‘Heaven’s Gate’ Remains Hard to Watch

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson star in director Michael Cimino’s epic western film “Heaven’s Gate,” released in 1980. Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection

By Todd Hill

For motion pictures, being forgotten is the cruelest fate. More often than not, it’s also the most appropriate. Over time, films tend to land where they belong in our cultural consciousness. Great films routinely find their place. Notoriety, however, can often behave in curious ways.

Take, for instance, Michael Cimino’s 1980 western epic “Heaven’s Gate.”

The film was mercilessly trashed by critics upon its release — The New York Times’ Vincent Canby likened it to “a ship that slides straight to the bottom at its christening.” Roger Ebert was far less kind. The movie blew through its shooting schedule and budget like they never existed, its debut at the box office was an unmitigated disaster, and a consensus was soon reached that “Heaven’s Gate” was one of the biggest cinematic flops of all time.

In the decades since, however, there has been a critical re-evaluation of “Heaven’s Gate,” with some of today’s film critics going so far as to label the picture a masterpiece, which is a long way from a disaster. What gives?

The movie purports to be a dramatization of the Johnson County War, a Wyoming cattle range conflict of the early 1890’s, although you won’t learn much about that event here. The first half hour of this nearly four-hour-long picture depicts an orgy of movement that’s supposed to represent a commencement ceremony at Harvard, although it looks like Oxford because that’s where it was shot.

“Heaven’s Gate” features at its core a love triangle of sorts personified by Kris Kristofferson, as a marshal who does very little marshaling; Christopher Walken, who doesn’t have a significant scene until halfway through the film; and the French actress Isabelle Huppert as the prostitute who has stolen the hearts of these men. Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston and a largely wasted John Hurt appear in smaller roles.

The film’s chief preoccupation purports to be a hit list distributed by a cattlemen’s association populated by rich, white, baronial figures determined to stop a horde of Eastern European immigrants from moving into the territory. Its culmination — the Johnson County War — doesn’t ramp up until the final 30 minutes of the movie, in a frenzy of discombobulated carnage that exhausts all concerned.

If words like “orgy” and “frenzy” suggest to you that “Heaven’s Gate” possesses a certain undisciplined quality, so much the better. This is the classic directorial vanity project, a prime example of a filmmaker, having achieved great success — in Cimino’s case the superb “The Deer Hunter,”winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture in 1979 — being given an abundance of rope with which to hang himself.

And Cimino certainly did that. “Heaven’s Gate” is an ungodly mess. But the recent wave of glowing reassessments showered upon it are not entirely without merit. The movie may be awful, but it deserves to be seen, for what it gets right is of no small significance. If you can get through “Heaven’s Gate” in one sitting my hat’s off to you — it took me days — but no matter how long it takes you you’re likely to come away with a memorable viewing experience.

Perhaps the film feels newly relevant today for its dramatization of immigrants struggling against entrenched authority, although Cimino doesn’t do himself any favors by depicting the newcomers as uncouth, simple-minded folk given to shouting over each other and all other manner of hysterical behavior. If anything, the picture contributes to unfortunate stereotypes in this regard.

Or possibly it’s the new appreciation today’s tech-addled society has for filmmaking craft that has allowed us to look at “Heaven’s Gate” in a new light. I challenge anyone to find another western that looks this stunning. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond really outdid himself here. The attention paid by Cimino and others to the movie’s production design truly pays off, and it’s worth noting that it was all accomplished without the aid of computer-generated effects.

Time and again while watching the picture, shot mostly in Wyoming, I found myself pausing the image just so I could admire what was on the screen. “Heaven’s Gate” may not work terribly well as a film, but it would’ve made a magnificent series of artworks.

It is, however, a movie, and a fairly wretched one at that. Cimino created a grand cinematic canvas in “Heaven’s Gate” that allowed several people to show off, most especially himself (his actors, alas, are largely swallowed up by the scenery). But by neglecting to get around to the business of telling a story, he largely just wasted a lot of people’s money and time.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. Still, he enjoys writing about film, particularly the classics.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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