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HEAVEN’S GATE (director/writer: Michael Cimino; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editors: Tom Rolf/William Reynolds/Lisa Fruchtman/Gerald Greenberg; music: David Mansfield; cast: Kris Kristofferson (Jim Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella), Joseph Cotten (Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John H. Bridges), Roseanne Vela (Beautiful girl), Richard Masur (Cully), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper), Gordana Rashovich (Widow Kovach); Runtime: 220; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Joann Carelli; United Artists; 1980)
“If you can get past its self-indulgences, somewhat ineffectual action scenes and other structural flaws in its filmmaking, it’s really quite a remarkable film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Suffers mostly from too much ambition, poor pacing, a ponderous and at times incoherent narrative that’s difficult to follow and being too long at 220 minutes. Michael Cimino’s wonderfully brilliant majestic though flawed follow up to his 1978 Oscar-winning and financially successful ”The Deer Hunter” is an arty western based on an historical incident that occured in Johnson County, Wyo. in 1890. The American critics piled on the abuse (the European critics called it a masterpiece), the public ignored it, and the studio quickly cut its length by some 70 minutes and re-released it and then withdrew it from theaters when it again failed to bring in the public. At a huge $36 to $50 million estimated budget (originally budgeted for $7 million) its financial failure busted the studio. It resulted in MGM buying out United Artists (the studio’s only hit in some fifteen or twenty years was the freakish success of the 1976 Rocky). It also ruined Cimino’s career and was the death knell to the studios giving complete artistic freedom to its filmmakers, as the 1970s Hollywood New Wave of gutsy independent filmmakers came to an abrupt end. Heaven’s Gate remains infamous as a cause célèbre film, a western made at a time when westerns were dead except for Clint Eastwood. It’s also controversial because of its treatment of a politically explosive subject: the celebration and debunking of the myth of the Western frontier. It’s a shame the American critics carried on in such a rage against the film for pointing out such things as class warfare on the frontier and how brutal were the un-American activities carried out by the upper-class cattle barons against the poor newly arrived farmer immigrants (a My Lai-type massacre). The epic film redeems itself by its emphasis on period detail (offering a masterful re-creation of frontier life), its enticing use of distance shots (thanks to the superb photography of Vilmos Zsigmond) and providing much food for thought about frontier life. It also celebrates the contribution of the European immigrant as well if not better than other westerns. If you can get past its self-indulgences, somewhat ineffectual action scenes and other structural flaws in its film-making, it’s really quite a remarkable film. The totally negative and unfair review by New York Times critic Vincent Canby is much like a public lynching or witch hunt, whereby he said “It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.” His rant carried weight and made sure the film remained buried for a long time until its eventual re-release in its original length and reevaluation by a new breed of American critics who weren’t out to impress the studio heads by doing their bidding.

It gloriously opens to an energetic graduating scene at Harvard (filmed at England’s Oxford University). The graduating class consists of the wealthy Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), Billy Irvine (John Hurt), and other ambitious young men graduating in 1870 and setting off to lead a nation by spreading culture through contact with the uncultivated as urged by the college president’s opening remarks. Class valedictorian Irvine’s address mockingly states that they see no need for change in a world “on the whole well arranged.” It then skips twenty years to 1890 in Wyoming (filmed in Montana), where Averill as a lawman learns that the cattlebreeders’ association, headed by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), plan to hire a mercenary private army to assassinate 125 European immigrants who are labeled as cattle thieves, anarchists, and killers. They offer the mercenaries $5 a day plus expenses and $50 for every other immigrant killed in addition to those charged. Averill, blackballed from the cattle growers’ organization, sticks his nose in the Johnson County Wars siding against his class; while fellow grad Irvine remains in the club and hides from the messy problem as an alcoholic. Evidently the “well arranged order” needs changing as the men see the reality of the world through their raised social consciousness, whereby the rich cattle barons have the governor and president and law on their side as they declare this unjust war on the poor immigrant farmers. Coinciding with this national moral dilemma raised is a personal story involving a love triangle. Averill as the man who has everything, also wants pretty immigrant woman Ella (Isabelle Huppert). His competition is Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), an immigrant who becomes a mercenary enforcer for the cattle barons and goes against his own people. Ella would be happy with either, but circumstances draw her closer to Champion.

The underlying violence permeating the landscape leads to a bloody dream-like ending. Then the tremendous violence is suddenly over and the American Dream continues undisturbed as if nothing much happened to upset the system. Life goes on in America in the form of unchecked capitalism, where greed is good and the God of profit is worshiped. The establishment critics such as Ebert chose to ignore Cimino’s worthwhile themes and instead saw only the filmmaking flaws and gave this noncommercial film an awful beating. It makes Cimino into a modern-day Von Stroheim figure.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”