Steven Bach's fascinating, maddening book The Final Cut chronicles the making and unmaking of 1980's Heaven's Gate from one of the least interesting possible perspectives: that of a United Artists executive apoplectic over spiraling costs and an arrogant director who'd clearly gone upriver and taken much of his studio's money with him. It's a little like reading an account of the Titanic from the perspective of the guy who owned the company that made the boat ("If you think it was a tragedy before just wait 'til you see what it did to our bottom line!"). Bach went on to write a stellar biography of Leni Reifenstahl that was burdened with the vanilla title Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Reifenstahl instead of my more honest and punchy proposed title: Leni Reifenstahl: Nazi Ho-Bag
Heaven's Gate helped put the final nail in the coffin of an unprecedented Hollywood Golden Age of experimentation and social consciousness that kicked off with Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider, but was a dealt a crippling blow by Jaws and Star Wars, two films that led a movement away from adult introspection in favor of escapist childhood regression. Much of the film's historic failure seems attributable to timing. If Heaven's Gate had been released the same year as The Wild Bunch, I suspect it would have been hailed as a profoundly flawed masterpiece. But when the film was released after a shoot that dragged on endlessly and went crazy overbudget, it was cited as further proof that Hollywood had finally gone too far, that yet another filmmaker gone wild had squandered a fortune pursuing his creative vision to disastrous ends.
Watching Heaven's Gate today, it's easy to see why Cimino could look at dailies and think he had a timeless masterpiece on his hands. It's equally easy to see how Bach could look at those same dailies and think he was looking at a looming financial disaster. From a creative standpoint, funding a movie like Heaven's Gate was risky. From a financial standpoint, it was fucking insane.
Writer-director Michael Cimino accrued a lot of leverage following the phenomenal success of >The Deer Hunter, another troubled, crazily ambitious epic. But I imagine that if you went to a mall and asked people whether they'd rather see a violent, depressing, visually sumptuous, nearly four-hour-long Western about a class war between ranchers and immigrants in 19th century Wyoming from the creator of The Deer Hunter or a comedy about a robot that runs for President, 99% of the respondents would opt for the comedy. I suspect that even if you limited the polling sample to Cimino's immediate family, the results would be the same.
With Heaven's Gate, Cimino went from being one of the hottest filmmakers alive to a persona non grata in show business circles. He went from the auteur of the future to dead man walking. His career and reputation never recovered from the one-two punch of the film's legendarily troubled filming and box-office death. Cimino hasn't directed a film since 1996's The Sunchasers and even that went direct-to-DVD. Rarely has a filmmaker fallen so far so fast. Cimino could have resurrected his career with 1984's Footloose, but he was fired from that gig after the shoot threatened to turn into Heaven's Gate: The Musical.
Yet today Heaven's Gate stands as a stirring testament to Cimino's superlative gift as a cinematic stylist. It's a film of rare beauty and scope, a feast for the eyes and a harrowing, unflinching meditation on the cruelty of capitalism. It rivals William Friedkin's Sorceror in its bone-deep cynicism and eviscerating take on the free market's coal-black heart of darkness. In Heaven's Gate, being poor and an immigrant is a crime punishable by death and the lives of the poor have less value than the cattle they steal to keep from starving.
The director's cut of Heaven's Gate begins with a stunning series of set pieces set at the Harvard graduation of lead Kris Kristofferson and dissolute chum John Hurt, the booze-sodden class orator and all-around cut-up. From the first frame, Cimino's roving camera goes anywhere and everywhere, panning endlessly and ecstatically across lushly orchestrated processions and a dance where the camera becomes a silent partner to the boozy, bleary graduates reveling in a hard-won sense of accomplishment. Cimino conveys in deliriously cinematic terms the pomp and grandeur of an Ivy League graduation. It's the benediction of the next generation of American aristocrats, filled with lawyers and Senators and other masters of the universe.
This luscious sustained glimpse of upper-class heaven makes the inevitable descent into working-class hell all the more heartbreaking. The film then flashes forward 20 years to the wild frontier land of Wyoming, where Kristofferson works as sheriff when not stealing drinks from his flask. To curb the theft of cattle, an association run by rich ranchers assembles a "Death List" of suspected rustlers, anarchists, and all-around ne'er-do-wells that essentially encompasses the entire county Kristofferson serves. It's class war at its most vicious and overt, legalized murder to be carried out by an army of professional assassins while the powers that be look the other way. The rule of law has been overruled by the power of the almighty dollar. Christopher Walken co-stars as one of the rancher's most brutally efficient enforcers and the third part of a love triangle between Kristofferson and French brothel keeper Isabelle Huppert.
Walken has an introductory scene of startling power. At first he's seen only in shadow reflected through a sheet hanging in the wind, an image of civilizing sophistication in his hat and suit. Slowly, gradually, a rifle's outline emerges before Walken aims his rifle and blows a hole through the sheet and into a knife-wielding immigrant's stomach, killing him instantly. It's only then that we realize that it's Walken doing the killing. Walken is recognizable onscreen for only a split second but that's all it takes to establish him as a figure of brutal, heartless authority, a cold-blooded killer in an untamed land.
For much of its first half, Heaven's Gate leaps giddily from one gorgeous, sustained set-piece to another, driven by an exhilarating sense of endless possibilities. Why shoot an elaborately orchestrated hoedown with a full band and an army of extras in full period costume when you can shoot an elaborately orchestrated hoe down with a full band and an army of extras in full period costume where everyone glides along on roller skates?
Heaven's Gate ushers us into a breathtaking world of stunning beauty and cruelty. It's a film to get lost in, a world onto itself. Pretty much any individual image from the film's first two hours could be isolated and hung on a wall at an art museum. It's that gorgeous. So far, so good. Until the intermission, I felt like I was watching not just a Secret Success, but an out-and-out masterpiece.
Things start to go south once Huppert becomes the center of the film's action. Cimino is a whiz at playing the ambitious field general, a cinematic Patton leading vast armies of extras and crew people through insanely ambitious sequences. But his touch leaves him when he's shooting interiors where people do nothing more kinetic or dynamic than talk about their feelings. He isn't helped by Huppert's strangely inert performance, with its perversely affectless line readings. When painting on a huge, sprawling canvas Heaven's Gate soars. When dealing with more life-sized human emotions, it stumbles.
The love triangle between Kristofferson, Walken, and Huppert is supposed to be the film's emotional core, but within the context of an epic battle between warring historical forces the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. As a killer, Walken is riveting. As a genial gentleman suitor? Eh, not so much.
There are essentially two different kinds of revisionist westerns. There are revisionist westerns that honestly and forthrightly confront the harsh realities of life in the Old West, and then there are revisionist westerns that sadistically rub the audience's collective face into the ugliest, most sordid aspects of Western life. For its often transcendent two-thirds, Heaven's Gate is the first kind of revisionist epic. In its dispiriting third act, it becomes the second.
In its remarkable opening sequences, Heaven's Gate immerses audiences into a world of startling vitality, beauty, and richness. Then everyone rapes or gets raped, then dies a horrible death. The film's arc unwittingly echoes the arc of the New Hollywood of the '70s. At first it radiates all the promise and genius in the world, then it steadily devolves into a grim, ugly, overblown mess.
There's so much I love about this movie, from bravura sequences that instantly burn themselves into your memories to a stellar cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Joseph Cotton, Sam Waterston as the most evil sonofabitch you'd ever wanna meet, Mickey Rourke, Terry O'Quinn, Tom Noonan, James Remar, and Brad Dourif. Yet my affection for it waned the further it droned on. I was ultimately torn between calling the film a Secret Success or a Fiasco. I think it's two-thirds of a masterpiece, but that last third is brutal enough to make you pine for the innocent days of singing cowboys and trusty steeds and westerns wholly devoid of brutal gang rape.
Heaven's Gate has become synonymous with epic failure, though its critical reputation took a huge upswing when a cultishly adored pay-cable station called The Z Channel played Cimino's 219-minute "Director's Cut" instead of the butchered two-and-a-half-hour version that bombed with audiences. The reviews were much more sympathetic and people began to wonder if maybe Cimino was onto something all along.
Heaven's Gate is a haunting if profoundly flawed elegy for a bloody and lost West, for a cinematic revolution that wouldn't survive into a decade of Reagan and Cosby and E.T. and for one very talented, very troubled director whose Herculean ambition was both his salvation and his downfall.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success