Widely heralded as the film that killed the director driven era of Hollywood, Heaven’s Gate was considered a catastrophic failure. Made for, at the time, a whopping $44 million it made only $3 million back at the domestic box office. Panned by critics and setting in motion the demise of studio United Artists, it is a film that has a lot to answer for. But the reality of Heaven’s Gate the film, rather than the fallout from it, is something hard not to admire as a bold and often inspiring attempt to make a bonafide American epic.
Set in 1890 Wyoming, Heaven’s Gate tells the story of two men, Marshall James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and hired gunman Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken) as they find themselves on opposite sides of a landowner, immigrant conflict and vying for the affections of local madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). As the tension spirals out of control, with the landowners drawing up a death list of 125 immigrants to be executed for theft and anarchy, Averill and Champion begin to question their beliefs and political position in the escalating conflict.
After the success of The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino was essentially given carte blanche to make anything he wanted. Heaven’s Gate is therefore something of a vanity project, a film often bloated, overlong but in retrospect hard not to be both admired and infuriated by. On the one hand it deals in grand themes in the vein of D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation, the American Dream gone horribly and violently wrong. On the other hand it often becomes bogged down in Cimino’s sense of self-importance, often losing sight of the more interesting character dynamics to dazzle us with visuals and metaphors. But dazzle it does.
Cimino doesn’t let a cent of the budget end up anywhere but the screen. Crane shots capture the grandeur, every set is lavish in its detail and all the while the film bathes in Vilmos Zsigmond’s opulent cinematography. The vast, sprawling vistas, basked in glorious sunshine, wonderfully juxtapose with the smoke-filled, almost noirish interiors. As Champion says to a sleeping Averill at one point, “You’ve got style…I’ll give you that”. The same is more than true of the film itself.
Viewed now, it’s hard not to look at Heaven’s Gate as a damning indictment of the current economic status quo; the 1% looking to keep the poor down by stopping them from trying to achieve their dreams, in the end the government riding in to save their rich hides. The message is a powerful one but the script often hangs around on subplots for too long. At three and a half hours it’s hard not to wonder if a good hour could be trimmed to streamline the more interesting central plot and character developments.
Kristofferson is on typically gruff form, growling his way through the film but is always a magnetic and powerful presence. Huppert shines as Ella, a woman you genuinely believe loves two men for very different reasons, both men bringing out very different sides to her personality. But, as with Cimino’s Deer Hunter it is Walken who keeps you riveted. His Champion is one part violent villain, one part brooding romantic but always brilliantly conflicted. If anything you wish Cimino had dedicated more time to his character rather than devoting so much to Kristofferson’s more straightforward good guy.
A film that it is hard to ignore the over indulgence of a director at his zenith, Heaven’s Gate is nonetheless a visual masterpiece and a film that certainly warrants a second chance. But, as is pointed out in the film itself, “You can’t force salvation on people”, Heaven’s Gate’s reputation will never be completely dispelled, just ask Cimino, who never really made another film of note again.