If seeking to be culturally controversial in 1980, admitting to liking Heaven’s Gate was a surefire way to do it. Bathed in the post-Oscar glow of The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino had banked on achieving similar success with his $44 million epic Western based loosely on the little known Battle of Johnson County.
Unfortunately for Cimino, the obscurity of the battle was the least of his problems as the movie received a critical mauling, virtually bankrupted United Artists studios and changed forever the relationship of business to art in Hollywood.
Oh yes, and there were also accusations about the mistreatment of horses during the monumental battle scenes (allegedly one was blown up), which did not please the American Humane Association or animal lovers among potential ticket-buyers. But that was then. And though Cimino is unlikely ever to be forgiven by horse-lovers, after 33 years Heaven’s Gate merits re-examination as an extraordinary piece of work.
It exemplifies the old heroic model of epic film-making, where streets had to be constructed and hundreds of bodies arranged in a way that CGI has all but eliminated.
The film begins in 1870 at the Harvard graduation of Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and William Irvine (John Hurt), where celebrations include a much-criticised lengthy dance sequence that, like much of the film, is utterly beautiful thanks to the talents of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose work comes alive in this digitally restored director’s cut.
Moving on to 1890, the film takes up Averill’s story in Johnson County, Wyoming, where as marshal of the town, he is facing brewing conflict between the poor European immigrants and the wealthy, established cattle barons from whom the newcomers steal to survive. The barons’ interests are protected by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a friend of Averill’s. But both men are in love with Ella, a bordello madam, played by captivating Isabelle Huppert, who accepts stolen cattle as payment.
Ella is evidently enamoured of both men, though I found this hard to believe as her loving dance with Averill in the “Heaven’s Gate” roller-skating rink suggests where her affections really lie.
But romance is not really what this film is about. It’s about Ivy League elites instigating a class war against toiling immigrants who find themselves on an official hit-list authorised by the President.
The immigrants’ tragic efforts to defend themselves with Averill on side unleashes the final bloody act of the film, which dares to deal with the uncomfortable truths about the greed, hypocrisy and racism of American pioneers that has been omitted from most other Westerns.
At 216 minutes, viewing Heaven’s Gate takes real stamina (and multiple snacks).
It’s hard to love all of it because there are places where it lulls and where Cimino is indeed self-indulgent — the main criticism of the original release.
But for all that, its majesty and originality make it a unique watching experience — and, thankfully, that is no longer a controversial thing to say.