Directed by: Michael Cimino. This is one of those movies where the story behind, and the legend surrounding, the production and reception of the film are almost more interesting than the movie itself. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone go out of their way to see this if it weren’t for the singular classroom experience this movie gives you about the nature of Hollywood, of reception, of the arbitrary whims of audiences and the critical press. A quick google can give you a lot of information about this (although make sure to put “Heaven’s Gate film” to avoid the real-life cult), so I’ll just give you the short version. When it came out, this movie was supposed to be the worst film ever made, and now it’s being reappraised as one of the best films ever made, and I think they’re both wrong. Here’s what true: when it came out, it was the biggest disappointment in Hollywood history, and it was largely (or wholly) responsible for the downfall of a major studio, United Artists, which was mythologized as the “artist’s studio” that was the antidote to impersonal Hollywood and a champion of “deep” substance movies. And the host of complex reasons for the rise of meathead, huge-budget “event movies” in the 80’s, 90’s and up to modern day, can all be oversimplified and put down to the gross mishandling of this single director-driven art-Western in 1980. Now, on the other hand, when you look at the film, or rather when I looked at the film, I was expecting a masterpiece. Really, the way it’s talked about, I’m imagining a 4-hour epic about class struggle and the crystallizing and subversion of Western archetypes that would have been utterly over-ripe by 1980, in a film where every shot is a beautiful, gorgeous canvas painting.
Instead, it’s a pretty okay 2-hour movie stretched out into 4 hours, padded with a lot of self-important pomp, a huge prologue that I assumed would tell us a lot about the ensuing film but kind of didn’t do anything, and huge battle scenes that could have been conveyed in half the time or less. The cinematography is really interesting, and the production in general is very impressive, the huge scale upon which it was made with those sets and those trains, etc, but I’m struggling to remember if there’s a single shot in there as beautiful as any random shot in The Searchers, or even The Assassination of Jesse James. The acting is all amazing, and with that cast it ought to be—Kristofferson, Walken, Huppert. But as soon as we get here, it starts to unravel. The actors are all top-notch, but to me the assessment of a performance is utterly entwined with the script, with the development of the character and where they fit in the film. With four fucking hours, you’d think there’s time for some solid character drama, but it feels abbreviated, or kind of sketched-in instead of fully developed. One continuing and major gripe, at the time and now, was how the film introduces Christopher Walken’s character as a stone-cold killer, then about two hours later introduces him as a competing love interest for Isabelle Huppert, and then it’s abruptly revealed, not shown but told, that Walken and Kristofferson were old buds and now they’re playing on the opposite side in addition to being romantic rivals. Everything that follows, with Walken changing sides and the epic shoot-out at his cabin, etc, would all be 100% more effective if the film had bothered itself to build up that relationship. And this fundamental flaw is all the harder to forgive when you look at all of the stuff that made it in to the movie. Brad Dourif is great, but in a movie where the director is spending hours and hours hand-picking each extra to be in the shot, to capture the “authenticity” only to give a major speaking role of a German immigrant to an American with a fake and exaggerated accent, all of that seems a bit silly and wasteful to me. Sam Waterston is a fine actor but he’s reduced to the level of a pantomime villain in this movie. And John Hurt—one of my favourite actors of all time—what in the literal fuck is he even doing in this movie? The entire first 40 minutes of the movie, the prologue at Harvard, is kind of just there to establish the friendship between Kristofferson and Hurt (and I guess to contrast the pomp of the East versus the dusty West, but even that shit kind of goes nowhere). And then when we get to Wyoming, Hurt’s character kind of just meanders around, nominally antagonistic to these business interests but utterly useless and gratuitous. Considering that John Hurt is probably the most talented actor in the entire cast, and considering that I’m a flag-waving, card-carrying member of the John Hurt fan club, if I’m sitting there asking myself “what the fuck is John Hurt even doing in this movie?”, that’s a major red flag. Overall, the whole thing was just kind of…blah. Like, I’m sure there were actual authentic frontier roller-discos made of wood, very similar to the one in the film, but on the other hand, give me a fucking break. I think I figured out what’s wrong with this movie—it’s full of a ton of stuff, but there’s no Harry Dean Stanton, you know what I mean? I guess I just assumed that a movie like this would have Harry Dean Stanton hanging around somewhere, but alas no. And maybe that’s their problem. Maybe every dysfunctional film needs old HDS lurking around, speaking two lines and then ducking out.
It’s hard, because I don’t want to come down too rough on this movie. When it came out, the reception was awful, and even though I agree with a bunch of it, a lot of it is just band-wagoning. The way that the press machine had hyped this movie, once it became tarred with the label “worst and most costly failure in movie history”, it was a matter of sharks smelling blood. There’s a good documentary floating around on Youtube, roughly contemporary, that gives you a good indication. In it, you learn how vociferously everyone was opposed to Isabelle Huppert, who I thought did a fine job. This production is full of those kinds of oddities, things that were unforgivable to critics back then, but which barely register now. In it, there’s one reviewer, exasperated in her condemnation, as if she’s reporting on a defective automobile, she simply cannot wait to convey to you how awful this film is, and she says: “There’s not one good performance in it.” Honestly? Hold up, hold up, stop the car! Were we watching the same movie? Say what you will—I’ve said a lot—but Kristofferson and Walken are at the top of their form in their performances, as is Jeff Bridges, and even Sam Waterston does his best with this fucking cartoon character he’s been given. The fact that someone is criticizing the performances, the one enjoyable part of the fucking movie, tells me that at this point, there’s some kind of very potent cultural kool-aid going around that everybody has a cultural and career-driven and tribal/social investment in drinking, at the expense of actually experiencing and interpreting the piece of art in question. You get the exact same thing when you look at the reaction to Paul McCartney’s second solo album Ram. Ram is now considered a masterpiece, every song a fucking knockout banger, but at the time, Rolling Stone had taken the anti-Paul side in the Beatles wars, and every critic, and every other Beatle, was on record trashing the album. I remember a Ringo quote where he says: “There’s not a single hit on the album, not one.” Are we listening to the same album? They’re all hits! But, like the reviewers for Heaven’s Gate, Ringo was invested in a worldview that utterly restricted the way in which he could perceive the piece of art in question.
So, as you can see, for this and many other reasons, this movie is definitely one of the most important and intriguing and thought-provoking films in Hollywood history, right up there with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which proved similarly disastrous. But in this case, the story of the film is way more interesting than what goes on between fade in and fade out. On the plus side, though, there are some great moustaches in this film, so let’s just say it’s a masterpiece.