My original review for Heaven’s Gate was one of the most scathing things I’ve ever written. I hated what I saw, but then, its images and ideas stuck with me. So did the story of its creation. Final Cut (both the book and the Trio documentary) remain among my favorite Hollywood exposes.
Also, when I first watched Gate, I had not seen The Deer Hunter, or The Masterpiece that Apparently made United Artists Think Michael Cimino Knew What He Was Doing. And I couldn’t stand it. It was a mindless, self-indulgent piece short on ideas and full of poorly thought out themes. I prefer what Cimino had in mind when he made Heaven’s Gate than when he made The Deer Hunter. So maybe, just maybe, I was wrong the first time I wrote about the film? Maybe this is secretly some sort of brilliant masterpiece that I unfairly overlooked?
Or maybe it is exactly what I thought it was – a turgid mess with no plot, no energy, and nothing in the way of intelligence? Just a scandalous waste of creative energy and the ultimate example of schadenfreude?
One common question that film critics is “does your opinion ever change?” Their answer is usually “no.” My answer is usually “it really depends.” Art is not something that only affects people once. Rediscovery of a forgotten work is par for course in the art world. And art, true art, is not static. How it affects a viewer also says as much about the viewer as it does about the work in question. So maybe a film like Heaven’s Gate is something that will affect me differently this time around.
This time around, I was able to get a sense of the plot. A Harvard graduate named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) moves to Wyoming to become the sheriff of Johnson County. This county is mostly made up of Eastern European immigrants looking for a better life. But most are desperately poor, and resort to stealing cattle to survive. Of course, the wealthy cattle ranchers lead by Frank Canton (Sam Watterston) are trying to prevent this theft, and hire a crew of mercenaries, including Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), to kill the immigrant thieves. Champion and Averill clash numerous times, over each other’s actions and over the affections of Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a French woman who runs a bordello in the county.
I am going to get the big spoiler out-of-the-way – I was wrong about one of my biggest complaints from the original review. And my being wrong makes this a much better film. I should have given the film credit, and I am sorry.
But still, Heaven’s Gate is far from a masterpiece. Huppert is woefully miscast, there are very few scenes that contain any energy (that rolling skating scene is ridiculous, even though it’s the best scene in the film), the whole idea behind it seems flawed, the immigrant dialogue (done without subtitles) is a nuisance and does nothing to make them seem human, and Cimino was still in way over his head Considering it killed his career, I still stand by my statement that this was a “waste of cinematic potential.”
This is no masterpiece and I still can see why almost everyone who watches it hates it with a passion that is rarely seen. Considering everything that went into this film, anything less than the greatest films of all time would have seemed like a let down. Cimino didn’t deliver the goods, but the odds were against him. He’s far from alone in creating expectations that could never be matched.
I said all of this in my first review. But I also said that I thought the film was ugly and that the world it presents remains closed. Watching it again, I was surprised by just how beautiful the film is and how the grand scale manages to work. The scenes could scarecely be more beautiful and the sepia tone visions actually works for the mood that Cimino is trying to convey. Think of a Ken Burns documentary and you will understand what Cimino accomplished. And Cimino even manages to craft an effective human element with his film. I was surprised how much the relationship between Averill and Watson works, and how dramatic the love triangle formed between the leads becomes. Very few films shot on the scale of Gate manage to do this, and if they do, make it seem artificial. But Cimino manages to be one of the few to find the humanity in an epic. Too bad it was with the wrong characters, making this accomplishment overlooked.
I was also wrong about the film’s “lack of thought.” Cimino was making a Western that would have resonated with today’s culture more than the culture into which it was unleashed. The whole point of the film is about how the rich view the poor as a nuisance, worthy of death. The climatic battle is not good versus evil, but the simple man versus the conglomerate. And the way it turns out is heartbreaking, because Cimino never softens the blow such fights have historically had. As I said, the fact that very few of the poor immigrants are defined properly makes this a difficult theme to assess. But Cimino was onto something; the expansion of the U.S. often overlooks the fact that it was seen as contentious by many people and lead to innumerable instances of loss and death. No one wanted to address this issue at all in Hollywood. Cimino, even if he did it incorrectly (by making us care so little about the ancillary players that their deaths mean nothing) should at least be commended for trying to do it at all.
Actually, that previous statement is the only way something like Heaven’s Gate can be evaluated – whether or not Cimino’s singular vision should be commended for trying and ultimately failing or disregarded for failing in the first place. I am always inclined to go with the former. After all, this was not a big budget epic that was created by a committee to be as mindless as possible to appeal to the masses. That film would be among the worst ever created. But Cimino had a vision and wanted to make his movie. And he succeeded, even if it was not received the way he expected.
Heaven’s Gate is a film that should be seen – multiple times, in fact, so that people can make up their minds about whether Cimino was actually on to something. I’ve never encountered a more challenging film in the time that I have been writing about the medium. I guess that means Cimino managed to accomplish something in his misguided quest for the great American Western.