Since even before its disastrous theatrical release in 1980, the legend of 'Heaven's Gate' has overshadowed any of the film's actual merits as a work of art. Though still relatively little seen by most viewers, the movie is widely known as one of the biggest box office bombs in cinema history. Its failure bankrupted a studio and brought an end to the auteur movement of the 1970s. Consequently, it's often regarded as one of the worst movies of all time. The facts of its financial debacle can't be denied, but many of the complaints about its actual quality as a film are overstated. The truth of the matter is that 'Heaven's Gate' is not a terrible movie, nor even a bad one. Unfortunately, it's also not quite the masterpiece that its director so desperately wanted to make.
After his Oscar-winning success with 'The Deer Hunter', studio United Artists offered filmmaker Michael Cimino a blank check to do whatever he wanted for his next project. What he wanted was to make a Western. An epic Western. An epic Western with a rigid adherence to historical authenticity that he would spare absolutely no expense to achieve, and he was given free rein to do so. Reports of the movie's troubled production filtered out early. The film suffered delays and cost overruns. Cimino was described as a tyrannical megalomaniac whose extravagant excesses (he had an entire city street set struck and rebuilt because the street needed to be a few feet wider) cost the studio millions upon millions of dollars. At the time, its $44 million budget was one of the highest recorded for a movie.
The first cut that Cimino delivered to the studio was nearly five-and-a-half hours long. Flabbergasted, studio executives refused to release the movie at that length. Cimino compromised with a new cut that was still nearly four hours long. In its early screenings, film critics tore the picture to shreds with an almost gleeful vehemence. The New York Times called it "an unqualified disaster." In a panic, the studio pulled 'Heaven's Gate' after only one week of limited release. Cimino recut the picture again, this time down to just two-and-a-half hours (still long by most viewers' estimation). This version was released the following spring to not much better reaction. Among other complaints, the shorter cut was lambasted for incoherency. Roger Ebert described it as, "the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen."
To put it mildly, 'Heaven's Gate' was a flop. Scared off by its terrible reviews and still daunting length (even in the short version), no one went to see the movie. It made almost no money at all. Combined with the fallout from other box office duds, United Artists fell into bankruptcy. Corporate owners subsequently sold the studio to MGM, which reduced it to a mere specialty label. Not all of that was the fault of 'Heaven's Gate', but Cimino and his movie took the brunt of the blame. Perhaps even more importantly, the scandal of its failure brought about a sea change in the industry with regard to how much money and freedom so-called auteur filmmakers would be allowed. The studios tightened their belts and reined in their directors. The era of New Hollywood died with 'Heaven's Gate'.
For all that, how bad is the movie, really? Make no mistake, 'Heaven's Gate' is an indulgent film made by a director with an inflated ego and little sense of restraint. That's evident right from the on-screen opening credits, which display a title of not just 'Heaven's Gate', but 'MICHAEL CIMINO'S HEAVEN'S GATE'. The movie is loosely based on the true story of the Johnson County War, in which, with full legal authority granted by the government, the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association hired a band of mercenary gunmen to murder dozens of "thieves, anarchists and outlaws" (mostly poverty-stricken immigrants living at subsistence level) that they claimed were stealing cattle. This resulted in a bloody range war until President Benjamin Harrison was forced to send the United States Cavalry to intervene.
For all his claims of historical accuracy, Cimino takes great liberties with the details of the story, into which he has inserted a rather formulaic love triangle involving a noble Marshal (Kris Kristofferson) who defends the immigrants, a sympathetic enforcer for the stockmen (Christopher Walken) and a free-spirited French whore (Isabelle Huppert).
By far, the greatest of the movie's sins is its length, which it simply never earns. Even in its now-restored 216-minute Director's Cut, the film's plotting feels half-baked and its characters are thinly sketched at best. Despite all the time we spend with him, we're told so little about lead protagonist James Averill (Kristofferson) that his position of authority in the county is never once explained. I only learned that Averill was a U.S. Marshal by reading a plot summary on Wikipedia. While he does a lot of ordering people around, a brief, almost subliminal glimpse of a tin star on a coat he carries in one early scene is the only indication that he might be a lawman. This is never referred to again. The majority of other characters are two-dimensional caricatures – from the prissy villain (Sam Waterston) to the erudite, smartass drunk (John Hurt) whose presence serves no purpose to the story whatsoever.
The film meanders endlessly, with scenes that drag on and on even though little significant happens in them. To make the point that Averill comes from a privileged Eastern background, the picture opens with his entire Harvard graduation ceremony, including interminable valedictory speeches and a seemingly never-ending dance in which (clearly 40-year-old) students Waltz around the campus courtyard. That entire prologue sequence could be easily edited down to two minutes without losing anything important. If this were one event, it might be forgivable, but the whole movie is like this. It has no sense of structure or pacing at all. In countless scenes, characters stand around delivering dialogue that turns out to be totally perfunctory, with no critical information (for either plot or character development) that won't be reiterated later in the film anyway. I understand that the director wants to luxuriate in the atmosphere of a scene, but Time-Outs like these need to be earned, not taken for granted. In 'Heaven's Gate', Cimino takes them so much for granted that most of the movie feels like a Time-Out from a story that he never gets around to telling.
With that said, the movie plays much better at home, where it can be broken up into segments like a television miniseries, than it must have in theaters, where its butt-numbing length so enraged critics. Cimino's obsession with historical detail pays off in some terrific production design of a truly amazing scale. (Remember, he built all this for real, with no CG fakery.) His insistence on wallowing in the dirt, filth and squalor of the era demystifies much of the romanticism of the Old West, and was highly influential on later Westerns, especially the HBO series 'Deadwood'. In its best scenes, Cimino's vision manages to break through the torpor and coalesce into something genuinely unique and captivating, such as the roller-skating fiddle sequence, which has no particular bearing on the plot but is so sublime that I wouldn't cut a frame of it.
So much of the history of 'Heaven's Gate' is wrapped up in the circumstances of its release that the film is difficult to rate on its own merits. However, even if it could be divorced from the context of its reputation, I doubt that it would fare especially well in the current marketplace. The movie simply doesn't have enough story or character depth to justify its length and pace. Cimino obviously built the whole thing around little more than a simplistic concept in his head (Rich People Bad, Poor People Good), and proceeded from there wherever it took him, apparently oblivious to the irony that he was spending obscene amounts of corporately-funded money to make a movie about the evils of Capitalism. With more discipline and structure, 'Heaven's Gate' may well have been the masterpiece that the director wanted, rather than an object of scorn and ridicule that resulted in such negative consequences for the entire filmmaking industry.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection brings 'Heaven's Gate' (or 'Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate', as it's officially listed on all the packaging) to both Blu-ray and DVD as spine #636. The film was previously issued on DVD by MGM back in 2000.
The Blu-ray contains only Cimino's 216-minute Director's Cut of the film. The disc comes packaged in a clear keepcase and includes a 40-page booklet. (I don't know if this is a problem with all copies, but the artwork insert in mine was too large for the case, and rippled badly until I trimmed a little bit off the sides.) As usual for the studio, Criterion has not programmed any obnoxious trailers or promos before the main menu.
In addition to restoring his Director's Cut and cleaning up dirt and physical damage from the film elements, director Michael Cimino has also used this Blu-ray as an opportunity to completely revise the movie's color scheme. (Fortunately, he hasn't attempted to modernize it by tinting the whole thing teal, as other filmmakers have been fond of doing lately.) When 'Heaven's Gate' was originally released to theaters in 1980, Vilos Zsigmond's photography was timed to produce a "dusty," nearly sepia appearance primarily dominated by browns and yellows. Some critics at the time complained that this felt monotonous over the course of the movie's length. While I don't necessarily disagree with that criticism, I'm not entirely sold on what Cimino has done to the Blu-ray either.
Essentially, the wash of browns and yellows has been removed. Underneath it are revealed more lush and vibrant colors, many of which appear (to my eye) electronically boosted. Grass is a very rich, almost fluorescent green now. Skies are vivid blue. Flesh tones are often orange. In some ways, this is appealing. However, although superficially prettier, the new colors feel revisionist and inappropriate for the tone of the story. At the very least, I'd expect more delicate shadings.
I don't blame Criterion for transferring the film incorrectly. I'm sure that this is all Cimino rethinking the movie. And I don't say this as some sort of 'Heaven's Gate' purist. I hadn't seen the movie in ages and went into this viewing with no expectations for how it should look. Nonetheless, the colors struck me as off pretty quickly. The disc is not a travesty by any means, but I can't heap the praise on it that other reviews may have.
Beyond the color washes, Zsigmond also used a technique called "flashing" that imbued much of the photography with a hazy, grainy, soft glow. While some contrast boosting seems to have undone a little of that, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is very revealing of stylistic decisions that may not translate well to the current era of digital video. Image sharpness wavers from shot to shot, and grain sometimes has an ugly, digitized texture. I'm puzzled by a strange blue flash at time code 1:27:43, and am uncertain whether it's a digital error or something that stems from the original production. On the other hand, Zsigmond did masterful things with light that the 2.40:1 picture conveys beautifully.
I can understand why some viewers will respond to this new Blu-ray enthusiastically, but I can't help wishing that the movie were restored with its original visual design.
The liner notes in the enclosed booklet claim that the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack was remastered "with an emphasis on improving the audibility of dialogue." This was needed due to one of Michael Cimino's particularly frustrating affectations as a filmmaker: He hates ADR (re-recording dialogue in a studio, a.k.a. "looping") and almost exclusively uses the original audio as recorded on set. This in itself might not be a problem, except that Cimino also likes to stage his scenes in the middle of noisy environments where background sounds drown out all the voices. For example, an early scene where Kristofferson's character first arrives in Wyoming and runs into his buddy the train porter goes on for four to five minutes of solid conversation, all obscured by the very loud noises of the train or the hustle & bustle of the city. I caught the word "citizen" a handful of times, but I'll be damned if I could make out any of the rest of the dialogue without subtitles.
This is a significant problem throughout the movie, and it's torturous in many scenes. Cimino expects his audience to sit there and watch extremely long-winded conversations where characters stand around yakking what is presumed to be important narrative information that's almost entirely inaudible. Even if the Blu-ray has somewhat improved the mix in this regard, dialogue intelligibility remains a huge, unsolvable issue with the soundtrack.
Otherwise, the track exhibits a nice distinction and warmth in the musical score. While surround usage is fairly subtle (mostly reserved for ambience in crowd scenes), certain sound effects such as gun shots are crisp and effective.
MGM's old DVD edition from 2000 was a no-frills affair with just a trailer as supplement. Criterion's Blu-ray does significantly better in this regard. However, all of the features on the disc were apparently produced with the participation and/or oversight of Michael Cimino, who will brook no criticism of his film or its legendarily troubled production. Aside from the booklet essay, the interviews here barely mention the movie's terrible reception or its disastrous box office failure. This is clearly a missed opportunity to examine the work in the context of its release and its greater effect on the film industry as a whole.
Neither the unwatchable failure its reputation would suggest nor the masterpiece it wants to be, 'Heaven's Gate' is an ambitious, often fascinating, even more often frustrating Western epic with big ideas on its mind, but that never completely comes together. The 1980 release of Michael Cimino's movie had major repercussions in the film industry. Unfortunately, the supplemental content on Criterion's Blu-ray fails to put any of that into context. The release is a big missed opportunity in that regard.
On the other hand, the disc will allow many viewers to finally watch the film without the baggage of its legacy weighing it down. At nearly four hours in length, the Director's Cut presents the full scope of Cimino's vision as he always wanted it to be seen. I take some issue with revisionist changes made to the colors in the photography, and the soundtrack suffers inherent problems that are frequently infuriating, but the Blu-ray has enough positive qualities to merit a qualified recommendation.