In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week in honor of spring being right around the corner, we’re doing number 98: Heaven’s Gate — directed by Michael Cimino. As always, there will be spoilers.
Heaven’s Gate is a term I hear referenced occasionally in all sorts of context, but I wasn’t sure why until I made it to number ninety eight on this list. The relative placement of this film within the top one hundred is appropriate, it made the cut but just barely, a clear indication of it’s polarizing position in the history of American cinematic greatness.
When I first looked up the movie to see where it was streaming I Googled “Heaven’s Gate” and saw most results were related to a the infamous cult of the same name that was founded five years before the movie was released in 1981, and ended with a mass suicide at the bequest of the cult leader in 1997. After narrowing the search to the film I saw the run time according to the Google summary was over five hours. and it was described as a “romantic western”.
I was relieved to learn the director was Michael Cimino, the man behind The Deer Hunter which I really enjoyed, and that in reality the film was only a manageable three and a half hours. I then wandered down the results page and saw that for the last forty years that have been two schools of thought: one is that Heaven’s Gate is an aberrant failure and representative of directorial hubris gone dismally awry, and two, Heaven’s Gate is a magnificent film that was unfairly panned by critics and misunderstood by the philistine masses before it had a chance to prove it’s worth.
Also, the budget was huge and it’s considered a historic financial flop that would forever taint Cimino’s career.
With that in mind, I started the film.
I’m an employee of Harvard University and a lifelong New Englander so I’m always excited to see scenes set at the university, which is where this movie opens. Except, it’s definitely not Harvard and the film crew seems to think that any Cambridge will do. I know I’m splitting hairs but it was the first paper cut in a long series of wounds the film slowly inflicts.
Anyway, there’s a group of boys graduating in 1870 into a world where they have every advantage — there’s drinking, fighting, bonding, and transformation before we jump from the east coast to the western territories of Wyoming. Here, the gang is separated and no longer united by collegiate crimson ties. A two sentence plot description: European homesteaders are buying land, moving west, and the established cattle barons are threatened by their numbers and growing autonomy. They accuse the immigrants of stealing their livestock (which is occasionally true if they are starving and need to sustain their families) and establish a “kill list” of the settlers which will eventually lead to the real life Johnson County War, where the hired guns of the cattle barons work to besiege and try to stamp out the settlers.
I’ll start with what I liked about the movie — there were times that the camera work was joyful and used a mechanism of the story. Specifically, an early scene when the enforcer for the elite, Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) shot a livestock thief through a sheet and we watch him stroll away unbothered through the bullet hole. I also was entranced and delighted by the roller rink scene and bluegrass band jamming as the citizens forget their troubles and roll around in unusual delight. During the battle, I was impressed by Cimino’s choice to occasionally pull back from the grind and gore of combat to show how minuscule the battle is in the context of the rising Rocky Mountains behind them. It gives a unique to perspective to the scene that is judicious and tasteful in way that most directors shy away from in these moments — to me it says “look at the vast Earth and beauty of this land, which is bountiful enough for all to sustain themselves — why then do these people slaughter each other?”
I imagine that was part of Cimino’s intent when crafting the film — a rebuke of capitalism and the sanctioning of murder by the government on behalf of the capitalists. It’s interesting to see the same insults (“Go back where you came from”) and questions of who rightfully belongs in the country as a qualified citizen continue to ravage the same American west where this war was fought over a century ago. The lovable drunk, Billy Irvine (John Hurt) is in the room as the cattle barons agree to establish the “kill list” and he reluctantly agrees to the plan before telling the hero of the movie and his old Harvard pal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) that he is “a victim of our class James”. This is the most memorable moment and line in the film for me personally — an callous selfishness where the murderer claims the role of the victim and an apt metaphor for much of American society which consistently comes to odds over who is to blame and who is the most injured by our economic policies. Billy suggests that he is forced into amorality by a need to maintain his status and superiority over the meek, huddled, masses of Europeans seeking salvation in a new land.
What didn’t work for me — the film is to dingy and too long and I wanted to care more about the characters than I did. In all honesty, I was bored throughout most of the movie, struggling to follow the meandering plot and know who to care about. I read reviews including Roger Ebert’s one and half star evisceration of the piece and Richard Brody’s defense of the film — claiming it to be ahead of its time and then unjustly panned by know-nothing populists (classic Brody tbh). I was honestly relieved reading Ebert’s review and there was more than once where the thought “Oh good, it’s not just me” went through my head, specifically when he said,:
Cimino also shoots his picture in a maddening soft focus that makes the people and places in this movie sometimes almost impossible to see. And then he goes after the colors. There’s not a single primary color in this movie, only dingy washed-out sepia tones.
It is so incompletely photographed and edited that there are times when we are not even sure which character we are looking at. Christopher Walken is in several of the Western scenes before he finally gets a close-up and we see who he is. John Hurt wanders through various scenes to no avail. Kris Kristofferson is the star of the movie, and is never allowed to generate enough character for us to miss, should he disappear.
I also had a hard time keeping track of who was who and why they were saying what they were saying. The whole experience felt like both way too much and not enough. Why weren’t there more interesting portrayals of the immigrants, which could have been the heart of the story? Why were we supposed to accept certain absurdities as if this were a science fiction film and yet other non-critical details are drilled over and over again that it almost felt like we were being set up for some kind of foreshadowing that never pays off? In all honesty, I had to read the Wikipedia plot summary to even remember how the battle ended and I watched this movie two days ago.
Brody asks, “would the internet have saved Heaven’s Gate?” and while that’s possible, I think the comparisons he draws to Terrence Malick and Goddard are beyond generous. Those filmmakers took similar risks, yes, but they execute better with less hamfisting. I’m apathetic about the film, and I do wonder if it’s the type of movie that could grow on me if I watched a second time now that I know what to expect, who everyone is, and that I should turn up the brightness of my TV. But, I probably won’t do that, because the idea of getting myself to fire up Heaven’s Gate a second time is a bit unrealistic. While it’s not quite the abject abomination that many have claimed it to be, it failed to do for me what is the most basic task of any entertainment, it never made me care.