Title: Heaven’s Gate
Language: English, Russian, French, Polish, German
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Western
Director/Writer: Michael Cimino
Music: David Mansfield
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
As human beings we are inherently inclined to be thrilled by sensational rectifications, as regards to cinema’s audience, seldom one can feel more rapturous than resuscitating the cachet of an under-appreciated or even maligned masterpiece-in-disguise which foundered upon its release (often a box office dud), say, Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) or Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), after generational shifts of perspectives and ethos, their names are belatedly canonized among its peers.
So what about one of the most colossal fiasco in our film history – Michael Cimino’s notorious HEAVEN’S GATE (a 216-minute Director’s Cut version)? Lamentably, that is not the case, as it happened, it is a padded-out, passion-turned-vanity project disgracefully squandering away money and manpower.
Deriving its story only nominally from the Johnson County War (1889-1893) in Wyoming between cattle barons and European immigrants, Cimino’s saga opens with an effusive prologue of a Harvard College graduation ceremony in 1870, lavished with Billy Irvine’s (Hurt, as eloquent and empathetic as always) drunken valediction and a majestic spectacle of twirling dancing on the campus, both are tangibly over-stretched, an ominous omen.
Our protagonist is Jim Averill (a clean-shaven Kristofferson at first, visibly ill at ease to play a college graduate), barely mutters a word before the narrative fast-forwards two-decades later, which aligns with Kristofferson’s real age. Jim, now a marshal of Johnson County, becomes aware of the irreconcilable clashes between poor immigrants new to the region and the locals, and after knowing that the snotty and ruthless head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Frank Canton (Waterson, in a cardboard villain mode) decides to legally hire gunslingers to wipe out 125 named settlers as thieves and anarchists, Jim has to bring the horrendous news to Johnson County because on that list, there is the name of Ella Watson (Huppert), a free-spirited fille de joie he is smitten with, although Ella reciprocates her feelings, still, there is a hitch, a hired gun Nate Champion (Walken) also falls head over heels for her, and their attraction is mutual as well. A central love triangle unconventionally grants the woman to have her say.
In fact, Cimino injects a strong defiance into his characters, Jim is an out-and-out anti-hero, if Ella consents to run away with him, one might assume that he will leave with her promptly not caring a rat’s ass about those names on the list, even before entering the makeshift battlefield, Jim is too sanctimonious to get himself involved, pissed off by the internecine fissure among the immigrants. By contrast, Ella is the bona-fide heroine, proactive enough to mount on a horse and shoot at the posse of mercenaries without blinking an eye, she is the solitary figure comes to Nate’s aid (although in vain) when he and his cohorts are ambushed, not Jim, because Jim is not a messiah to those unfairly persecuted, at most he is a reluctant aide, also complete unsuccessful, as a hasty wind-up verifies, literally he can save no one from their tragic fate, that’s why it is called anti-Western, a too grim upshot deliberately at the expense of a helluva heroine, it is not a win-win situation, to cynical to appeal general audience. Well, personally I gets befuddled with the epilogue in 1903, a totally redundant appendage.
The money-shots of the combat fail to establish the emotional high-point thanks to the dusty, blurry environment and ill-coordinated, slipshod kerfuffle scenes, a disaster even Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera cannot salvage, it is a pandemonium of racking-up body counts then it just ends without any further exposition. Several set pieces stay with our memory nevertheless (yes, after all that money has been expended), the dancing pageant in the roller-skating rink, aka. Heaven’s Gate preceded by the composer David Mansfield’s skating violinist is one (in contrast to the roll-call in the same locale, which is an overlong pain-in-the-neck), not to mention Zsigmond perfectly captures the grandeur of the landscape in widescreen, but that is far from enough.
As a leading man, Kristofferson is narcissistically retiring, occasionally beset with laughable, throwaway lines like “I hate getting old!” “You can’t hire me, Charlie, but I just quit!”, empathy is a missing link here meanwhile Walken is comparatively better, a dead-eye simpleton gets wrong-footed by sudden bliss and uninvited anger, never gets his shield on even after getting the whole damn picture, which makes allowance for the illogical sequence where the unscrupulous Canton lets him leave unscathed, only to round him up later for a more ritualized bloodbath. At last, a 26-year-old Huppert is the saving grace, a continent starlet struggling with her English diction, yet, it is in her character, where lies the core strength of the movie, an immigrant earning a living by the sweat of her brow and doesn’t sit around to be rescued, or easily flee away in the face of inequity and danger, she is the owner of her fate, but HEAVEN’S GATE doesn’t pass muster to serve her justice, nor to all the assets involved. A follow-up of an overwhelming success is always a perilous step in artistic endeavors, because once a suppressed ego is unleashed, no one can predict what collateral damage it could produce, this film is a living proof of its destructive reverberations.