A Review of Heaven’s Gate-Trying to Figure Out the Biggest Box Office Bomb of All Time

Well, here’s the big one. The biggest bomb in history. The film that single-handedly destroyed the golden age of the auteur and brought about the current blockbuster driven mentality. The film that utterly obliterated Michael Cimino’s high flying career. A film that destroyed a studio, and gave power (however briefly) to film critics? It is a film most dread to see.

And you know what? This is the only film I have seen where everything I have read about it is absolutely correct. Yes, by the way, I watched the director’s cut, the supposedly “good” version. The film is still ghastly -it is a three and a half hour film that feels like it lasts a week. I could not tell you what happens in it, who the characters are, or how they relate to each other.

But if it fails, it fails bigger than any movie I have seen. Director Michael Cimino certainly had an idea in mind and was not about to let anyone compromise whatever he had in mind – no matter the ludicrousness or dollar amount.

Basically (and I get this from reading Bach’s book) the film is basically about the Johnson County War. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a recent Harvard graduate, goes west and finds out about a plan to massacre a large immigrant community in Wyoming. Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) works for wealthy landowners who are trying to force the immigrants out. He tells Averill of the plan, and Averill, with the help of bordello owner Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), tries to find some way to fight back.

Honestly, I wanted to shut the film off after an hour. Life is short, and I had better things to do. But it is one of the principles of critiquing – you cannot review a film without seeing all of it. So, instead, I have broken down the film into the hours that I watched it.

Hour One – The film begins with a completely unnecessary prologue set at a Harvard commencement ceremony. Joseph Cotten, of both Citizen Kane and The Third Man, shows up. Right off the bat, this film shows everything that is wrong with it – individually, I can admire the Lean-ish scale (as in David Lean). But it’s all for nothing. Lean gives you the experience of entering a new, exciting world. This world remains closed to me. I am not sure why – maybe it’s because I have no connection with the people in it and do not care about what, if anything, they stand for.

Walken is so far the best part of the film – just by being Christopher Walken. Yes, he always spoke like that. In a film as lifeless as this one, that is exactly what is needed. I believe he is some sort of guard – his best scene in this hour involves him preventing the theft of a cow.

Now, I am not trying to dismiss the film based on its reputation. In fact, I can certainly admire the idea of it. Cimino wanted to make a Cimino film, and not a film that was made by a committee. But an idea is one thing – execution is something else entirely.

One more thing – most of the immigrants speak and no subtitles are provided. This works one time (when Walken is introduced by shooting a cattle rustler) but the rest is wasted because I am still not clear what it is all supposed to mean.

I actually found Vincent Carnby’s original review here and read it. Carnby (amongst his plethora of insults) seems to suggest that the problem was that no one was there to rein in Cimino and his demands. What were are seeing as the film unfolds is his ego on set, inflated to gargantuan proportions by his success with The Deer Hunter. I can by that. If Heaven’s Gate possesses one thing, it is a singular vision. But something this grand feels like it needs more. Cimino ultimately put himself into a position where he had to play every important role. No actors can really carry the material, the dialogue is not going to cut it, and the sets do not carry a good weight.  Cimino was going to either live or die by this film. Well, we all know what happened.

Hour Two- This hour introduced me to the two biggest problems I have with the film – Isabelle Huppert and roller skates. First, Huppert is woefully miscast as a Wyoming madam. She speaks with an indecipherable French accent (which fits right in with the rough American west, naturally) and doesn’t really show much chemistry with Kristofferson. In fact, her idea of chemistry is constantly taking her clothes off. Even though I can never complain about that in general, I most certainly can complain about it in artistic terms. Frankly, there are none. Also, her idea of excitement is random screaming (such as when Averill presents her with a horse as a gift). The role required a strength that I am not sure that Huppert possesses. I have not seen any of her French films; she may be a fine actress, but I would not know that by watching this.

The second is the dance scene, done entirely on roller skates. It starts with a fiddler player, and works its way to include Jeff Bridges dancing with the immigrants in a chorus line. This scene lasts for a good four minutes and accomplishes absolutely nothing, unless you like watching children fall on their backs. Actually, it is from this roller rink that the title of the film comes from. See? It all makes sense.

Actually, you know what? Here’s the scene – make of it what you will.

Honestly, the more I think about it, that skating scene may be the most lively scene in the film. It is also the most ludicrous.

Parts of the film are shot in this weird sepia tone, I guess, to make it look like an Old West photograph. I don’t know why, but a lot of scenes simply do not look good, as though they are covered with dust. I know, I know, this is supposed to be how the west was not glamorous, but Sergio Leone accomplished the same thing and his films were absolutely gorgeous in their starkness.

Hour Three- This is supposed to be the big climax, and, watching the film, I think I finally know what Cimino meant to do. Ready? He meant to make his version of The Godfather, set back 50 years. Think about it; the immigrant experience, the expansive cast, and the grand scale. If that was his goal, then I am not sure I will ever stop laughing.

What is missing here? Performances and good characterization, sure. But thinking about The Godfather now, I am not sure if modern audiences could tolerate it if it were released in its present form today.

Anyway, in hour three, we are introduced to the central conflict, which has kind of been forgotten. You know, the impending massacre and all that. Also, Walken and Kristofferson are both fighting over Hulpert. Not sure why, but that is another conflict that is finally coming to prominence. The film is starting to pick up a bit in it’s death walk pace, as it becomes clear what the characters want to accomplish.

Oh – There is an intermission. It doesn’t last long…making me think it is unnecessary. After all, I think intermissions were meant to make a film feel more like an event. That does not really happen. It was supposedly at this point that the champagne discussion took place at the premiere (in which people flat out told Cimino no one liked the film).

I do want to say this – I am glad that the director’s cut is widely available. A film like this should stand on its own. I have a feeling the two hour cut was downright incomprehensible. By this point, I know who the characters are and how they relate to each other – and what they want to accomplish. I am not sure how removing scenes would have helped that realization. Apparently, this was a film that helped popularize the term “director’s cut” (along with the vastly superior Blade Runner).

But now I am just talking trivia. What is happening in the film? Well, supposedly, a huge speech from Averill about the incoming mob that will kill the immigrants. Again the scene does not work – the reactions for everyone is standard. Every single one of the close ups are mostly people muttering or staring straight ahead. It’s like film school 101 of how to do a scene like this. This was a pivotal point of the film, and it fails. At least, for once, the lack of subtitles DOES work – their panic is shown. This sounds like a praise, but that is supposed to be step one. A truly good scene would get under the audiences skin. I am just watching it all unfold.

As the hour comes to a close, that is the mindset I am adopting. I can see what Cimino was getting at, but I know he was getting at it in the wrong way. The film still lumbers along like a man about to freeze to death in the woods. I feel myself planning out the rest of the day. None of it involves films. This one has nearly exhausted me.

Last Half Hour- From what I understand, this film has received something of a critical re-evaluation over the years. The Z Channel saved it somewhat (as shown in the fascinating Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. If you have not seen that documentary, please do so) and I think it even played at MoMA once. I think those people are just as caught up in trying to find some sort of redeeming brilliance here as people were eager to trash it upon its first release. After all, all the money spent, all the reputations ruined, everything had to mean SOMETHING.

But I am not convinced. As the film came to a close, I was exhausted and frankly angry. At least in the last half hour or so, there was some semblance of action based on what the entire film had been about. But it almost comes as too little, too late.By this point, the film has made so many mistakes that pointing out anything good feels besides the point – as though any well thought out action sequences came about as an accident.

Cimino sacrificed himself to make this film. I wish he had more to show for it. This is, truly, just a waste of great cinematic potential.

Author’s Note: OK, I complained about the lack of subtitles when the immigrant characters are speaking. However, this may not be the film’s fault. I have recently seen more scenes from it (part of that Z Channel documentary I also describe) where they are intact. So…it may be a fault of the DVD I received from Netflix. I don’t know how drastically it would change my opinion of the film, but it may not be a mistake Cimino made, thus I do not want my review to state that.

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3 Responses to A Review of Heaven’s Gate-Trying to Figure Out the Biggest Box Office Bomb of All Time

  1. Emma says:

    “The film that singlehandedly destroyed the golden age of the auteur and brought about the current blockbuster driven mentality.”

    No. Not singlehandedly. You can thank “Star Wars” and “Jaws” for today’s blockbuster mentality. But, I agree, “Heaven’s Gate” is indeed unbearable.

  2. David says:

    I saw this film when it was screened at a military base theatre in West Germany. I am quite certain that everyone in the audience saw the full-length version, as I have seen the film several times since. Supposedly there was a much shortened version originally released, but I have never seen it, or seen it offered on the big screen or VHS/DVD.

    I was very moved when I saw the film. I recalled it when I visited Ellis Island, and read the exhibits and saw the film about the miriad of people that came to this country with close to nothing but courage and determination.

    This film is about community, and the threat to creating and maintaining a community. On one hand there is a mix of cultures and languages trying to establish a place in this windblasted plains of Wyoming. Opposing this dream is the desire of those already established with wealth and priviledge to take even more of their share of the American cornocopia; their social structure has long been in place, and sees these new arrivals of poor immigrants as rivals and mortal enemies.

    Another part of this film concerns idealism, and how hard it is to maintain it against the cynical and self-serving. There is a lot of heartbreak in the film that comes from realizing the true political reality of the times, from not grabbing love when one has the chance, and from giving up on developing a personal code of ethics.

    Cynical attitudes abound in this film amonst the rich and poor alike, but no one finds comfort or solution in it. Nick Champion takes a chance on love, and lives to see Ella risk her life to come save him, although her attempt fails. His actions are the most honorable in the film, carried out by a man that may not be educated or sophisticated, but a man indeed who carries a personal code of conduct within his spirit that knows the inherent difference between right and wrong. He goes straight at anything and anyone that he thinks is doing wrong, without fear; in the end, he is killed by a coward who uses his class identity as a warrant for his actions because he has no moral compass.
    The long scenes in the film build the sense of community within the different classes; the beginning of the film shows the rich class in college, which is the beginning of their social bonds that will continue through their lives. And the scene in the roller skating rink shows the bonding of the disparate ethnic groups struggling to create a common community through joy and shared recreation.

    Is this film hard to see through the smoke and dim lighting? Yes. But does this enhance or detract from the film’s veracity?

    My love of this film comes from the depth that it gives to the experience of the American West, where everyone participated.

    • pred3000 says:

      Indeed there was a shortened version, which ran 120 minutes. It was only released in North America. From what I hear, it was incomprehensible and ended up doing more damage to the film’s reputation. I am against this sort of re-editing. A film should live (or die) on its own, and be seen as the director intended.

      I do like your comments, and I do like one aspect about the film – it goes for broke, and feels exactly like what director Cimino intended. And yes, the film does touch on all of the themes you describe – cultural differences, heartache, pain, idealism. It was a grand vision, and a fantastic experiment that I wish would be tried more often. I don’t blame people for liking this – there are some things present in the film that are admirable.

      But there is a difference between addressing those themes and doing it well. I felt that the film suffered because it simply did not know how to properly express itself. The fact that everyone participated, as you said, ends up being a problem. When the film tries to address human problems, it does not know how to do so – it’s vision is too vast to understand individual characters. Champion probably comes off as the best, but it still feels too little, too late. His scenes (particularly later scenes) are wrought with melodrama and do little to help the character. And don’t get me started on Kris Kristofferson’s non performance. The immigrants (who the drama is supposed to center around) come off as laughably cartoonish – shame too, considering the whole film is about their plight. I found it hard to sympathize with them, because I almost felt that Cimino did not want me to – he decided the film was really about Averon. Then it was about Huppert’s character. Then Champion. Then a battle. He had no focus, and it doomed the film from the start.

      Still, I have not forgotten the film, and I doubt I will any time soon. Long after the memories of summer blockbusters have faded, Heaven’s Gate will still remain. I guess that is some sort of achievement.

      Thanks for reading!

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