Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is more than a movie; since its release in 1980, the title and legendary extravagances of the writer/director have become synonymous with Hollywood failure.
The film’s cost and extremely poor box office are blamed for the collapse of United Artists, a debacle chronicled by author Steven Bach in Final Cut.
Now, when a summer blockbuster can easily cost more than $150 million dollars, and some bomb miserably, the brand on Heaven’s Gate seems unfair. Cimino’s film deserves to be seen with fresh eyes, and this superb restoration from Criterion makes that possible.
The story itself is simple. Lawman Kris Kristofferson stands up to regulators hired by the big cattle ranchers to wipe out the incoming tide of immigrant farmers, leaving the grazing land free. Based on the real-life 1892 Johnson County War, the film focuses on the struggle of the poor people who built the new West, despite all odds.
It’s a lyrical, liquid film, with an easy pace that is not the norm for a Western, and that’s the problem. Always beautiful, the film effuses an energy that’s too serene, even when punched with violence.
Heaven’s Gate has a traditional “journey” structure as we follow Kristofferson, but the film often feels like a staid portrait, as it never truly engages us. The scenes stand alone, without dramatically connecting to one another. The pieces are amazing, but they
Stunningly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, Heaven’s Gate remains a work of beauty and astonishing period detail. The expense of those details got Cimino in dire trouble, but he made his film his way. The bonus material highlights interviews with Kristofferson and composer David Mansfield, plus archival audio interviews with Cimino and producer Joann Carelli.
To sit and watch Heaven’s Gate is to revel in its strengths and perhaps forgive its weaknesses. This film is no throwaway, because the dedicated work of all involved is evident in every frame, even when the drama falters. Cimino tried to paint an enormous canvas and ultimately failed, but others have done a lot worse. This special edition should encourage folks to give this unjustly notorious film the second chance it deserves.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director with more than 25 produced movies to his credit. He is the author of The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.