film clips. Samples below
For those of you who have
been living in a mountain monastery, this film is the standard by which
all other underperforming high budget fiascos are measured. Waterworld was
called Kevin's Gate, Sliver was Evans' Gate, und so weiter.
The version of Heaven's
Gate on the DVD has rarely been seen. It is the first version screened for
the public in New York on November 18, 1980, and it runs more than three
and a half hours. The response to it was so negative that the nationwide
roll-out was postponed and a shorter version was prepared for national
distribution. Amazingly enough, the 3:39 edit is not the longest known
version. Before the public ever saw Heaven's Gate, director Michael Cimino
had screened a 5 1/2 hour version for the same studio execs who had
originally approved a $7.8 million dollar budget and had watched the total
costs increase to $35 million as of that moment. It is amazing to me that
Cimino survived that meeting. I'm pretty sure that if I had been head of
the studio, I would have killed him right then and there, irrespective of
the legal consequences. At least his death would have created a big enough
scandal to bring curious people into the theaters.
In fact, I would like to
see a movie about that screening day, starting from the moment the lights
went up. Now that would be a good movie. Those studio boys must have had
some tense talks that night, because every man in the room must have
realized that the studio's money was lost forever, and that they would
either have to write off the forty million or approve even more for a
rescue effort. The smartest boys in the room must have known right then
and there that their careers and maybe their company would go belly up no
matter which choice they made, and that their own negligence had created
the financial debacle. The management of United Artists then consisted of
tyros, a team which had recently taken over after the previous senior
management had walked out following a power struggle with the parent
company, Transamerica. So desperate were the new kids to make their mark,
to generate their epic classic, their Lawrence of Arabia, that they had
virtually given Cimino a free hand. United Artists had given the director
such laissez faire treatment that the studio had assigned Joann Carelli,
Cimino's girlfriend, to be the studio's line producer on the project. It
was her job to check his excesses. This is not as bizarre as it sounds.
United Artists provided similar laissez-faire arrangements with other
directors, like Woody Allen for example. The movie "business" doesn't work
like a real business. The studio suits might have defended their lax
management techniques as "allowing the freedom necessary to the artist,"
and they might even have laughed off all the budgetary excesses - if a
blockbuster had resulted. But when they saw what they had received for
their money that day, they must have known that their heads would soon
roll, and that many of them would never again work in the industry. It's
surprising there weren't any suicides that day, ala the 1929 stock market
Yup, I'd go to a movie
Since I wrote this article,
there has been no fictional treatment of that episode, but
a documentary film has been released.
After that November 18th
public screening in New York, there was a party at The Four Seasons.
Virtually nobody attended. That was a harbinger of the bad news which
would come in the New York Times the next day. Respected
film critic Vincent Canby called Heaven's Gate "an unqualified disaster"
and pointed out that it "fails so completely that you might suspect Cimino
sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and
the Devil has just come around to collect."
In a completely
unprecedented move, United Artists immediately canceled the L.A. premiere
and Cimino withdrew the film in order to try to cut it to a reasonable
length. When it was re-opened in April of 1981, in a version pared down to
about two and a half hours, it grossed a pathetic $1.3 million in 830
theaters. Andy Albeck, the head of the studio, resigned between the New
York premiere and the L.A. re-release. He had been with United Artists for
32 years. Shortly after the film's final release, United Artists ceased to
exist as a company.
In a sense, Heaven's Gate
was an important film in the history of the industry. The film not only
broke the United Artists studio and destroyed its executives, but changed
the entire system for making movies. Directors had taken control of the
industry in the 1970s and the best ones could even obtain "final cut."
There was nothing then present in the system to rein in the talent and
force it to be cohesive, coherent or succinct. Heaven's Gate forced the
studios to stand up and take notice of the problem, and thus to take
control back from the directors so that the Cimino debacle could not be
repeated. Martin Scorsese said, "Heaven's Gate undercut all of us. I knew
at the time that it was the end of something. That something had died."
Francis Ford Coppola said, "There was a coup d'etat that happened
after Heaven's Gate. The studios were outraged that directors ... had all
the control. So they took the control back."
The final casualty of the film was, of
course, Michael Cimino.
- In November of 1979, because of his
continued tinkering with Heaven's Gate, Cimino was fired as the director
of The King of Comedy. The job went to some kid named Martin Scorsese.
In December 1981, Cimino
could have had a second chance. He was signed to direct Footloose, under
a contractual agreement that if the film went over its budget of $7.5
million, Cimino would have to cover the additional amounts himself. The
following month, just as the movie was about to begin shooting, Cimino
asked the producer for an additional $250,000 to rewrite the script and
for an indefinite delay of production until the script changes were
completed. The producer promptly fired him and hired Herbert Ross to
- In the last fifteen years Cimino has
directed exactly one film, and that one (The Sunchaser, which I haven't
seen) went straight to video in the USA. His previous film had been a
Desperate Hours, a film in the "so bad it's good" category.
So is Heaven's Gate really that bad?
Of course not. It isn't a bad film in the
sense that it is incompetent. Indeed, many of the bad things you have
heard about it are wildly exaggerated.
Heaven's Gate is not a
bottom-dwelling grade-Z movie. Cimino is not Ed Wood, so he doesn't suffer
from lunatic ideas. He is not Kevin Costner, so he is not susceptible to
mawkish sentimentality. Michael Cimino did have a monumental ego, but he
also had great talent, and there is a lot of it on display in this film.
There is some rich characterization
and some of the actors deliver excellent performances.
Chris Walken plays a complex
good/bad character, the most richly written in the film, and turns in
possibly the most nuanced performance of his career. Sam Waterston, Jeff
Bridges, Brad Dourif and Mickey Rourke are good in small roles.
Many of the visuals
are artfully and beautifully composed.
Filmgoers were actually awed by some scenes.
But the film has two monumental problems:
the pacing and the sound editing.
First and foremost, the pacing is
Gate can be exquisite from time to time, but overall it is an exercise in
With the notable
exception of "Run Lola Run", Heaven's Gate may be the only movie longer
than the events it portrays.
At least it seems that way.
Of course, the events in "Lola" occupy about 20 minutes of real time,
while Heaven's Gate spans 20 years. Oh, Lord, this is one slow-movin'
film! And all the ponderous gravity of its four hour running time is
brought to bear merely to develop the ever-hackneyed Western subject of
"the farmers versus the cowmen."
kinda like watching
Oklahoma! without the singin'.
I have exaggerated, of
course, but not by much. Several scenes are shot in real time or nearly
- In the beginning of
the film, John Hurt delivers the Harvard class valedictory, and we hear
every single word of the speech.
- Following the
ceremony, the graduates perform a long celebratory waltz number in the
courtyard. This might have been a beautiful scene because the costumes
were spectacular and the dance was meticulously choreographed.
Unfortunately, the director spoiled the impact of the scene by including
every single beat of music.
- Kris Kristofferson and
Isabelle Huppert go for a buckboard ride for thrills and we see almost
every minute of their journey from the Kristofferson Cam as if it we
were supposed to feel the experience, like one of those 360 degree
- At one point a group
holds a roll-call vote and we hear pretty much every member give his
- Oh, there are other
examples as well, but you get the point.
The first two tedious
scenes at Harvard actually place take place in the introduction, before
the story even starts, in what seems to be an all-but-irrelevant prologue.
This may be the only movie in history which put some people to sleep
before the story even began! By the way, that marginally relevant prologue
was never in the studio-approved version of the screenplay, and was not
even written until the filming was supposed to have been completed. It was
a Cimino brainstorm that just had to be added, and was filmed eight months
after the rest of the film.
Boy, that was worth the
Those scenes not only droned on at a
length unnecessary to make their points, but Cimino had spent millions on
elements of those scenes which were not critical to the presentation,
arguably not even relevant. To film the tacked-on Harvard prologue,
Cimino flew the entire crew to Oxford, which played the part of Harvard.
To get the right centerpiece for the graduation waltz, Cimino uprooted a
gigantic tree from a nearby town and re-planted it in the Oxford
The second major problem
in the film is the sound track. In fact, audiences found this even more
irritating than the slow pace. Cimino decided to throw out the old movie
saw which states that the audience should always hear what the actors are
saying, even if that would not actually be possible in the situation being
portrayed. In the old fashioned style of Hollywood movies, we can hear
Nelson Eddy even if he is standing in front of a foghorn, or in a rioting
crowd. The background noises are never loud enough to drown out the
principal dialogue. OK, that is obviously not realistic, so maybe that old
chestnut needed some cracking, or at least some tweaking, in the mode of
Robert Altman. But what did Cimino choose as his alternative to the trite
conventional approach? Complete anarchy. We sometimes can't hear what the
main actors are saying over locomotive noises, raging rivers, and angry
crowds. Let's face it, Kris Kristofferson's mumbling is difficult to
decipher under ideal conditions, but with ambient noises he's nigh on to
Cimino seemed to save all of his
legendary attention to detail for visual details, and to ignore or
deprecate the sound problems.
Cimino brought an authentic
period locomotive to the set over thousands of miles of track, on a
circuitous route mandated by the fact that the 19th century engine didn't
fit into 20th century tunnels. He recreated every scene in the film from
authentic period photographs. Yet he wouldn't spend a few minutes to get
the dialogue comprehensible. In
addition to the ambient noise issues, Cimino allowed Isabelle Huppert to
misread some dialogue in the final cut, even though a fix would have
required nothing more than re-taking a simple two shot. Cimino's editor,
William Reynolds, a competent old-time pro who had edited The Godfather
and The Sting, told his director about the dialogue problems, but the
auteur huffed, "I don't know what you're talking about. I can understand
every word." Reynolds knew it was true only because Cimino had written
those words, but he could not convince his boss to make any changes.
I guess I would be remiss if I fail to
point out that the film's claims to be based on real events are, to say
the least, fanciful, although the authenticity claims of the marketing
campaign persist to this day. The current DVD box says, "this lavish epic
Western retells the true story of Wyoming's famous Johnson County War - a
brutal conflict in which wealthy cattlemen, backed by the U.S. government,
hired mercenaries to murder 125 immigrant settlers." In the real Johnson
County War, two guys died, one of whom was a notorious cattle rustler.
The U.S. Government was involved, but only insofar as the U.S. Cavalry
arrived to break up the standoff before any further casualties could
occur. The troopers did, in fact, take the mercenaries into protective
custody, thus saving their lives, but the invaders were arrested and
jailed - at least temporarily - and were driven from the county
permanently. In other words, Michael Cimino's dedication to the historical
accuracy of his visuals did not extend to his facts. When informed of
this, he said, "It was not my intention to write a history book. The
specific facts of that incident recounted in a literal way would be of no
interest. One uses history in a very free way."
Or to put it another way, if history
refutes our preconceptions, we need to change it.
Heaven's Gate has some beautiful visuals
created from period photographs, and some good moments scattered through
the film, but in general is a bloated and tiresome cliché with sound
problems. On the other hand, it doesn't deserve its reputation as an utter
disaster. If you ever watch it (which I don't recommend), you'll see that
there is tremendous talent on display, but it is out of control.