Michael Cimino’s much maligned western epic is often discussed as being among the worst films ever made and the greatest failure in cinema history. It is neither, though it does represent the film that ended the directors’ era of the seventies, a time when filmmakers had complete freedom and access to the deep pockets of the studios. Heaven’s Gate (1980) is an example of a film ruined by the directors’ ego, self indulgence, and blind belief in his project without ever having the ability to see what was happening around him. Cimino was the toast of the town when United Artists signed him to direct Heaven’s Gate, a film based on his own screenplay, and originally budgeted at nine million dollars. He had recently won Academy Awards for best director and best picture for his searing study of the impact of
the Viet Nam war on a small community in The Deer Hunter (1978). United Artists (UA) believed that Cimino could helm the studio’s next great film, their next Oscar winner and their belief led them to give the director whatever he wanted, which was the beginning of the nightmare that would bankrupt the studio. Over the course of 1978 through to the ill fated release of the film in November of 1980, the studio marched silently towards bankruptcy, caused directly by Cimino and his overages on this film. What started at nine, quickly elevated to thirteen, then eighteen, then twenty five at which point the studio panicked and spoke to another director about finishing the film. Knowing that the union would never stand for their recent Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director being fired from his own film, the studio decided to finish the film, for thirty million. Still Cimino kept up his nonsense and the budget tapped out at forty four million dollars. The picture was delivered more than a year late, ran five hours, and was unwatchable. Beyond being vastly overlong, the film is noisy, and many sequences cannot be seen because of the dust on the screen. Where the average battle scene in a film takes twenty minutes, the one in Heaven’s Gate goes on and on and on.
The film is based on a dark period of American history, the Johnson County Wars of 1890. A time when cattle barons and land owners prepared a list of immigrants meant for execution and hired gunslingers to do the deed. Logically it would make an interesting film, and because of The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s western was among the most eagerly awaited films of 1980. Sadly, like a bad Broadway play it would open in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto and be withdrawn from release the next day following a series of scathing reviews and poor audience reaction. In reflection, the film is no where as bad as originally thought, and had the studio trusted both the film and audiences, it might have had a chance in 1980, however, they took a risk and pulled it allowing Cimino extra time to edit it down from its over four hour running time.
The problem with the film then, and now, is that despite its exquisite beauty in virtually every frame the story is scattered, we never care about the characters, and everything moves at a snail’s pace. One can see where Cimino was going, but also where he got muddled. Perhaps with stronger actors, a point the studio constantly made to him, the story would have been more involving because it becomes apparent within the first half hour, Kris Kristoffersen, Isabelle Huppert and Sam Waterston lack the skills to carry a film of this length and magnitude. There are sequences in the film that linger in the mind long after the film is over, their startling visual beauty forever burned into our mind. The waltzing sequence on the lawns of Harvard in 1870, a magnificent view of the Wyoming landscape constantly in the background, a teeming town to which has just come telegraph wires and steam power, and perhaps best of all, a magnificently staged fiddle sequence in a roller rink that is truly breathtaking as the young fiddler darts and weaves about the wooden floor, himself on skates. However, marvelous images do not a movie make, and the film quickly becomes tedious. When Christopher Walken’s character is massacred by Waterston’s army of assassins, we are stunned at the carnage, but really do not care the character is gone because unlike The Deer Hunter, we do not care about these people, we have nothing invested in them.
Cimino tried to create the greatest western of all time, but he tried too hard to do so and forgot the most important rule of making a movie: have a story to tell. Great films are usually accidents, and even The Deer Hunter (1978) is not necessarily a great work of art. Like Heaven’s Gate there are marvelous images and powerhouse performances from Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, John Cazale and Christopher Walken, great actors all, and precisely what Heaven’s Gate is lacking. Clearly Cimino’s ego got the better of him, he began to believe the writings that he was the next Coppola or great American filmmaker. Blatant disregard for the requests of his producers, failing to listen to anyone, and again, a blind belief in his project lead to utter failure. Heaven’s Gate was responsible eventually for the bankruptcy of UA, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, eventually purchased by MGM.
Heaven’s Gate was withdrawn from release and recut to about two hours, but still failed. To this day, even with DVD and video rentals and sales, it has made
just over one million dollars. Haunting and at times spectacular to look at it, but audiences do not go to the movies to look at postcards. At the end of it all the film is neither what the critics said, the worst, or what UA hoped for, a masterpiece. It is at best a flawed work from a director of enormous gifts who fell into the trap of believing what they were saying about his genius. Rather than show us the genius, he chose only to believe it.