Personally, I like this movie. And while I appreciate Cimino's insistence on period authenticity in such things as trains, costuming and sets but I have a problem reconciling it to a script that takes such artistic liberties with recorded history. The real Jim Averill was a cattle ruster who along with his wife was hanged. He was not the noble sheriff with an Ivy League background as portrayed in the film by Kris Kristofferson. Nevertheless, Heaven's Gate is a superb motion picture in many respects. The cinematography by Villnos Zsigmond is nothing short of magnificent, and the acting performances are all good, especially those of Kristofferson, John Hurt, and Christopher Walken. Although many previous reviewers have criticized the sound quality, I found nothing wrong with it. I also didn't find the plot all that hard to follow, as others claim. Perhaps they expected the movie to give them a clue without any sort of thinking on their own. Of all the complaints that have been levelled against Heaven's Gate, the only one I think that has any merit to it is that the pacing is painfully slow. That said, I don't believe it distracts significantly from the enjoyment of the movie. Incidentally, have I mentioned that David Mansfield's score (sadly, not in print) is beautiful?
Sure, Heaven's Gate is considered to be a flop. But I would suggest to anyone reading this review that you watch it for yourself and decide. It's really not as bad a movie as others have led you to believe it is.
Cimino has collected a set of compelling stories that swirl around the range wars of the Montana. He relates these stories through his protaganist, a federal marshall played by Kris Kristofferson. His thoughts drift back to Harvard Yard in the opening sequence, where he reveled in the commencement ceremonies with his old schoolmate, John Hurt. Much of this scene was chopped out in the theatrical release, undermining the content of the film. It is this Eastern view, which Cimino wants you to take note of. How one can meld into the West as Kristofferson does, and how one can become part and parcel of the cattle syndicate as Hurt did.
The stories mainly focus around the Eastern European immigrants who attempted to carve out a life in late 19th-century Montana. They came up against the great cattle syndicates, who owned much of the range, leaving little for the immigrants to settle on. Cimino gives you a very intimate view of the events. His camera angles take you right into the action. This is a very visceral movie.
Eventually these immigrants come up against the cattle barons, who had formed their own vigilante gangs in an attempt to combat the encroachment of the new settlers on their land. Kristofferson has grown close to the immigrants and eventually chooses to support their claims, leading to a final gut-wrenching confrontation, which includes his old schoolmate, John Hurt.
The cast is first rate. Walken, Bridges, Huppert, Watterston all give excellent performances. Cimino has inverted many of the myths that surround the Old West, and provided a living history. The film almost has the quality of a sepia tone, as he has muted his colors to give the sense of age. The [fourty]... million budget seems paltry by toda's standards, but at the time it was one of the most expensive films ever made. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready for it.
Cimino was on a roll. Having taxied well up the runway with his Eastwood-cast movies, he climbed to a well and truly dizzying zenith in 'The Deer Hunter'. 'Heaven's Gate' should have been a duplicate in commercial terms.
It didn't happen that way. The 'why' element is flustering to mull over. Looking at the correlation between the significance of Vietnam in 1960s America and the Old West in America a century or less beforehand should have been able to keep 'Heaven's Gate' more than salient. Yet, cinema-goers were apathetic in 1980 to something that should have worked, that seriously had worked for them barely two years before.
Length shouldn't have had to matter, but that, coupled with the lack of a strong central character seemed to be the blamable factors for 'Heaven's Gate' dying night after night upon theatrical release, before having to be rushed back to the studio hospital for extensive surgery.
This truly is a case of 'why-o-why has this happened?!'. The positives are just staggering to behold, after all. Cinematography - perfect. Casting - perfect. Screenplay - (near) perfect.
The sum of the parts makes this movie too good to be true. Yet, even in execution, there was still the 'X' factor bestowed by Cimino's careful lens. Reality bled through in every nook and cranny, walked in every foot of so many hundred extras, while comic relief (I mean what else could John Hurt have done but serve as comic relief in this?) and firefighting choreography are through the log cabin roof. The sprawling action evades the need for focus on a solitary protagonist because that's the way it should be. The Johnson County war didn't happen in Hollywood so why should its recreation have?
'Heaven's Gate' will be resurrected, though it may take time. Yet, through DVD and video value or deluxe release, late night cable release and large-scale magazine or E-zine reviewing, it shall truly make it back to where it belongs.
This type of thing has happened before. It will happen again (rarely, though, given the downplay of the value of auteur cinema largely 'thanks' to this masterpiece). Herzog's 'Nosferatu' was another case of a high-energy attempt coming off looking-good and not quite making it. It's just too bad in this instance because Cimino lost a war in which he'd won every battle.
Art House cinema has many Christlike properties. It's a forgiving genre, here to teach us in ways we usually wouldn't dream of looking for or looking through. While it's arguable that the Spaghetti Western was borderline Art House in a few facets, 'Heaven's Gate' stands as the only true example. The gunplay is harrowingly real, the living is heart-wrenchingly real, the dying is virtually intolerable. Maybe that was the problem. The dawn of a new decade didn't want so much social conscience being portrayed and fun-loving cinema patrons seemed to be in tune with that sentiment.
Fickle things, movie-goers.
...then buy Unforgiven.
Let's just set the Heaven's Gate plot aside for a moment (all 3 hours and 40 minutes of it). Read more