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USA 1980
Directed by
Michael Cimino
230 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Heaven's Gate

Synopsis: In the frontier-town of Heaven’s Gate, Wyoming, in the 1890s, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as the local law enforcement officer, has the task of protecting his constituency of Eastern European settlers from the cattle barons who want them and their kind gone, dead or alive.

Michael Cimino’s film is better known for its failings than its achievement. Costing $US44m from an original budget of $US12m it was theatrically released at 239 minutes (down from the 325 minutes of the first cut shown to studio executives), withdrawn after three days and a critical lambasting and re-released at 149 minutes. It did not make back even half its budget (which would have been over $AU270m in today’s money) and led to the sale of its backers, United Artists, the company founded by Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith, to MGM. Invariably being cited as one of the great Hollywood box office disasters it effectively ended Cimino's career in Tinsel Town.

The film has achieved such a back-handed legendary status that it has been “restored” to as close to its original condition as possible by MGM’s John Kirk. As such it is unquestionably indulgent with Cimino hanging on his scenes far too long in the apparently mistaken belief that this added epic resonance when really the net effect is to emphasise the director's presence rather than produce engagment with the characters. There are simply too many scenes of William Hurt being a wounded soul, Polish immigrants railing against their ill-handling or Kris Kristofferson being a well turned-out hero than any one needs to get point.

It will be mandatory viewing for film buffs who have the opportunity to see Cimino’s original (or at least his initial compromise version) work in glorious widescreen. The Superscreen projection not only gives proper due to one of the film’s main strengths, Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, but is even more revealing of Cimino’s brilliant visual conception. With its meticulous production design Heaven’s Gate shows us the late 19th century American Frontier as a painter of the day might have. Indeed scene after scene is like a painting come to life, with the camera taking us inside the frame. In this respect Cimino’s film is outstanding and deserves as many accolades as comparable works by Leone or Visconti.

So where did Cimino go wrong? Purely pragmatically, he simply spent too much money on it (producer Steven Bach's book Final Cut: Dreams And Disaster In The Making Of Heaven's Gate details where the money went as Cimino exposed 1.5 million feet of film or roughly the equivalent of 100 standard length features). Although he had a huge hit with The Deer Hunter (1978) a powerful indictment of the Vietnam War, this film, with its damning portrayal of the well-springs of American capital and its overarching theme of lost ideals, was probably too much to win over the kind of numbers needed to come anywhere close to recouping its costs (which by rule-of-thumb are 2.5 - 3 times initial investment). There are more specific reasons. For the first half of the film nothing really happens as Cimino languidly sets up his characters and their relationships. Yet we ask, how has Averill gone from Harvard greensward to Wyoming mud? We never find out. There is no justification for the recurring appearance of John Hurt’s inebriated fool, but one instance of Cimino’s tendency to labour his point by repetition. And the oddly-cast Isabelle Huppert (Jane Fonda was the original choice for the role but expressed no interest) is both an unlikely whore and the object of affection for a kohl-eyed hired killer (Walken) and an alcoholic existentialist hero (Kristofferson).

If Gone With the Wind this is not it is still an impressive piece of film-making. The fact-based story traverses 50 years in the life of Sheriff James Averill (Kristofferson), a one time member of the East Coast upper class who has turned his back on his own and as the Sheriff of Johnson County is attempting to protect immigrant farmers from The Cattlemen's Association, a conglomerate of wealthy cattle interests swallowing up Wyoming. He also has a side conflict with the Association's hired gun, Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), as they compete for the love of local whore and madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). The bulk of the film is given over to the Wyoming part of the story with a 20 minute intro set in 1870 when Averill and his best friend, Billy Irvine (Hurt), are graduating from Yale,and a short coda set in 1920 with Averill now an old man, married to the sweetheart of his youth and left with memories of what once was and what might have been. The effects of time, often clumsily handled with pancake makeup, is well realized thanks no doubt in a good part to Vilmos Zsigmond's heavily filtered lens.

Aside from his director's shortcoming Kristofferson does an excellent job in the lead as yet another mythic Western hero whilst Walken gives a memorable performance as the rather emotional hired assassin. Huppert is effective as the love interest albeit a little to delicate to convince as a backwoods whore whilst the film also provides an early screen appearance for Mickey Rourke and one of the last major film appearances for Sam Waterston who starred in The Killing Fields in 1984 and a few Woody Allen films but who has had a successful career in television and Brad Dourif who has largely played small support roles in little seen films ever since.

FYI: Credited by IMDB as Willem Dafoe's first screen appearance the actor was actually fired by Cimino but can be seen briefly in the cock fight scene.




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