Heaven's Gate Review
Is it possible to redeem Heaven’s Gate? I hope so. Certainly, the great critic Philip French, who has recently retired, made it his mission to get everyone to see what a fine film it was and it looks like his efforts might have finally paid off – although I note his successor, Mark Kermode, is not likely to carry on good work. I first saw the film in 1987 on BBC 2’s “Film Club” and I was expecting to be a bit bored by a film which while not great wasn’t exactly the disaster everyone had claimed Instead, I was blown away but a film which strives not only for greatness but to become a legend and if it fails, which it inevitably does, it fails honourably. Subsequent viewings have only confirmed my view – cinema screenings in 70mm helped a lot – and I now consider it one of the finest and most important American films of the 20th century.
Everyone knows the story. I don’t mean the story of the film but the story of the making of the film. Michael Cimino, fresh from the triumphant success of The Deer Hunter, ran completely out of control on location and produced a film which was immediately damned as one of the worst ever made. It made virtually no money, ended the era of the director’s cinema in Hollywood, and bankrupted United Artists into the bargain. It probably doesn’t matter much now but that’s not the whole story. For a start, United Artists didn’t go bankrupt. It was owned by Transamerica who bailed out at the negative publicity and sold UA to MGM – the actual financial loss was pretty much an irrelevance to the corporate owners who had already begun to decide that the film business wasn’t worth the hassle. As for its cultural impact, the directors had already just about ended the era themselves with flops such as 1941, Big Wednesday, New York New York and Sorcerer and a whole psychiatric seminar weekend full of irrational, megalomaniac behaviour. Cimino’s own tyrannical manner on set was certainly nothing to be proud of but he was strictly an amateur compared to Francis Ford Coppola. Certainly, the film was a massive flop but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything except that it didn’t connect with a wide audience.
As for the story of the film, it’s very simple. In 1870, two men graduate from Harvard – Billy Irvine (Hurt) and James Averill (Kristofferson). The future looks bright but twenty years later, Averill is a US Marshal and Billy is a hopeless alcoholic. Arriving in Wyoming, the two men are reunited but Averill is appalled to discover that the men with whom Billy is associating, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, are planning to kill 125 settlers in order to reassert their claim to the land. His old friend Nate Champion (Walken) is working for the Association but soon becomes disillusioned – all the more so when Ella, the madam who loves both him and Averill, is on the death list.
The film is loosely based on events which took place in Wyoming during the spring of 1892. “The Johnson County War” was a conflict over land before smallholders and ranchers which saw 23 mercenaries from Texas hired by cattle barons to kill 70 “rustlers” in the town of Buffalo. These so-called rustlers were nothing of the kind, merely settlers who were disrupting the cattlemen’s traditional activity of using unclaimed land to graze their herds. It was all over after a few days but left scars on the community who felt that the intervention of the President to save the mercenaries, who had been cornered by the citizens, was ill-motivated and that the subsequent trial was a whitewash.
Now it’s entirely true that the film’ portrayal of mass European immigration into Wyoming is highly misleading and that the depiction of real people, including Nate Champion, is distorted. But since it never claims to be a documentary, I’m not sure that it’s particularly relevant to carp about such matters. Cimino is clearly making political points, albeit somewhat simplistically, and I think this is one occasion where the higher truth – that America was built on intimidation and violence directed towards the have-nots by the haves – is probably better served by broad brush-strokes. This is perhaps why the film still seems so relevant in a world where minorities are constantly singled out for demonization by those forces whose survival rests on the maintenance of the social and economic status quo. It touches on poverty, ethnic cleansing, unbridled capitalism, governmental corruption, and lurching into war based on propaganda and lies. No wonder it went down like a lead balloon in the year of Reagans’ inauguration when the country wanted to feel good about itself and the idea of a great movie was On Golden Pond. Few major American films are as openly left-wing as Heaven’s Gate and fewer still have such intense sympathy with the plight of the underclass.
It’s also a richly, almost floridly romantic film from a time when this kind of filmmaking was out of fashion and as reminiscent of Minnelli and sirk as it is of other Westerns of the time. I don’t just refer to the central romantic between Nate, Averill and Ella but the sheer uninhibited feeling it has for both emotional connections between people and the overwhelming force of nature and attachment to the land. The sweeping epic vistas are making a point here –the land, is the true America, not the politicians or the money men and it is the characters who connect most closely to the land and only tenuously to economic and political society, particularly Averill and Ella, who are the heroes. Emotion keeps breaking through in this film, whether it be in the visceral sense of location evoked by the photography or the simple but affecting declarations, spoken or unspoken, of feeling between characters. This latter aspect is often best when left unspoken – the way that Jeff Bridges’ bartender tenderly pours Averill’s drink or the physical interactions between Averill and Billy. We don’t always realise how much we feel for a character in this film until they leave the narrative, something most notable in the case of Richard Masur’s wry stationmaster.
The performances help the film a great deal. It’s full of fine supporting turns from a roster of recognisable faces including Masur, Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O’Quinn, Brad Dourif and Joseph Cotton. John Hurt is exactly right as the hopelessly damned Billy and Sam Waterston’s clipped manner as Frank Canton, leader of the Association, is chilling. Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken also make the most of their chances but the film belongs to Kris Kristofferson. Always one of my favourite actors, Kristofferson’s basic decency has been effective in many of his films but is absolutely vital here as his face is used to speak volumes. He;’s also remarkably good at being tender and relaxed, bringing us important quiet spells in a dramatically intense film.
But what finally makes Heaven’s Gate so overpowering to watch – and what perhaps finally sealed its fate with audiences - is that it’s fundamentally a story of failure. None of the characters get what they want. Most of them die and those who don’t live saddened, unfulfilled lives. The only real victor in this story is death. And yet there are also moments of transcendent joy and resplendent life. The sequences between Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert are delightfully unforced and natural, amply demonstrating the possibilities of life and love which the story then closes off. Even more memorable is the major set-piece at the centre of the film, a dance in the town’s roller-skating rink which is staged as rigorously and observed as minutely as a dance in a John Ford movie. It’s a ten minute explosion of joy, backed by David Mansfield’s violin, which deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible. It’s then capped by a dance between Averill and Ella which is deeply romantic and completely heartfelt by the director.
In awarding full marks to this film I am not claiming that it is a perfect piece of cinema. There are certainly flaws, not least the indulgent over-length, the poor sound recording which renders some of the dialogue inaudible, the occasionally awkward dialogue and the somewhat melodramatic turn of events at the end. But these mean little when contrasted with the sheer power of the film. It’s one of the last great follies of American studio filmmaking, a work to stand alongside Intolerance in its lunatic ambition and vast scale. It looks extraordinary – even the critics conceded that – but at its heart, it’s a clear-eyed view of the history which we don’t normally hear about, the one where the strong trample over the weak in their quest for a capitalist paradise.. It’s also funny, exciting, involving and completely satisfying in the manner of a great 19th century novel. For better or worse, there are no other films quite like Heaven’s Gate and in its over-reaching grandeur it makes most modern American movies look like something the cat dragged in.
Second Sight’s Blu-Ray disc of Heaven’s Gate is locked to Region B and contains Michael Cimino’s restoration of the film which appeared on the 2012 Criterion release. It’s important to note that Cimino’s version has drastically different colour to previously released editions of the film since the “flashing” performed on the negative by Vilmos Zsigmond has been removed and the colours are constantly a lot more vigorous. Whether or not you like this is a matter of taste – on the whole, I think Zsigmond’s processing worked well for the film.
Having said this, the version of the film presented on this Blu-Ray, in 1080p and 2.35:1, looks like forty million dollars well spent. The colours are natural, vivid, and striking throughout while the level of detail is absolutely sensational, making the old Region 1 DVD look even worse than it did in 2000 – and it looked pretty bloody awful then. It’s this tactile detail that I like best about the transfer since it is so perfect for such a visually overpowering film. The soft-focus cinematography leads to a considerable amount of natural film grain - which looks lovely - and the definition in the darker sequences is excellent.
There are two soundtrack choices. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is reasonably good and occasionally fills out the surrounds with ambient effects of one kind or another. I preferred the LPCM 2.0 track, however, as it sounds more natural and the dialogue is generally clearer. Mind you, the dialogue in this film has always been a slight problem and the lack of subtitles on this Blu-Ray doesn’t help at all in that department. Music is the winner on the lossless stereo track as David Mansfield’s score sounds beautiful whether playing in the background or dominating all before it.
The second disc contains three excellent extra features which are unique to the UK release of the film and are far better than the anodyne efforts featured on the Criterion. Jeff Bridges and Vilmos Zsigmond appear in their own interviews, both of them very enthusiastic about the film and delighted that it’s been so dramatically re-assessed in recent years. Zsigmond, incidentally, is a lot more gracious about Cimino than the director has been about him. Best of all, there’s the 55 minute long version of the superb 2004 documentary Final Cut – The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, here making its first home viewing appearance in the UK. It’s one of the great making-of pieces, a story of egos, incompetence, genius and disappointment which is as fascinating in its own way as the film itself. There are numerous interviews, the best being with UA executives Steven Bach and David Field, neither of whom, understandably, can quite bring themselves to see the great film behind their creative nightmare.
It should be noted that this is the BBFC certified version of the film and while it's been downgraded to a 15 - somewhat surprisingly - it has been cut by 59 seconds. From their website - Compulsory cuts were made to remove scenes of unsimulated animal cruelty orchestrated by the film makers (in this case, a cockfight and sight of horses being deliberately tripped in a cruel fashion). Cuts required in accordance with the BBFC's Guidelines and policy. The Criterion DVD is uncut but is locked to Region A.
Heaven’s Gate is one of my very favourite films and I’m so pleased to see that it’s finally receiving the acclaim it so richly deserves. Second sight’s Blu-Ray presents it very welland the result is very highly recommended.