The 1970s are fondly remembered now as an insanely creative and risk-taking era for American cinema, and there’s one infamous film that is generally blamed for bringing it all to a crashing halt: “Heaven’s Gate.” Director Michael Cimino had cleaned up at the Oscars with “The Deer Hunter,” and seemed like a safe bet to deliver something even greater with his next film. Yet 1980′s “Heaven’s Gate” went three times over budget and deadline, with a first cut that was something like six hours long. The studio stepped in and cut it down to 2½ hours, but tales of Cimino’s hubris had circulated widely and the movie was savaged by the critics, dead in the water before it even had a chance to find an audience. It’s failure doomed the studio that made it (United Artists) as well as Cimino’s own career, and pretty much the entire notion of giving directors creative control over their movies.
Few people saw it at the time, and the film was such an object of fear and loathing that it was out of circulation for ages, with a lousy transfer to video/DVD that did nothing to improve its rep. When DVD label Criterion Collection enlisted Cimino to work on a restored director’s cut of the film, they found that no negatives of the longer versions existed, and had to go back and work off the three separate reels of a YCM color-separation master, restoring the original color frame by frame. The good news is that the film is at last the one Cimino intended it to be, with nearly an hour’s worth of extra material.
Set in Wyoming, 1892, and based on the Johnson County War, “Heaven’s Gate” is even more relevant now in its analysis of class and power in America. The story follows a group of wealthy Wyoming ranch-owners who, tired of the influx of European immigrants, hire a death squad of gunmen and draw up a hit list. Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) sides reluctantly with the rule of law, despite the odds being against him, mostly because his lover Ella (Isabelle Huppert), madame of the local brothel, is on the hit list; a fresh-faced and bad-ass Christopher Walken plays the immigrant boy who’s become a brutal gunman for the bosses, while John Hurt shows up as a cynical and drunken dissenter amongst the ranchers, a class traitor in spirit.
I’d long been curious as to whether this film actually was the disaster people claimed it was, and I’m happy to report it’s not. In fact, it’s closer to the flawed-masterpiece end of the spectrum. “Heaven’s Gate” — like “Barry Lyndon” or “There Will be Blood” — is a sprawling, ambitious film that really takes you to that time and place in a very direct way. Yes, the film is indulgent, ridiculously so. But let yourself sink into the languid pace Cimino establishes and “Heaven’s Gate” becomes a world you can really get lost in for a few hours. Sometimes more is more. Whether it’s a fiddle-and-jug group performing for a hall full of settlers whirling around on roller-skates or a wagon-mounted assault on a desperate group of cattle-baron vigilantes, Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond deliver majestic, intricately executed shots that plunge you into the heart of the action.
For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to see “Heaven’s Gate,” visit jtimes.jp/film.’