Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

What's it about? Inspired by the little-known Johnson County War, it's about a Harvard-educated sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) protecting a group of immigrant smallholders from a posse of mercenaries hired by cattle barons to drive them off their land. Of course, you will know it as the notorious box-office flop which is regularly voted one of the worst films of all-time. It ruined the director's career, bankrupt an entire studio, put an end to the New Hollywood wave and killed the Western genre for a good decade or so. Can it really be that bad?

Is it any good? Well, no. I decided to give a chance to the 219min director's cut which some critics have re-appraised as a misunderstood masterpiece. It's not. It's a mess. An epic, beautifully photographed mess, admittedly, but if you spend $44m shooting 200+ hours of footage, you're bound to find a few nice shots in there somewhere. Putting them together in order to tell a good story is obviously less easy, especially if there's no sense of what the story is. Look - it's John Hurt - his character must be important. Nope, he seems to have disappeared off to make The Elephant Man instead. Why are all these people titting about in Harvard? I thought this was a Western? Ah, here we are, some pretty Montana scenery to set the scene. Oh good,here comes Christopher Walken - I like him. Although he does have a crap moustache here. Oh, he's away too. Now who's this? Isabelle Huppert - she looks very pretty and wholesome. Wait - she's a prostitute!? Who gets paid with cattle!? What!? She seems torn between the charms of Walken's moustache and Kristofferson's beard - no contest, Kristofferson's beard is a thing of great beauty. Christ on a bike! - isn't that Jeff Bridges on roller skates? Dancing to fiddle music? For about 15 minutes? And then puking? That's a bit odd. Well, 2 hours in - I wonder is anything going to happen in this film? Ah! Some fighting at last. Walken will sort everything out, I bet. Ooops! No he won't, he's dead now, after writing the crappest death letter ever. Hold on, when did everyone suddenly talking in comedy foreign accents? And why is that man holding Mickey Rourke by the tongue? Well, onto the climactic battle. Which I can't bloody see because all of the dust raised by a pile of horses riding endlessly round in a circle. What's happening? Who's dead? Who's alive? How did Granny get a gun? Why is that man stuck under a wagon? Why is there a man sitting under a tree at a desk studiously writing in a book and seemingly unperturbed by the chaotic battle going on around him. Why did that woman shoot herself? Is that it over? Nope, there's an epilogue on a boat. Aaaaaghhhh! Kristofferson has shaved off his beard!!! Nooooooooo! Is nothing sacred? The end.

I expected a Western. I got Jeff Bridges on roller skates.
Anything else I should know? Thankfully the account of the making of Heaven's Gate is much more entertaining. Coming off the back of the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Cimino was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and was effectively given carte blanche by United Artists (UA) studio to realize his dream project based on an old script he had knocking around for the best part of a decade. This ill-advised decision on creative control was seemingly interpreted by Cimino as an excuse to labour over every single detail, from personally selecting individual extras for scenes, to shooting upwards of 30 takes for every scene, to making everyone sit around waiting for just the right cloud formation to roll by. As the legend goes, after 6 days filming, the production was already 5 days behind schedule. Beyond that, tales of excess included relocating an entire tree for one single shot, installing an irrigation system to ensure lush green grass for the final battle scenes, rebuilding an entire set because the street needed to be 6 feet wider and re-routing a train for a few seconds footage.

"Don't worry Kris. Just a few more hours
and that cloud will be in the right place."
By all accounts, it was mad stuff, and when he eventually gathered his 200+ hours of footage, he barricaded himself in the editing room - literally - and eventually produced a 5+ hours cut to UA, who understandably went bananas. Finally a 3 hr 39 min version was released to an absolutely toxic reception and a miserable $1.3m box-office, prompting UA to pull the film from distribution after only 1 week. A shorter, even more confused version appeared a year later to equally bad reception. Unable to deal with the losses, UA was unceremoniously dumped by parent company Transamerica, effectively ending the studio's 60-year independent involvement in the film industry. Cimino went on to make only 4 more films (all bad) and Heaven's Gate effectively became a cautionary tale and a byword for terrible, egotistical, wasteful film-making. If you want to read more, here's a rundown courtesy of the excellent denofgeek website and an article from the Telegraph which argues that Heaven's Gate makes it possible to consider a film as a catastrophe and a classic simultaneously. Or for more extended reading try Steven's Bach's book Final Cut which tells about the whole sorry affair in details. All of these are more interesting than the film.

What does the Fonz think? Pretty, but terrible. So pretty terrible, then

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