One of the most infamous commercial disasters in Hollywood history gets another re-release, but at the correct length there is much to admire in Michael Cimino’s 1980 western.
Heaven’s Gate has a formidable legacy as the film that bankrupted United Artists, virtually ended the high flying career of its director, and led to the major studios taking fewer risks as the sun finally set on the auteur-driven New Hollywood era.
Although the truth may be more nuanced, it certainly came to symbolise the worst excesses and indulgences of the era, whether that was deserved or not.
But how does it hold up now?
Part of the problem is that ever since its New York premiere in November 1980 (when it clocked in at 219 mins), Cimino and the studio decided to pull it from release after just a week and then issue a drastically recut version later that April (148 mins).
This makes it somewhat difficult to judge, given that most audiences haven’t seen the longer version, but thanks to this new re-release on Blu-ray and DVD, we can see the version that has been personally approved by the director himself.
There are numerous sequences that have been restored and one can finally say this is the version that should be seen.
Set in Wyoming amidst the Johnson County War of 1892, it depicts the brutal struggle of Russian immigrants, as the local cattle barons gradually try to exterminate them.
Amidst this backdrop unfurls a fictionalised story involving a U.S. Marshal (Kris Kristofferson), his Harvard class mate (John Hurt), a French bordello madam (Isabelle Huppert), a hired killer (Christopher Walken), a local bar owner (Jeff Bridges) and a ruthless landowner (Sam Waterston).
When revisiting this film at the proper length there is much to feast on: Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography, the incredible use of the Montana and Idaho landscapes; and Tambi Larsen’s epic production design, which along with Cimino’s meticulous attention to detail creates a vivid depiction of the West.
For fans of the western genre there perhaps has never been as grand a vision put on screen.
The central love story doesn’t quite match up to the visuals, but the social and political themes are refreshingly bold for a mainstream American film.
Although films such as Shane (1953) had featured an avenging angel character, Cimino’s script delved deep into the class aspects of the American West.
As Jeff Bridges’ character says at one point:
“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.”
Now there is a line that rings down the decades to the present day.
The central love triangle mostly works with Kristofferson and Huppert making a convincing couple, and although Walken and Hurt are basically miscast in their roles, there is enough realism in the rest of the supporting cast to create a compelling atmosphere.
Watch out too for the recurring motif of circles, from the opening graduation dance at Harvard, to the skating rink, the final battle and the wider theme of the overall story.
Despite its many qualities though, there still remain flaws, the biggest of which is not length but pace.
It may have been designed to show off the extravagant visuals but instead clogs up the narrative of the film and is arguably why opinion is still split on it today.
But it remains worth seeing on its own terms and as a kind of lament for both the Western genre and the filmmaking of the 1970s.
- New Video Interview With Jeff Bridges
- New Interview With Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
- Extracts From ‘Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate’ – Michael Epstein’s acclaimed documentary based on Steven’s Bach’s book