Heaven’s Gate. Film Review


Director: Michael Cimino

Screenplay: Michael Cimino

Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken

Certificate: 15   

Running Time: 216mins             

Format: Blu-ray/DVD

Reviewed by Guy Adams 

It’s difficult to review, let alone simply watch, a film whose reputation lies not in what is on screen but rather what happened off it. For decades the name HEAVEN’S GATE was a synonym for disaster in movie circles.

Michael Cimino’s follow-up to THE DEER HUNTER, production overran terribly and the budget spiralled. Tales from the shoot were legendary, endless retakes, reconstruction of sets, cast sitting around for months without being used. It was a mess.

There were also allegations of animal cruelty, particularly towards the horses used in the final battle scene (one was allegedly blown up by dynamite). HEAVEN’S GATE is certainly partly responsible for opening the door to the American Humane Assosciation’s full access on film sets and more controlled ethics put in place as to the acceptable treatment of animals onscreen.

When the film was released, audiences and critics alike had the same problem I do now. The controversy surrounding its production was well known. How to view it objectively?

They also had a very long film to sit through. The cut Cimino originally presented to the studio was five hours and twenty five minutes. Eventually — at the studio’s insistence — this was cut down to three hours forty and then, after a disastrous opening, a hastily reworked two and a half hour version.

The movie bombed. In fact it bombed so badly, taking $3,000,000 commercially against a budget of $44,000,000 that it was chiefly responsible for breaking United Artists (the studio was put up for sale having declared major losses). It also ruined the career of Michael Cimino and put an end to the era of director control in cinema. From that day on, studios were far more cautious and hands-on with their features.

It was one of the most famous catastrophes in cinema. Only an idiot would name a trilogy of westerns he’s written after it.

(I did.)

In recent years, the movie has experienced something of a reassessment. With many claiming it to be a true work of art, a great piece of epic cinema whose original treatment by critics and studio alike was a travesty.

I want to agree. Second Sight have released such a lovely presentation of the film that nothing would please me more than to side with the revisionists. But I sadly can’t. HEAVEN’S GATE is a failure and the problem isn’t really one of subjective viewing. If a film is good, it’s good.

It looks beautiful (and here we must give cinematographer Vimos Zsigmond his due) and many of its individual scenes and set pieces are very effective. As a whole though, and most importantly as a story, it fails consistently. Characters are barely explained, their relationships with one another seem contradictory, the whole thing, despite its mammoth length, feels as if it’s missing another chunk of exposition. Perhaps it is, maybe that was what fell by the wayside when Cimino cut his five hour version down, but when the director chooses to ditch plot in favour of people dancing around a tree for five minutes you have to wonder if he knows what he’s doing.

Cimino disliked ADR, the process whereby actors would re-record lines of dialogue that were unclear during shooting. He would always use the original sound. This means that several scenes contain dialogue that is inaudible. Second Sight have done their best to compensate for this with both a 5.1 audio option and the original stereo on offer, but they can’t work miracles. The director didn’t think it important that his audience could hear the dialogue. Because Cimino simply isn’t a good storyteller.

As for the animal cruelty. Well, that can never really be justified can it? Is a film, a piece of entertainment, ever worth blowing a horse up for (*ahem* ‘allegedly’). No, of course not. This version has been trimmed by the BBFC to remove a few seconds of unacceptable footage, most particularly during a cock fight but it still leaves a sour taste in this viewer’s mouth knowing it was there in the first place.

I wanted to be swept away, I wanted to agree with the many who consider HEAVEN’S GATE a landmark in American moviemaking, but I’m with the original audience. It’s an over-indulgent mess. Perhaps you’ll have more luck, certainly many have, in which case this release is the way to go. It’s a gorgeous presentation and the special features, as was perhaps inevitable with a movie like this, are excellent viewing. A second disc contains an interview with Jeff Bridges, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and the hour-long version of the excellent documentary ‘FINAL CUT: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF HEAVEN’S GATE.