A New Criterion Edition Sparks Reconsideration of 'Heaven's Gate'

For a generation of filmgoers, the very title is synonymous with "bloated debacle." Heaven's Gate was, infamously, the project where writer/director Michael Cimino took all the Hollywood clout he garnered from The Deer Hunter's five Oscars, went all-in on a Western epic, and proceeded to go off the auteurial reservation in a fashion that compares with Francis Ford Coppola's travail in filming Apocalypse Now. Cimino demanded dozens of takes of minor scenes, rebuilt bespoke sets, shot many millions of feet of film, and ginned his $7 million budget up to $40 million—a mere $107 million in 2011 dollars, but still enough to pale a studio executive's tan. Unlike Coppola's film, Cimino's was not met with critical mass hosannas or box-office treasure when released in 1980, and soon slunk to an iniquitous tier of home-video curiosities, defended by a few partisans and ignored by most everyone else. Heaven's Gate didn't end Cimino's career, technically, but everything else he's done to date stands as desultory postscript.

As with its recent reissue of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, the Criterion Collection revives Cimino's folly at an opportune time for re-evaluation. In an era when CGI provides epic scale, digital sheen coats almost everything, and drama is reserved for small rooms, green-screen or otherwise, the sheer scope of Cimino's work is a jaw-dropping revelation. This is a film that was never really going to get its propers on a boxy CRT via VHS or the dingy DVD transfer that's been floating around for a decade or more. Even more piquant, its class-war storyline is more likely to resonate now than at any time since its dawning-of-the-Reagan-era release.

Heaven's Gate begins not on the open prairie, but in the plummy courts of Harvard in 1870 as James Averill (Kris Kristoferson) graduates full of hope and longing. Buying the prematurely craggy Kristoferson as a boyish alum-to-be—or the stewed-in-nicotine John Hurt as his fresh-faced, mop-headed classmate Billy—is perhaps the film's biggest stretch. What's most striking, however, is how similar Heaven's Gate is to The Deer Hunter, at least at the outset. Cimino plunges the viewer into a whirl of ceremony and celebration—a graduation here, rather than a wedding—suspending narrative momentum to capture high spirits and pageantry and a sense of a time and place. Then, as with The Deer Hunter, the film leaps forward to a more sobering reality.

These early scenes also establish the scale Cimino was working on, as a graduation dance encompasses what must be a hundred waltzers, with a roving camera gliding with them as they step. Once Averill reappears two decades later, as a federal marshal in remote Wyoming (as played by Montana), that scale only magnifies. Averill pulls into boomtown Casper swarmed by what seems like rarely fewer than 50 people in any given frame, with ranks of wagons and pedestrians churning up dust and conversation constantly beneath the snowy peaks in the distance. The sense of bustle and event makes Robert Altman look like a minimalist. Even a shot establishing that the train has arrived consists of a secondary cast member, dozens of extras, and a tricky tracking shot that must have taken a week to execute. It's easy to see how Cimino blew through all that money.

The ever-looming scale of those distant peaks make the tiny people scurrying about in the foreground seem ever more isolated, their fates more precarious, once the story leaves the confines of town. Oh yeah, the story. Here's where it gets good. Inspired by actual events, as they say these days, Heaven's Gate centers on rich people (cattle ranchers, led by Sam Waterston all but twirling his mustache) outright killing inconvenient poor people (European immigrants flooding into the territory, buying up valuable grazing land, and rustling the occasional cow when starvation threatens). A literal army of mercenaries bent on state-sanctioned rough justice/murder descends on Averill's Johnson County, leading to much class angst, rabble-rousing, and a climactic gun battle that blends the ad hoc cavalry of vintage Westerns with the breastworks and siege engines of ancient battlefields.

But first Cimino spends an hour or so on the triangle between Averill, the cattlemen's local enforcer Nathan D. Champion (Deer Hunter breakout Christopher Walken), and local madam Ella Watson (French screen titan Isabelle Huppert), as well as introducing us to the town of Sweetwater, where the hapless residents are not only not rich, they also speak German and Russian as often as English, adding to the cattlemen's ability to literally write them off as a list of names targeted for the hired guns. And all this barely telegraphs the plot and all its tangents and furbelows, much less the film's sure-to-polarize denouement.

So, yes, Heaven's Gate is a mess, an indulgent, busy tapestry that overreaches madly on almost every front. But as cinematic spectacles go, they don't make them like this anymore—they never made them like this, really. And if its not-at-all-allegorical class war seems shrill in spots, Averill's role as wealthy, Harvard-educated defender of the local 99 percent lends it balance and welcome ambiguity and pokes at some of the paradoxes of American class and its foments that linger to this day. The Criterion issue makes it easy to see how Heaven's Gate dashed expectations across the board 30 years ago, and equally easy to see why it's worth reconsideration.