Michael Cimino | 3hr 39min
The widespread adoration that Michael Cimino garnered from audiences and critics alike upon the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978 came about as suddenly as his fall from grace two years later. To this day, Heaven’s Gate stands for one of Hollywood’s most expensive financial failures, effectively sinking United Artists’ reputation as an independent studio and culturally bookmarking the end of the American New Wave. Mainstream cinema in the 1980s would soon look very different to the auteur-driven trends of the 1970s that Cimino rode a very brief high on, and which secured him the funding to direct such enormous epics in the first place.
Yet it is tough to pin these immense cultural shifts on a single film, and especially one that has been so under-appreciated. Cimino’s raw artistic ambition isn’t so different to that of more celebrated directors like Francis Ford Coppola, whose production on Apocalypse Now was plagued with similar issues of over-spending, schedule delays, and obsessive perfectionism. The evidence of that massive cinematic vision in Heaven’s Gate is right there on the screen, and should not be brushed off as merely a monument to one director’s ego. To go even further and claim that it is among the ugliest films in history as Roger Ebert did in his review cannot even be justified as mere hyperbole – this revisionist Western is quite frankly a work of immense visual beauty, possessing some of the finest camerawork and mise-en-scène of the 1980s.
None of this should be a surprise though given the credentials of Cimino’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously collaborated with him on The Deer Hunter and achieved a similarly rustic aesthetic in Robert Altman’s Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Shane comes to mind as well in the use of Wyoming’s alpine mountains as daunting backdrops, towering over lush valleys and rural civilisations. So too are there traces of Sergio Leone in the majestic establishing shots of bustling industrial towns, the staging of massive ensembles across a widescreen canvas, and the grand movements of the camera atop cranes, and yet Cimino also instils this photographic marvel with his own gritty authenticity.
Most notably, natural light fills his scenery with warm, almost sepia tones, beaming in through windows and illuminating the atmosphere’s dusty haze. Especially as we move into the final act where wagons and horses kick clouds of dirt up into the air during large-scale battles, Cimino delivers some of the Western genre’s most astonishing landscapes, and then contrasts that grainy spectacle with the soft, purple skies of Wyoming’s sunrises.
This tension between gentle innocence and harsh conflict wholly transcends Cimino’s visual style and manifests as Heaven’s Gate’s central narrative concern, where a tenuous peace is slowly breaking down between the cattle barons of Johnson County and the European immigrants stealing their livestock. For those impoverished foreigners lying shoulder to shoulder in cramped bunkhouses, this is often the only way they can feed their families, though even those who work in rundown homesteads and brothels find themselves resorting to crime. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association reacts with disproportional violence against the theft of their property, sending mercenaries after the lawbreakers, and putting together a list of 125 settlers marked for death.
Christopher Walken’s menacing entry as vigilante gunslinger Champion is not unlike Henry Fonda’s own villainous arrival in Once Upon a Time in the West, slaughtering a family of offending immigrants with cold-blooded professionalism. The hole that his bullet leaves in the hanging laundry opens a frame which his moustachioed face peers through, before he strides off into the distance to serve whatever orders he is given next. Within the moral greyness of this social landscape though, pure villainy is not so easily defined. Champion has committed some truly wicked deeds, and yet when forced to confront the incongruence between his duty and his love for Isabelle Huppert’s French prostitute Ella, he is driven to perform acts of great heroism against the powerful landowners.
In compelling juxtaposition, John Hurt’s jovial cattle rancher Billy Irvine offers an inverse arc of cowardly passivity. The prologue set at Harvard College sees him give a rousing speech to a crowd of fellow graduates, and when we catch up with him twenty years later in Johnson County he is one of the few Association members to oppose the secretly planned massacre of immigrants. By every metric he appears to be a likeable, intellectual leader, and yet his actual impact is minimal. Billy is a man with little value beyond his charm, wearily resigning to sit among the landowners, quietly disapprove of their deeds, and drunkenly muse like a Shakespearean fool who observes but never acts.
“Armour made a man a knight, a crown a king. What are we?”
Instead, it is Billy’s college friend Jim Averill who takes the position of firm moral conviction in Heaven’s Gate, coming into Johnson County as its new marshal siding firmly with the immigrant settlers. In this role, Kris Kristofferson possesses the stoicism of a classical Western hero and the understated sensitivity of a modern man, reflecting a changing America that is reassessing its traditional values and diversifying its population.
Jim’s and Champion’s politics are as bitterly split as their mutual love for Ella is unifying, so it is through the latter that both men find personal stakes in the Association’s planned massacre. After all, she is one of the immigrants who has been trading sexual favours for stolen cattle, thus putting her name among the 124 others marked for murder. It is at the local skating rink where that list first goes public, as Jim stands in front of hundreds of settlers and reads it out with a tone of indignant shame at how low his nation has sunk. This is not the Old West which built its foundations on promises of the American Dream. It is a state-sanctioned Holocaust, enacted purely out of self-interest by authorities looking to preserve existing power structures.
The name of this rink where the foreign settlers gather is clearly important to Cimino, given that it is also the title given to his film. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ carries divine implications, suggesting a spiritual sanctuary for the meek who Christ assures will inherit the Earth. Just as it hosts their public meetings, so too does it offer them a space to drink, dance, and socialise, while Cimino’s dynamic camera twirls and waltzes with them across its wooden floors. With the frequent low angles catching the skeletal structure of the timber rafters and the sunlight’s warm tones filtering through the ceiling, this rugged set piece is both humble and magnificent in its visual impact. When it finally empties to leave Jim and Ella alone with the folk band, it is even easier to admire Cimino’s feat of production design, which covers walls with faded posters of a long-gone era. This is the last post of compassionate warmth in America, populated by those from Russian, French, German, and Slavic backgrounds finding uninhibited joy in a vibrant melting pot of cultures.
This camaraderie between immigrants is absolutely integral to the fortitude, resourcefulness, and resilience they show on the battlefield when they decide to take their fate into their own hands. Parallels are even drawn to the Romans as they cobble together makeshift weapons and execute ingenious strategies to surround, outnumber, and dominate their overconfident enemies.
These action sequences are skilfully edited, but even here Cimino never loses sight of his setting’s immense natural beauty, with his camera gazing in awe at the pine forests, peaceful lakes, and snowy mountains being obscured by white dust and smoke. Crane shots continue to shift our focus across the battlefields with thrilling invigoration, building this colossal epic to what looks like a grand victory for the immigrants – only for the US army to show up and arrest the mercenaries in the final minute, thus saving them from certain death. In effect, this is the wealthy landowners’ last-ditch effort to ensure that their defeat does not truly threaten their status in Johnson County’s existing hierarchy.
Even more crushing is the petty act of vengeance the leader of the Association enacts against Jim after the dust has settled. Resolving to leave town with Ella once and for all, he is ambushed by a small posse, who shoot one last bullet into his lover. The grief that forces him to his knees is one which continues to echo into the coda set ten years later, encasing him in a lonely recognition of everything that has been lost. Though he is clearly well-off as he relaxes aboard a private yacht with his college girlfriend, there is little warmth to be found.
This ending to Heaven’s Gate leaves more unresolved questions than it does fulfilling answers. If the America that Jim nostalgically swore to defend was already fading in the late nineteenth century, then it is completely gone by the time the twentieth century rolls around, with many of those lives which once shone so brightly now cut tragically short. In the end, this prosperous Western civilisation is defeated by its own shallow success, maintaining itself through corruption and implementing safeguards against those seeking to overturn its social order. It is only fitting that such a profound, melancholy lament of changing eras would similarly be reflected in a film so heavily associated with the end of the artistically fertile New Hollywood movement. Cimino’s ambitious creativity simply could not have flourished anywhere else.
Heaven’s Gate is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.