.  I am not ashamed to own it and if you love revisionist westerns you might work up the courage to rent it one of these days.


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