With Heaven’s Gate (1980), Michael Cimino made the classic risky gamble that many ambitious filmmakers make. Still flush from the commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter (1978), he used all of his newfound clout to make an epic tale depicting the Johnson County War of 1892 with a massive budget, courtesy of United Artists, and a star-studded cast headlined by musician and some-time actor Kris Kristofferson. The film’s production was plagued with several well-publicized problems and the end result was a difficult and challenging film that was savaged by critics as a muddled mess. Worst of all, Heaven’s Gate was a huge box office flop, which resulted in United Artists going under. The lion’s share of the blame was leveled at Cimino who was punished for his hubris. Over the years, he made the occasional film but never enjoyed the kind of resources he did at the peak of his career.
As sometimes happens, the years were kind of Heaven’s Gate, especially when cineastes discovered that the version released in theaters was the studio cut and that his original was much better. The reclusive director had taken refuge in Europe where he’s still regarded highly. Reappraisal of Heaven’s Gate has been a long time coming and recently Cimino’s finally been given the opportunity to restore the film to the way he originally envisioned it so that it can rightly be judged on its own merits.
James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is a federal marshal that arrives in Casper, Wyoming where he learns of a plot by cattle ranchers to kill local European settlers for their land, sanctioned by the government no less. He soon finds himself embroiled in a bloody battle. He also finds himself conflicted as many of the wealthy cattle ranchers come from the same Harvard-educated background as he did, but Averill also has a strong moral sense and wants to stand up for the settlers who are getting ripped off and killed for their troubles.
Cimino juxtaposes the rich, pompous cattle ranchers, who gather in their ornate wood lodge drinking the best liquor, with the settlers that live in abject poverty and entertain themselves watching cock fights in the backroom of the local bar. He also shows how the community gathers for a county dance at the local roller skate rink that leaves little doubt as to which side Cimino favors.
With Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Kris Kristofferson demonstrated some considerable acting abilities. He had gotten a few more films under his belt by the time he appeared in Heaven’s Gate and was called up to headline this epic, which he does admirably, delivering a thoughtful performance that is quite naturalistic. He is supported by an impressive cast that includes the likes of Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert among others. They all turn in excellent performances, helping bring this fascinating world to life.
It’s a cliché to say it but they just don’t make films like Heaven’s Gate anymore. It was shot on location with massive sets populated by hundreds of extras. The film’s excessive budget is all up there in every frame, gorgeously photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond. The film has plenty of ambition to burn and assumes that its audience is intelligent enough to follow the complex narrative and the numerous characters that are a part of it.
Heaven’s Gate is often blamed from the Film Brats fall from grace in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the rise of the producers, but the writing was already on the wall with other ‘70s auteurs having costly flops, like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), to name a few. The reign at the top of the Hollywood food chain was over for most of them and Heaven’s Gate just put a fine point on it. Now that enough time has passed, Cimino’s film can be rediscovered and re-evaluated.
This new transfer of Heaven’s Gate has been personally supervised by Cimino. While it may not look like it did when first projected theatrically, a lot of work went into cleaning up the film to the director’s specifications. The transfer looks very impressive, still retaining the filmic look but devoid of any blemishes. The new 5.1surround soundtrack, also supervised by Cimino, is excellent with David Mansfield’s score sounding better than it ever has and the ambient noises and sound effects coming through loud and clear.
There is an illustrated audio conversation between director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli that runs an absorbing 30 minutes. Rather fittingly, he starts off talking about the inspiration for Heaven’s Gate, which was research he did on barbed wire, of all things. Cimino also talks about how he writes screenplays with Carelli acting as an objective editor, keeping him in check and making sure everything made sense. They cover many topics, including how to direct actors, scouting locations, costumes and so on.
Also included is a new interview with Kris Kristofferson who talks about what drew him to the project – mainly the chance to work with Cimino. He loved the attention to detail in the film and how it helped him as an actor. He recounts several fascinating filming anecdotes in this engaging interview.
There is an interview with musician David Mansfield. He said that Cimino wanted real musicians to play live during filming and hired him and other notable musicians, like T-Bone Burnett. Mansfield talks about how he composed the film’s memorable score, his choices for instrumentation and so on.
Assistant director Michael Stevenson is interviewed and mentions that Cimino originally wanted him to work on The Deer Hunter but he was busy at the time. He talks about the mind-boggling logistics of some of the more grandiose sequences in Heaven’s Gate and one really appreciates all the hard work that went into this film.
There is a “Restoration Demonstration” that briefly examines the painstaking work that went into restoring the film to Cimino’s exact specifications. We also see how the numerous scratches, splice cuts and other imperfections were removed.
Since this edition has been given Cimino’s seal of approval it is not surprising that the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate is not included. It is quite critical of Cimino and the film, which probably explains why it has not been included, which is too bad as it goes into a blow-by-blow account of what went down. The documentary is easily found online as is the book it is based on, by United Artists executive Steven Bach.