Film Review Of Heavenís Gate (1980)

Copyright © by Joe Valdez, 9/28/07

Joe's website: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/


  In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the 1870 graduating class of Harvard College - including James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) - are bid a speech by their class orator (John Hurt), in which he refutes the high minded ideals laid down by the reverend doctor of the university, and merely advises his classmates to rise no further than each of them are capable.

  Twenty years later, Averill arrives by train in Casper, Wyoming, having transported an immigrant woman to St. Louis for hanging. Averill is sheriff of Johnson County, and considers settling for a new line of work. He learns that the names of 125 settlers, suspected thieves and troublemakers have been put on a death list, marked for assassination at the hands of the local cattle association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston).

  One of the hired guns, a cold blooded killer named Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) is already roaming the countryside, hunting down immigrants who have turned thief in order to survive. Averill returns to his pastoral home, where his girlfriend Ella Watson (Isabelle Hupert) is a bordello madam.

  In the perhaps the best sequence in the film, Averill accompanies Ella to the town reception hall - Heavenís Gate - and after taking a spin on rollerskates and dancing, he asks her to leave town, not wanting to tell her that sheís on the list. Champion turns out to be one of her clients, and with the protection of his men (Geoffrey Lewis, Mickey Rourke) he offers to take her away as well. Ella refuses to leave.

  Averill and his saloon owner friend (Jeff Bridges) assemble the Polish, German and Ukrainian townspeople to let them know assassins are on the way. Three of the goons make their way to Ellaís place and rape her. Averill dispatches the men with his pistols, and Champion rides out to Cantonís camp and puts a bullet in the forehead of the man responsible. After much debate, the town decides to back Averill and Champion and fight.

  Writer-director Michael Cimino approached United Artists to finance a western called The Johnson County War. He had originally submitted it to the studio in 1971, before Cimino had even earned his first screen credit, and was turned down. After directing the Academy Award winning Best Picture The Deer Hunter, Cimino had the cache to make whatever he wanted, and UA agreed to a budget of $7 million.

  As the film went into production in Montana, the U.S. was in the grips of a bleak economic recession. The filmís budget soared, eventually hitting $35 million, and debate intensified in the press over how a movie could cost a sum that outrageous. Cimino didnít help matters, making belligerent comments following the success of The Deer Hunter, and refusing to compromise his vision.

  Heavenís Gate fell with a thud at its New York premiere in December 1980, and after being called an ďall-out disasterĒ by Vincent Canby of the New York Times, Cimino agreed to recut it. A two and a half hour version rolled out in April 1981, but by then, no one was in the mood to review what was left of the movie. What got reviewed was the phenomenon of inflation, and the judgment of the multinational conglomerates who now ran the film studios. The film flopped and accelerated the sale of United Artists to MGM.

  In December 1982, Ciminoís 3 hour 39 minute version - which no one outside the New York premiere had been allowed to see - was broadcast on the Z Channel in L.A. The underground consensus was that studio interference had prevented audiences from seeing what Cimino had in mind.

  In terms of vision, Heavenís Gate has no peer. The writing, cinematography, casting, musical score and editing come together to produce some of the most haunting, brilliant imagery ever devoted to celluloid. Even with an epic running time, this is a masterpiece. The lyrical beauty on display here is approached by few other films.

  Expecting monumental excess, I was surprised by how rich the screenplay was. Cimino crafted character and dialogue of real pathos and complexity. The pace is not rushed, but I wasnít in a hurry for it to be. Vilmos Zsigmondís lighting is his most striking ever, the Rocky Mountain locations are gorgeous, and Ciminoís eye as a visualist surpasses just about any director working at the time. The majority of the film is composed of majestic tracking shots, and even a Cimino hater would have to admit that the picture looks stunning.

  The film visualizes the west in a way I imagine it actually was; crowded and sparse, dirty and clean, violent and peaceful, ugly and beautiful. Itís an idyllic place, and a place built on genocide, sometimes with the approval or active participation of the U.S. government. With this depth of field and contrast, Heavenís Gate towers over other westerns.

  The cast featured no stars, but the roster of talent involved - Kristofferson, Walken, Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Sam Waterston, Mickey Rourke, Richard Mazur - does outstanding work. Thereís not a bad or wasted performance here. Cimino gives the actors space to find their characters and to perform, and all of them deliver memorable work.

  No film I can think of recreates a bygone era with the detail and scope of this film; not Gangs of New York, not anything designed with the benefit of computers. Cimino may have been fiscally irresponsible hiring so many more extras than his original budget permitted, but at least theyíre put to tremendous use. The money is on the screen.

  The climactic siege may be the least interesting thing in the film, but Heavenís Gate is still up there with Sam Peckinpahís Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid and Ridley Scottís Blade Runner; misunderstood and maligned box office failures that in their restored condition - and with time for audiences to catch up with them - rank among the best movies ever made.

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