By Kyle | March 22, 2013
Friday I went down to the Village’s Film Forum, which had sold about 60 tickets for the afternoon showing of “Heaven’s Gate,” which is showing in its full 3 hr 36 min glory and is now being re-embraced as a masterpiece, or at least as a fascinating near-great picture. “Heaven’s Gate” will be at Film Forum all week and has been reissued as a Blu-Ray by the reliable folk at Criterion.
The film is neither the monument to Seventies Cinema (TM) it has lately been mistaken for nor the catastrophe it was called upon its cursed initial release, in November of 1980, after which it was hastily yanked from theaters on the orders of its director, cut down by more than half an hour and dumped back into theaters the following spring, when it earned only $1.5 million in box office as against a $45 million budget. Immediately after his “The Deer Hunter,” which swept the Oscars and conquered the box office during the pre-production of “Gate,” writer-director Michael Cimino became the laughingstock of Hollywood and put out of business United Artists.
Yet in the classic dissection of the folly, the Steven Bach book “Final Cut,” which I read greedily in a night or two on the late shift at the L’il Peach convenience store in East Longmeadow, Mass circa 1987, the film itself is treated with respect by Bach, and on that basis I eagerly watched it on VHS in college and was then inclined to agree that it was bathed in greatness. I wouldn’t go that far anymore. [Spoilers follow.]
Still, it’s a worthwhile effort. Its initial dismissal was, I think, rooted both in an unfortunate tendency of critics to review the budget and in a kind of groupthink that began when the New York Times’ Vincent Canby derided the film. Others followed sheeplike. As for the reappraisal, there is a tendency in critics to whisper among themselves, “But they loved it in Europe!” as though such opinions originated in a higher order of being. There is also a tendency to think that any really long movie made by a board-certified auteur that was cut/dumbed down to fit the needs of the slobs at the multiplex, and then flopped, must have flopped because the studio scissorshands cut the artist’s vision into a mess. The thinking continues that once the fabled “director’s cut” can be seen, the mastery will be apparent, at least to the discerning. (This view is most commonly associated with Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic “Once Upon a Time in America,” which went through the same cycle of panicky cutting/box office bombing/restoration/reappraisal as a masterpiece and is consequently today just as overrated as “Gate.’
“Gate” seems to have baffled many on its release, but that’s just because it moves so slowly that the attention is bound to wander. Its plot beats are many minutes apart and its dialogue is meagerly scattered, when you can understand it (in several scenes it’s buried in background noise). But “Heaven’s Gate” is very much a formula picture.
The film is a standard 60s-70s drama about countercultural rebels/anarchists/outlaws who enjoy a moment of freedom but are gradually suppressed and finally destroyed by the system/capitalism/the squares/the Man. “Cool Hand Luke,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and, of course, “Reds,” a film to which “Gate” bears a strong resemblance, all fit this mold, and most of these are great movies (though I hate “Easy Rider”).
Kris Kristofferson plays Jim Averill, a wealthy Easterner and 1870 Harvard grad who, for reasons never fully explained, journeys to Wyoming to trade his black tie for cowboy boots (which, in an early scene, he struggles to put on) in order to be a hired marshal of Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890. (In an epilogue, it is hinted that Averill chose this path because he was simply bored with wealth and comfort.) An impish classmate (John Hurt), who at Harvard typified the smirking upper-class conservative twit, also winds up in the same frontier town, working for the cattle barons who horrify even him with their plan to hunt down and kill a group of 125 settlers living on the ranchers’ land.
The settlers, who look like chorus boys and girls from the roadshow of “Fiddler on the Roof,” are central and eastern European immigrants who are starving. Consequently they have been stealing cattle and either eating them or using them to buy sex from the local prostitute/madam Ella (Isabelle Huppert). (That the cattle are frequently traded for sex unintentionally undercuts the intended theme of theft being necessary to avoid starvation.) For receiving stolen property, Ella, too, is marked for death.
Averill, who has already been blackballed from the cattlemen’s favorite club, learns of their “death list,” which constitutes the majority of the citizens under his protection, but tells the plutocrats they had better have an individual warrant for every person they intend to have killed. (Later in the film, though, he will say that it is legal, though cruel, for the barons to do what they’re doing.)
Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a customer of the prostitute Ella, though she considers herself Averill’s girlfriend (“I never cheated on you,” she tells Averill. “I always made him pay”) is a hired gun of the cattlemen who roams the landscape shooting poachers (which apparently is perfectly legal in the situation). He’s not heartless, though: When he catches a boy stealing a cow, he lets him go with a warning.
Nate has a change of heart when the cattlemen’s hired guns exceed their writ and proceed to rape and murder Ella’s girls and rape Ella herself, perhaps with the intent to kill her. Jim happens on the scene and blows away the rapists instead. Nate then goes on the run, kills a man on the cattlemen’s side at their camp, is inexplicably let go and then chased down again by the same men, who this time surround his cabin, burn it and kill him. Ella, meanwhile, rides to his rescue (though his property is surrounded by about 50 armed men), and somehow manages to get in and out without being shot. Finally, in the fourth hour of the movie, the hired guns attack the immigrant squatters, a brief shootout occurs and, again inexplicably, the traitorous Averill is allowed to go free instead of being shot or hanged. In a coda, set 13 years later on a yacht off Newport, he is seen as bored and decadent, apparently married to the girl he danced with at Harvard back in 1870. Perhaps he was married to her all along, which would explain why he could never marry Ella.
Cimino has often been supposed to be a conservative based on “The Deer Hunter,” but I don’t see it. Even the 14-year-old me saw heavy irony in the closing scene of that film, the one in which townsfolk from a coal burg in Pennsylvania who have suffered great losses in Vietnam sing “God Bless America.” To me, this isn’t a patriotism-above-all moment but a sign of the frustrating (to Cimino) oblivion of the working folk to how badly the country has mistreated them. (After seeing the film again a couple of years ago I decided it’s actually a contrived Russian Roulette movie that has pretty much zilch to do with Vietnam).
In “Gate,” Cimino seems to me to take the obvious post-Flower Child position that the land belongs to everybody, that property is really theft (or at least that poor people have a right to help themselves to whatever is handy if they’re starving) and that the rich, if they’re wise, will forego running water and warm showers and join the Peace Corps to help the poor bastards catch a break from those rigid ruling classes, their rules and systems. (Cimino graduated Yale in the early 60s when, I have no doubt, it was just as square and conservative and Establishment as he portrays 1870 Harvard as being.)
The message is dribbled out very slowly, though. For roughly an hour and a half stretch, not a lot happens except a lot of talk about the war that is about to start and some tepid love scenes between Ella and her two principal lovers. In defiance of the injunction to start scenes late and finish them early, Cimino is always arriving far too early and staying too long, then repeating the idea in the following scene.
Nate Champion wants Ella to marry him, a tidbit she passes along to Jim, but he won’t make the offer and won’t say why. He’s a cold fish, and Kristofferson was not a success as a leading man for this reason (and also because of his looks, which were nowhere near as magnetic as those of Redford or Newman or the other biggest stars of the period). We never really get to know this man.
So, as in “Reds,” there is a love triangle involving a plucky feminist (Ella, inexplicably to my mind, turns out to be as handy a cavalryman as any professional soldier), a slightly seedy secondary figure (Jack Nicholson in “Reds,”) and an idealistic well-born hero (Warren Beatty in “Reds”) who travels far from home to back a proletarian uprising. In both movies, the hero urges the leading lady to go on a journey (in one case towards danger, in the other away from it), and in both cases she initially refuses, bridling at her man’s level of commitment. “Reds,” though, didn’t neglect to put in the emotional appeal, it’s far more historically resonant (since the Johnson County revolution sputtered out on a tiny battlefield the size of a baseball diamond) and it’s a much more beautiful film. The two big action scenes at the end of “Gate” constitute perhaps the dustiest climax I’ve ever seen. At times you can barely see what is happening.
The politics of the film are pretty insufferable; the immigrants may be poor, shaggy, loveable folk whom Cimino seems to think are pre-hippies as well as proto-Bolshies, but they’re also defiant lawbreakers. In an early scene, the cattlemen claim only one cattle-rustler was convicted in some 140 cases, and that one was let off easy. Frontier justice may be rough, but it’s apparently the only justice available. Picture a family moving into a house in your back yard. Now picture them killing and eating your dogs one by one. Would you call on armed men (the police) to evict them?
“Gate” is another entry in Hollywood’s long history of total lack of respect for property rights, and the scene towards the end in which Averill (in a meeting at the roller-skating tent called “Heaven’s Gate”) tells the immigrants that the gunmen are coming for “your lives and property” is unintentionally funny. If the immigrants respected property, they wouldn’t have a problem with the cattlemen.
So why do I like this film at all? For me, the four hours didn’t go by particularly slowly. Huppert (in stark contrast to her later, icier performances) gives the film a lot of warmth as the hooker with the golden heart (the character doesn’t seem a cliche, in part due to her girlish appeal). And though the film doesn’t look like a $45 million affair ($125 million in today’s dollars), Cimino does create a world and make us comfortable in it. In short, I enjoyed being transported.
If Kristofferson is wooden, Walken is much more interesting as Champion, a guy who is struggling to teach himself how to write and leaves a poignant note for his survivors when he realizes all is lost. Champion, the only one of the three principals who really changes over the course of the film, might have been a more interesting protagonist.
In the end, against Cimino’s wishes, I think, the movie leaves the message that the idealist Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) whose graduation speech urges Harvard men to spread out around the country illuminating it with their benevolence is mistaken. Averill’s meddling and good intentions did nothing to lift up the downtrodden, and being a poverty tourist is futile. Perhaps a bit of Vietnam was still lingering in Cimino’s mind, and maybe “Gate” is a bit more serious about that misadventure than “The Deer Hunter” was: Maybe even the very wealthiest and brightest among us can’t go out there and save the world.