Expensive – who cares? Egotistical director – who cares? At the end of the day, what miraculously rises from the ashes of time is the superlative cinematic splendour of Cimino’s picture. Heaven’s Gate is the comeback picture of the last 30 years and a terrible cinematic injustice now vindicated with its glorious high definition restoration by the Criterion Collection, and before that an open vault festival screening at the Venice Film Festival.
Heaven’s Gate (1980) dir. Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston
By Alan Bacchus
The storied history of this production is fascinating. It's still a touchstone for the demise of the ‘New Hollywood’ trend in the late '60s/'70s dominated by the authorship of director in cinema only to see a gargantuan shift to the financially-motivated studio/conglomerate side of the business. But at the same time it's a fascinating story of hubris and artistic delusions of grandeur, which essentially killed the career of a great filmmaker.
It’s hard to believe we collectively ignored this picture for so long. Vilmos Zsigmond’s magnificent cinematography and Michael Cimino’s perfect compositions and cinematic eye break through all the narrative failings.
Emotions and drama derive from the effect of the film’s mythical visual splendor. Like the artful editing and dreamy prairie haze of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven were key to the enigmatic tone of that film, it is the same with Cimino’s examination of the Western genre and the mythologies of the American West.
Cimino’s desire to make the ultimate Western means using all the visual and tonal motifs of the genre to tell his story. As such, the strong expressionistic streams of sunlight that cascade from the windows to light the interiors or the pastoral framing of the perfect cloud formations in the exterior add to the cinematic nature of the story.
On paper Cimimo attempts to tell the story of the Johnson Country War, during which xenophobic landowners, sanctioned by the Federal government, waged war on the immigrant population of the county. On the side of the righteous is Cimino’s hero, James Averill (Kristofferson), a lawman who finds himself at odds with the diabolical leader played by Sam Waterston, who drafts a 125 death list preyed upon by paid mercenaries.
Added conflict includes a love triangle between Averill, his prostitute lover Ella Watson (Huppert) and one of the mercenaries, Nate Champion (Walken). This fascinating piece of footnote history plays out over three hours and 40 minutes, a preposterous running time on anyone's watch, but an extravagance matched by the equally grandiose scenes and sequences.
The opening sequence is startling, an introduction to Averill as a graduate of Harvard celebrating with his class on graduation day. Like the lengthy wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter, Cimino relishes in a lengthy celebration while populating his frames with astonishing period detail and cinematic energy. In the town hall there must be a thousand people crammed into the circular rotund all dressed in impeccable period clothing. And the Blue Danube dance sequence in the courtyard has twice as many people frolicking magnificently within Cimino’s unbelievable wide shots. Again, it’s an almost preposterously big scene, but it's headshakingly impressive in its execution.
The streets of Casper, Wyoming 20 years hence, where most of the story takes place, feature much of the same attention to period detail and busy population of his frames. The other celebrated set piece, which has been much discussed, is the roller skating sequence featuring hundreds of immigrant townsfolk skating in circles to the rhythms of David Mansfield’s bouncy fiddling music. And the introduction of Christopher Walken’s character is so well crafted, we can’t help but compare it to the celebrated character introductions of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West and Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.
Cimino’s failings with the narrative arise from his desire not to spoon-feed his audience with exposition or dictated themes, answers and traditional notions of good and evil – a hyper sophistication, which unfortunately, like his budget, goes overboard. For instance, we’re never told who Averill is or what his occupation is. We’re introduced to him graduating from Harvard in a magnificent staged commencement sequence and ensuing group waltz. But when the film fast-forwards 20 years we’re never told why he’s now in Wyoming. By the reactions of the people he meets he’s a respected authority figure, but we’re missing some explicit information.
While the film is peppered with many of these scenes of oblique chatter and foggy motivations, the big picture stakes are clear – the immigrant workers against the bigoted landowners and the continuation of Cimino’s examination of the immigrant experience and the American class system. Who knows how much money those clouds cost in terms of the amount of time they waited to find the right formation? Those losses have long been written off, but we’ll forever have the film to marvel at.
Heaven's Gate is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.