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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

Buy Love Monkey for $4! "Hilarious"--Maslin, NY Times. "Exceedingly readable and wickedly funny romantic comedy"--S.F. Chronicle. "Loud and brash, a helluva lot of fun"--Entertainment Weekly. "Engaging romp, laugh-out-loud funny"-CNN. "Shrewd, self-deprecating, oh-so-witty. Smith's ruthless humor knows no bounds"--NPR

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    The Politics of “Heaven’s Gate”

    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.

    Topics: Movies | 22 Comments »

    22 Responses to “The Politics of “Heaven’s Gate””

    1. will wallace Says:
      March 23rd, 2013 at 6:04 pm

      Goofy movie allegedly about Wyoming’s Johnson County War, which besides the use of historical names for the characters, has little to do with real people or events. The descendents of the participants still live there. I was in the county seat (Buffalo) a few years back and noted a pair of statues flanking the driveway into the local bank. One was of a rustler stealing a calf, the other a mounted rancher drawing his rifle. Simply put, calves aren’t born with brands on them, so it’s finders keepers before branding.

      Historically, the rich Easterners that dabbled in Western ranches were often Republicans (like South Dakota rancher Teddy Roosevelt). The rustling small farmers and unruly cowboys were often Democrats. In Johnson County, the Democrats controlled the courts, so the Republicans took action (think Teddy Roosevelt as New York City Police Commissioner). But the Republican/Democrat factions in the West had as much to do with Northerners (Republicans)versus Southernors (Democrats) than rich man versus poor man – and the term immigrant did not mean you came from Eastern Europe – it meant you arrived in the West after the person calling you an immigrant did.

      Botto line – Cimino made a far better Western with “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”

      Bottom line: Cimino’s

    2. sherm Says:
      March 24th, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Kudos on a very nice re-visitation….but “Once Upon A Time” overrated? Come on, if nothing else, it got [uncredited!] Jennifer Connelly discovered!

    3. Jeff Gee Says:
      March 24th, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      I think this is exactly right. If you get into its rhythms it’s hypnotic and if you don’t it’s like death by Chinese water torture. The “Final Cut” TV documentary is excellent (and often very funny, lots of stuff like Kristofferson saying “tough scene, but I nailed the whip-cracking on the first or second take,” and then cut to Brad Dourif saying “I think Kris accidentally hit Isabelle Huppert with the whip four times before we finally got it around take 47.”) It’s on YouTube in 7 or 8 parts, but not on Netflix for some reason.

    4. Lou Lumenick Says:
      March 24th, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      There was actually much less groupthink going on in film critic circles in 1980 than there is today. Canby, Pauline Kael and Judith Crist rarely agreed about anything but all severely panned HEAVEN’S GATE. Incidentallly, Canby excoriated the butchered version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that originally played in the United States, than lavishly praised the longer cut (which, unlike the butchered version, is non-chronological). I believed then, and still do now, that AMERICA is far more coherent and disciplined storytelling than HEAVEN’S GATE ever was.

    5. James Frazier Says:
      March 24th, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      I’d add that a particularly goofy scene is Walken’s death, where he is shot approximately 200 times before dying, managing to blaze away with his six-guns as rifle shells blast holes in him on the way to the ground. Despite Walken’s resilience, not a single other character dies longer than a second or two when hit bit a solitary bullet.

      Despite his intent, Cimino flunks at truly compassionate liberalism, as he portrays the immigrants as just a random assortment of dirtbags that don’t speak any English. It’s up to the wealthy, educated Harvard American to fight for justice, not any of the people Cimino is supposedly outraged for.

      Huppert is especially good, like you said. Did this basically kill her chances at being a more prominent leading lady in American film, or was that never really going to happen? Kristofferson, however, is a charisma vacuum. He can write a lyric, and for some reason convinced several auteurs that he was worthy of leading roles, but he’s borderline unwatchable, and totally unable to effectively color the character.

      But you’re right, it really isn’t a creative debacle through and through. That final battle, while dusty, is actually well-staged and compelling, even though Cimino ends it by just unceremoniously pulling the cord upon arrival of the cavalry. That said, I’m long past tired of seeing Facebook and Twitter updates touting the Criterion’s charms, when this is plainly not a great film, and at this point is really only watched *because* it was a creative letdown and financial catastrophe.

    6. Patrick Wahl Says:
      March 24th, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Heaven’s Gate is available on Netflix streaming, by some odd coincidence I saw it there tonight just before reading Kyle’s review (very nice job btw). I have been curious about this one for a few years, I might try to slog through it.

    7. JimmyC Says:
      March 25th, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      Cimino a conservative? I think not. He wrote the only movie in the Dirty Harry series (“Magnum Force”) in which the cops are the villains. And directed a horrible ’90s movie called Sunchaser, with Woody Harrelson as a rich white doctor who gets taken hostage by a poor young Native American criminal and spends the rest of the movie sympathizing with his attacker.

      “Gate” is another entry in Hollywood’s long history of total lack of respect for property rights… And quite ironic, given Hollywood’s near-obsessive desire to protect their own property from downloading/copying pirates.

    8. Zach Says:
      March 25th, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      @JimmyC Sly Stallone also did Rambo: First Blood, in which the cops are very clearly the villains of the film, and the Vietnam War was shown to be a dehumanizing, horrible war – but he’s pretty damn conservative.

    9. SK Says:
      March 26th, 2013 at 9:09 am

      Stallone supported the “Brady bill” in 1994 and last month he voiced his support for the proposed assault weapons ban.

    10. Bob Says:
      March 26th, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Interesting review.

    11. Obama bin Biden Says:
      March 26th, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Did Cimino go through with the sex change?

    12. Union Jack Says:
      March 26th, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      whoever said cimino was a conservative

      nam a lib war all the way

      p.s. outlaws/rebs v system isnt particularly 60s-70s—ammurican as thoreau emerson apple pie napalm

      in the ammurican imagination/mythology anyway

      actual amurricans among most docile to authority in history

    13. Zach Says:
      March 28th, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      @SK Just because Stallone isn’t aligning with Wayne LaPierre on that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a loyal neoconservative for as long as his politics have been documented.

    14. SK Says:
      March 28th, 2013 at 6:05 pm

      Zach, I didn’t know that “pretty damn conservative” is the same as “loyal neoconservative.” Anyway, I just stated some facts …

    15. Zach Says:
      March 30th, 2013 at 10:01 pm

      What exactly is the difference between being loyal to the conservative cause and being pretty damn conservative?

    16. SK Says:
      March 31st, 2013 at 10:17 am

      Zach, you just changed the discussion again. I addressed “pretty damn conservative” (your comment No. 8) and “loyal neoconservative” (your comment No. 13). Now you’re introducing “loyal to the conservative cause.” Have the last word; it kills you when you don’t.

    17. SK Says:
      March 31st, 2013 at 10:19 am

      How did a happy face with sunglasses end up in my comment? It should say 8. Grrr.

    18. kishke Says:
      March 31st, 2013 at 10:40 am

      SK: The number 8 followed by a closed parantheses automatically turns into a smiley face with shades.

    19. SK Says:
      March 31st, 2013 at 11:17 am

      Thanks, kishke. I detest those things.

    20. kishke Says:
      March 31st, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      So do I, although I concede that once in a very long while, they do come in handy.

    21. Joanna Says:
      April 2nd, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Kishke hates smiling

    22. kishke Says:
      April 2nd, 2013 at 8:25 pm

      No, I hate fake smiling, and smileys as a substitute for words.