In Review: Heaven’s Gate (1980) on Blu-ray

by Martyn Conterio on 20/11/2013

heaven's gate

For the briefest of briefest moments in Hollywood’s illustrious history, Michael Cimino seemed to vindicate a much-vaunted idea that the director truly was top of the creative movie-making pile and proper figurehead of the business. Having broken free of the old studio system, the previously reined-in team player working under the aegis and therefore restrictions of bosses was now given carte blanche. It could only have ever spelled trouble.

Cimino came to prominence during a lucky time when maverick producers took chances on maverick material with maverick directors at the helm. ‘Directed by’ was the credit that only seemed to matter. America was hopped up on auteur theory and with the old guard gone, they made a dash for what Harrison Ford once called ‘the Second California Gold Rush’. Far from a brave new frontier, it turned out to be a momentary blip, some might say, an industry misfortune, before the moneymen took back the keys to the asylum from the hands of the lunatics. Ol’ Chuck Heston wasn’t wrong when he said this: “The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business.”

Heaven’s Gate is a film with a reputation that truly precedes it. The 1980 Western would be as slippery with historical fact as any John Ford picture, but carried with it some dark essence of truth regarding America’s violent pioneer days. It is a counter-myth to the type of pictures served to America and the world by old Hollywood. In this respect, it can be tied loosely to the ‘Marxist’ Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Sollima and revisionist works such as Little Big Man (1970) or Soldier Blue (1970). A bitter disappointment with the world courses through Heaven’s Gate like a mighty meandering river. What exactly are its politics? On the one hand, there’s an Upton Sinclair style sensibility and on the other, the kind of bruised and deeply misanthropic view of society that is all rather hysterical when centred within the grandeur and sweep of the narrative and characterisations. The film is a depiction of the class system in a country that pretends it doesn’t have one. Jim Averell (played by Kris Kristofferson) is a Harvard graduate and champagne socialist with a big iron on his hip, a man who is warned that he cannot force salvation onto people. He tries anyway. He is doomed to failure.

It must be said too, by and large, Cimino’s attitude towards the immigrant characters is ambiguous. Bar a few supporting characters, they are mostly crowded figures in the roller rink or set against the great Wyoming landscape, rustling cattle or ploughing the muddy soil in hope that the American Dream will grow. This agrarian-peasant idyll is complicated by The Associates, an arrogant and untrustworthy gang of cattle barons from back East who act like all big busisesses: bully boys and psychopaths. Cultural progression is built on conflict and Cimino saw the real-life story of the Johnson County War as a succinct, albeit embellished, scenario that would showcase his view of America and the end days of the Wild West.

Cimino’s directorial vision wished to be a grand spectacle in the finest Hollywood tradition. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is extraordinary and boy do we get a long running-time (3 hrs 39 mins) to soak it all up. The production of Heaven’s Gate is as legendary as the aftermath that felled a studio (United Artists) as well as ruined Cimino’s own glowing reputation beyond repair (although, The Year of the Dragon is well worth seeking out). Thirty-three years on, and as is often the case, time can be a movie’s best friend. Heaven’s Gate is ready to come in from the critical cold. This restoration – marketed as the closest thing to we’ll ever get to Cimino’s preferred cut – is simply a glorious work of hysterical and bold art.


The bonus material features an interview with The Dude (aka Jeff Bridges) who positively loves the movie and respects even today Cimino’s drive and vision in getting the picture made. Vilmos Zsigmond’s interview featurette provides some amusing production anecdotes and information about the look of Heaven’s Gate. Willem Dafoe narrates the short documentary, Final Cut, which is essential viewing for those who haven’t seen it before. Dafoe, who can be spied in the scene where Jim Averell settles a dispute in the town of Sweetwater, was fired as an extra for laughing during a take. True story .

Martyn has awarded Heaven’s Gate five Torches of Truth

5 torches

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