Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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It is of course impossible to separate the film Heaven’s Gate from the story behind it: the hubris and extravagance of its director that sank a studio with the films critical and financial failure. Whenever budgets of movies start to spiral upwards and films fail at the box-office, there is nearly always some aside or reference towards Michael Cimino’s film.  Its almost a given, in decades of film reviews and film commentary, as a shorthand for describing a film-maker running amok with a spiralling budget that results in a financial meltdown.

Certainly the story behind the scenes is more interesting than anything actually on the screen. The root concept follows a very typical  ‘seventies anti-establishment agenda, debunking the myth of the American Dream via the true story of immigrants being slaughtered by rich cattle barons who are abetted by the political establishment. Its a story full of potential that is, bafflingly, utterly wasted by Cimino; the most remarkable thing about this film is what he gets so wrong with a tortuous, vacuous script without any involving characters or pacing. I’d hazard a guess that this film was dead in the water at script stage. Maybe Cimino tried to save it by making it so big, so enormous.

From the very start its clear that this is a film in Epic mode that is quite completely out of control. Cimino certainly had a wild time with his blockbuster movie play-set. A prologue is set in 1870 in Harvard, where students graduating full of hope in America’s post-civil war future are given a speech by one of the college leaders about their responsibility in the outside world, how they must use their education and influence to better the lot of their country and its people. Its a final lesson lost on deaf hears, and is clearly intended to be a foreboding for what will follow but its importance is lost, overshadowed by a subsequent huge extravagant sequence of dancing and festivities that is wildly excessive and really quite unnecessary.

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We cut to some twenty years later, and one of those students, James Averil (Kris Kristofferson), now a Marshall, is on a train arriving at Casper, Wyoming. Disembarking, Averil finds the chaotic town full of European immigrants who have come in search of the American Dream, and noticing lots of hired guns in town, stumbles upon the schemes of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. This is a group of wealthy landowners and businessmen with various East Coast interests who are intent of ridding themselves of these immigrants by drawing up a death list of said immigrants and hiring gunmen to do their deadly work. It is clear the Establishment, right up to and including the President, sanctions this operation and the hired guns are abetted by the Army. If this were a normal film, we would be maybe fifty minutes into it with the dramatic events shortly to unfold, but no, this is Heaven’s Gate– its taken over two hours to get  even this far. Its long, long, long, and frankly interminable.

Now, I don’t mind long films, but this is so badly paced it feels endless. Scenes go by seemingly forever at such a funereal pace it makes 2001 look like a Transformers movie. Many of the scenes, long as they are, are utterly redundant. Much of it is frankly incomprehensible. There are too many dialogue scenes in which we cannot even understand the dialogue.There is a frenzied town meeting late in the film where the immigrants all get together to discuss what to do with the gunmen soon to arrive. They shout and argue and scream and yell at each other in foreign languages making it impossible to understand what they are saying, or who each of them are. I was incredulous at this point. I could not believe what I was watching. There is zero viewer involvement here, its just baffling what Cimino was trying to achieve/say here. Likewise whenever there is any kind of action in the film, its so clumsily shot and edited its hard to ascertain what’s even going on.  I’m sure I saw one person dead then alive moments later. Its such a mess.

Very little seems to move the plot forward, or establish any empathy with wholly unlikeable characters, even the poor immigrants, who we are surely intended to feel sympathy for. There are too many dialogue scenes that do and say nothing at all. They just happen, go on forever, and then end. Characters come and go, some reappear later on, some don’t. Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill is the nominal hero of the piece, but he’s an ineffectual jerk who aimlessly sulks around, drinks too much, sleeps with a whore that he is besotted with, while failing to do anything at all to halt the (eventually) unfolding horror. Its impossible to like him, and he’s supposedly the hero. What chance has any film with such a jerk in its central role?

Its almost as if the film is a lesson on how not to write a movie, cast a movie, shoot a movie, record sound for a movie, and edit a movie. I don’t think I have ever seen such a huge film staged so poorly, made so badly. Its a stinker, frankly, and deserves all the criticism it got.

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2 thoughts on “Heaven’s Gate (1980)

  1. gregory moss

    Nice work, Ian! Like you say – the background behind the making of the film is most likely more interesting than watching the film itself (although I’ve never actually plucked up the resolve to sit down and watch it – expecting the experience to be a torturous one). According to the Medved brothers, in their book The Hollywood Hall of Shame: The Most Expensive Flops in Movie History – which has a whole chapter devoted to the making of Heaven’s Gate; Cimino himself and much of the crew were coked-up to the eyeballs – as Cimino figured the production would run smoother that way – as history has shown – it clearly didn’t.

    1. I hesitate to encourage you to watch this debacle of a film but as someone interested in screen-writing etc I think you’d find it fascinating in how it does all the basic stuff so very wrong. Plot, character motivation, behaviour etc… its mindboggling. Sometimes its educational seeing how it shouldn’t be done? Anyway, worth a rental from that standpoint. If you do see it I’d be very interested to read your thoughts regards the screenplay etc.

      Whenever I moan about studios getting too involved in making movies -the troubles of Blade Runner and Alien 3 spring to mind- I always consider the disaster of Heaven’s Gate and cut the Studios a little slack. Cimino’s conduct making Heavens Gate was utterly irresponsible far as I can see.

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