Heaven’s Gate

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1980)


Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is a prime example of what critics call a film maudit – a movie unjustly damned by the studio that produced it, the critics who initially reviewed it, and finally the mass audience.

It also easily fits another fashionable description: the film folly, an extravagant, slightly out-of-control super-production driven by a visionary auteur hopelessly at odds with the powers-that-be.

It is not hard to see why many today wish to rehabilitate the reputation of Cimino’s pioneer epic, now presented in its full two-hundred-and-twenty-five minute length. It is a film that takes many bold risks in its reshaping of Hollywood narrative and genre conventions. It contains many remarkable scenes that capture the intertwining of personal destinies and the big picture of history. And lastly it offers, in its detailed account of the true story of a massacre of immigrant farmers by an evil corporation, a devastatingly bleak view of American social progress.

Unfortunately, no matter which version you see it in, Heaven’s Gate is, overall, not a terribly good movie. It is a very thinly scripted piece, and Cimino’s grandiose style (borrowed from Sergio Leone, Luchino Visconti and John Ford) stretches the material even more thinly, exposing all its flaws.

The central story of Federal Marshal Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and hired gun Nate (Christopher Walken) tangling over the love of a prostitute, Ella (Isabelle Huppert), never attains the tragic pathos it strives for. And the constant grating of a distended, folk-acoustic score against the endless flow of images is almost unbearable.

Moreover, this reconstruction by John Kirk, although magnificent to view on a big screen, begs a few questions. A previously available longer version contained several important elements missing from this version, such as subtitles in the numerous scenes containing non-American dialogue, and especially a dreamlike switch to sepia in the middle of the crucial and elaborate roller-skating sequence.

The film’s distributor-exhibitor in Australia has protested in response that cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond oversaw the reconstruction. Sure; but what about Cimino’s input? It seems that not even presentations offered as the "director’s cut" should always to be taken on trust.

MORE Cimino: Year of the Dragon

© Adrian Martin October 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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