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Overall Rating

Awesome: 25.88%
Worth A Look: 5.88%
Average: 5.88%
Pretty Bad: 28.24%
Total Crap34.12%

5 reviews, 55 user ratings

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Heaven's Gate
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by Jack Sommersby

"One Hell of an Egregrious Ego-Trip"
1 stars

More than lives up to its notoriously bad reputation.

The three-hour-and-thirty-nine-minute Western epic Heaven's Gate boasts magnificent cinematography, production design, and location shooting that certainly provides an eyeful; unfortunately, it lacks two necessities any epic needs to justify its lavish grandiose treatment: interesting characters and an all-encompassing story to provide the film with equal parts of scope and depth. The writer/director, Michael Cimino, whose previous film was the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, has set out to make an epic to end all epics, but, in a major miscalculation, he's expected the visuals to carry the whole show while all but negating the dramatic aspects, and the viewer is left emotionally aloof and infinitely frustrated at never being able to get inside the story. There's always plenty going on within the film frame, but the vast widescreen images seem to emasculate the characters before they can even open their mouths, and when they speak, it's sometimes inaudible, often times gibberish. Cimino direly lacks a fundamental dramatic sense -- that is, an instinct for what people say and how they physically and emotionally relate to one another -- so his haphazardly overwritten screenplay, which contains a woefully underdeveloped plot and little in the way of subplots to help alleviate it, leaves the actors stranded in their scenes; and this isn't just because what they're saying and doing sounds tin to the ear and false to the eye, but because with no real continuity in their behavior carried over from one scene to the next they've no dramatic through-line provided by the writing to give them an idea of how to end their scenes with the good of the overall film in mind. Not being able to predict what the characters will do next is less a testament to canny unorthodox writing than blatant dissociative scripting.

Mind you, the film being such an innate mess is hardly surprising given its tumultuous production history. It started out titled The Johnson County War and budgeted at a reasonable seven-and-a-half-million-dollar cost, even though it was actually calculated beforehand that it couldn't be made for less than ten-point-six million. The studio executives at United Artists suspected the shooting schedule and budget projections submitted by Cimino were decidedly less conservative than reality would permit, but they were excited about financing the next project by a director who had just won an Academy Award; even though The Deer Hunter had doubled in cost and gone over schedule, they figured that, given its enthusiastic response by a majority of critics and a healthy box-office performance, Heaven's Gate would be worth any headaches and cost overrun. Thus, Cimino was allowed to pretty much do whatever he wanted, and when he was challenged, the challenger soon relented when Cimino threatened to take the film to another studio (which, legally, he couldn't do, but his bullying, sometimes-childish whining managed to work manipulative wonders with the UA brass). After a mere four days of shooting, Cimino had already fallen five days behind schedule, with his undying penchant for "getting it right" (i.e. the exactness to every conceivable detail with the costumes, props, design, and the like) coupled with the largely inaccessible shooting locations high up in the Montana mountain plains (with the cast and crew making daily four-hour round-trips just to get to and from the set) causing the budget to skyrocket to forty-four million and the cameras to shoot a then-record total of one-and-a-half-million feet of film. Of course, if the film were any good, then Cimino's megalomania and all of the reckless excess could be excused, but such is not the case -- you can see where all the money went but not an iota of common sense anywhere.

The film opens in the year 1870 at a graduation ceremony at Harvard (shot in England at Oxford University, but never mind), where we meet the two standouts of the class: James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt). What ensues after the commencement speech by the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten), a quintessentially dull man giving a quintessentially dull speech, is a grand celebration full of gleaming faces, morning suits, exquisite boutiques, and a ritual waltz around a courtyard. Nothing particularly meaningful or important is revealed, only that Averill and Irvine are friends and that the graduates are expected to adhere to the highest order of integrity. Hardly justification for a thirty-minute prologue (though the sight of Kristofferson and Hurt trying to act twenty years younger than their actual ages is off-putting and worth a few snickers). We then fast-forward twenty years later to the sight of a bearded, weary-looking Averill riding alone on a train destined for Johnson County, Wyoming; a rich man with a well-respected name, he's returned there as a federal marshal to protect the rights of the county's European immigrants, who've been put on a "death list" by the powerful Stock Grower's Association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and composed of other rich businessmen, including Irvine, a hopeless drunk with a nagging conscience. Starving and stealing cattle to feed their families, the immigrants are labeled as "anarchists"; but the Association's underlying motive is to take over their land and gain full control over the West for their own ambitions and profit. Cimino's intention here is honorable in that he's trying to invoke an important theme -- the denial of the American Dream to immigrants looking for a better life -- but it lacks true introspection and fails to resonate because he's stupidly put a tired love story front and center and relegated the immigrants to the back burner.

We never know how or why Averill first wound up in the West after graduation, or why he left to go back East, or what profession he worked to gain his immense wealth, or how he learned of the death list being that Irvine, his only friend in the Association, is surprised at his knowing about it. (Cimino's original cut was twelve minutes over the five-hour mark, so I have to assume these lapses can be chalked up as casualties of the editing room.) But what's fatally ill-defined are two essential characters who make up the love triangle: Ellie Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a French madam of the local brothel; and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a mercenary hired by the Association to protect their land and cattle. We can understand Ellie's attraction to a kindly rich man like Averill, but not to a fellow immigrant like Champion, who guns down people of their own kind. We can understand Champion's love for a sensuous woman like Ellie, yet not his friendship with someone altruistically motivated like Averill. And we can understand neither Averill's deep-seated love for Ellie, a prostitute, or grudging friendship with Champion, a killer-for-hire. Kristofferson and Walken aren't exactly known for exuding sensuality, and they end up generating no chemistry whatsoever with Huppert, who, emotionally and erotically, is a zero. This we-gotta-have-a-romance flaw wouldn't be as detrimental if Cimino didn't parade it about with a Dr. Zhivago-like grandeur and hang all of the dramatic weight on it; and, even so, we might still manage to deal if the three leads exuded serious star wattage and magnetism, but they don't. These are supporting-rank thespians in unbelievable roles who've been expected to shoulder the weight of an epic motion picture, and it's a monumental flaw that leaves a blank void, an emotional vacuum in the middle of everything.

Michael Mann's fabulous The Last of the Mohicans had a contrived romantic angle, too, but not only were Daniel-Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe stunning in the lead roles, but Mann's skillful direction and Wes Studi's palpably menacing-yet-touching portrait of an avenging Mohawk helped counterbalance this. Here, Cimino's direction is crushingly sluggish and overdeliberate, just sitting there and sitting there recording every painstaking miniature physical detail but with little regard for the people inhabiting the film frame. (You can easily imagine Cimino going berserk if so much as a saddle bag were disarranged yet remaining indifferent to an actor's struggle with how to play a scene.) The compositions are meticulous and exact, but even when there's a truly wondrous shot to take in (like when the indoor light changes in relation to a passing cloud overhead) it's oddly inexpressive due to the vapidity of a story that hasn't a smidgen of immediacy or narrative drive. The film feels inert and rambling all at the same time, with Cimino's knack for visual movement -- whether it be in the use of energized scene segues or actors cannily blocked within a scene -- nonexistent; the characters' screen placement comes off as being more compositionally motivated than behavorially -- they're like figures in a wax museum. As for the villainous Canton, he's merely a priggish lout. Perhaps the antagonistic Averill/Canton relationship could have worked if the moral balance had been tipped, to where Averill were simply using the immigrants' plight just to further a macho-driven agenda to settle a personal score with the Association, or Canton finding himself repulsed in realizing his motivations are more xenophobically than patriotically motivated. (There's a workable parallel to be explored in the Association's aims of genocide of the immigrants with that of the white settlers' genocide of Native Americans, but Cimino doesn't touch it.)

The standout dunderheaded moments here are numerous, and I can't quite understand how Cimino, who managed to pull off neat little comic moments in his buddy-caper debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, could be so utterly oblivious as to their unintentional hilarity. There's the priceless moment where Ellie professes to Averill that she cares for him more, because she makes Champion pay whenever she beds him (which is clumsily derived from the Warren Beatty/Julie Christie relationship in Robert Altman's miraculous Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller). Perfectly complimenting this in the Odious Moment department is when Averill has to hurriedly whoof down a piece of Ellie's godawful pie before being allowed to knock boots with her (though Kristofferson manages to gamely play it well), and any number of scenes with Irvine, flask more or less super-glued to his hand, making drunken orations on philosophy and the meaning of life (even while on horseback in the middle of a shootout). There's the uproariously silly epilogue on a luxury yacht off the shores of Rhode Island in 1913, with an elderly Averill looking out over the water with teary regret over the tragic past (with an obvious-as-hell blue-screen projection of a skyline pointing up the actor's horrendous make-up job). And there's the climactic battle sequence -- which originally clocked in at an hour and a half(!) and has been trimmed by an hour -- consisting of covered wagons, dynamite, firearms of every denomination, and an array of absurd fighting tactics that make you wonder if the opposing sides drew them in the sand in a huddle before commencing into bloodshed, with Cimino piling on so much smoke and dust that the viewer often can't tell which side is shooting at whom at any given moment. (There's also a bit involving a nutty trapper telling a joke about slapping someone's tongue that I'll graciously spare you the details of.)

Ultimately, Heaven's Gate is more about pictorialism than poignancy, solipsistic spectacle than scathing social commentary. It's difficult to determine if Cimino honestly cared about exploring his central theme and got sidetracked by his inflated ego to achieve perfection (like in having Kristofferson doing fifty-seven takes of a pointless bit of cracking a bullwhip), if he jettisoned the dramatic possibilities as simply being infinitely inferior to the visual ones (insert your own style-over-substance quip), or if he honestly believed he had the kind of first-rate cast who could pull dramatic miracles out of a bag (going from a De Niro to an ex-songwriter/singer in the leading-man department?). Whatever the case, the film hasn't a single good sequence to its credit. Not one. Cimino was not only irresponsible and reckless, but he was unforgivably foolish in giving his laughably inept screenplay such an absurd amount of respectful treatment; as one UA exec noted about it looking like a David Lean-ian Western yet not having the emotional resonance, "...the perfection that money can buy, the caring that it can't." There are a few virtues to be found, but they're very few and far between. Jeff Bridges (the one performer who comes through) projects quiet, unforced dignity in his role as a good-hearted bartender; he even manages to pull off the line, "It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country." Kristofferson is affecting when consoling a dead immigrant's widow that he'll "make this right." The score by David Mansfield, though overly derivative of Nino Rota's The Godfather theme during the opening credits, is a few bars above competent. And Vilmos Zsigmond, the world's greatest cinematographer, pulls off the best use of desaturated color tones since, well, his legendary work on Altman's McCabe.

Heaven's Gate debuted in New York at a special screening for industry brass and reporters in late '80 to qualify for the Academy Awards. But the event turned out to be quite the debacle -- as Roger Ebert so noted, "the critics ran gagging from the theatre." According to Stephen Bach's invaluable book Final Cut, when The New York Times' chief critic Vincent Canby gave it a merciless panning and declared it an "unqualified disaster," the film was pulled at the request of Cimino to re-edit it to a more reasonable length (this coming from the same man who stubbornly stood by his original over-five-hour cut). A voice-over narration by Kristofferson was added for the sake of clarification, the running time was condensed down to two-and-a-half hours (even though Cimino still insisted on leaving his damn cockfight in), and was re-released the next year. Yet it didn't make much of a difference: the film was still savaged by critics nationwide and wound up grossing a paltry million-and-a-half at North American box offices. This precipitated the downfall of its financer, United Artists, which was bought up by MGM, thus resulting in the current studio logo MGM/UA. Heaven's Gate should serve as a teaching tool to film students, and not just for those looking to be directors, but also ones looking to be producers, because the film is not only a clear-cut example of irresponsible wastefulness on the part of the director, but an undeniably searing reminder of the ramifications of inept, indecisive leadership in the studio ranks. There are certainly worse-made films for lovers of cinema to wish a painful and fiery celluloid death to, but I'll be damned if there's one as empty, incomprehensible, and just plain asinine as Cimino's and UA's notorious folly.


It's interesting to note that my favorite all-time film, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, was a box-office bomb like Heaven's Gate, yet not for the same reasons. Leone's director's cut ran two-hundred-and-twenty-seven minutes, but the morons at Warner Bros. demanded it be drastically reduced in length. So it was the re-edited one-hundred-and-thirty-nine-minute version that was shown to critics, and, like Gate, they declared it beautiful-looking but incomprehensible. Then the legendary critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was given a look at the director's cut and was amazed at the difference. Thanks to her enthusiastic write-up, this version was released, and many hailed it as a masterpiece. But the thirty-million-dollar epic was mismanaged from the get-go by the studio, and it only pulled in just over five-million at U.S. box offices. Still, it remains that rare epic that's appropriately proportioned, beautifully and flawlessly executed, dramatically rich, and thematically resounding. See it.

The pits.

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originally posted: 11/22/03 02:20:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/11/16 Bradley Hayman The worst movie of all time. Poor on a fundamental level 1 stars
4/11/15 FireWithFire A GROSSLY,Leftist-1960s-generation-distortion of the Johnson Co. War 1 stars
8/11/14 D. The R. Takes out-of-control self-indulgence to the level of a metaphysical art. 1 stars
11/25/13 Quigley Not the worst out there, but definitely one of the most boring films ever made. 2 stars
6/09/13 Fire With Fire Typical '70s US movie: Preachy,Leftist,Anti-American shit,plus it's interminably BORING. 1 stars
5/17/13 dr.lao A truly agonizing film experience 1 stars
3/08/13 Jeremy Kendal Heaven's Gate, albeit imperfect, will stay as a gorgeous masterpiece. 5 stars
10/27/12 dede This is worth seeing -- not nearly as bad as some reviewers would have you believe 4 stars
2/27/12 Mark Sawyer The real story here is that Deer Hunter is overrated--HG is better 5 stars
11/16/11 Dane Youssef Heaven is so ugly in this movie, you want to take a moment to consider the alternative. 1 stars
1/28/11 Josie Cotton is a goddess Not a great movie, but It has more merit then people will admit 3 stars
12/15/10 buzz gundersun the film went down for political reason. the children and grandchildren of the evil cattlem 5 stars
8/28/09 Jeff Wilder Bad sure. But I can think of 10 movies excruciatingly worse without doing any research. 2 stars
5/22/09 Duke of Omnium A train wreck from the opening credits to the epilogue 1 stars
1/01/09 brian Gorgeous but lost wandering around within itself. Worth seeing once. 3 stars
4/09/08 Bryan Stephens A beautiful, near perfect film. One day, the consensus will come around to recognizing it. 5 stars
2/11/08 zenshark Don't bother. 1 stars
7/20/07 Todd Cameron An important, de-mythologized look at the West. 5 stars
2/12/07 Spencer Steel Has to be seen to be believed 1 stars
1/30/06 Klaugartoff "One of the most boring, but interesting"... WTF? That's like "excellent, but really bad". 2 stars
1/16/06 Daveman Even the nice photography is superficial in that it only serves to exhalt vacuous nonsense. 1 stars
1/07/06 David Lormans Much better than its reputation 4 stars
12/28/05 Bill terrible 1 stars
12/27/05 joe hard to believe a film can be this bad while pretending to be an important epic 1 stars
7/25/05 Eric Rollins ahhhhhh! Makes my brain hurt. 1 stars
7/15/05 John sets no standards for boring, self indulgence and self importance 1 stars
5/01/05 Sergio The film with the bummest rap in film history. A near masterpiece! 5 stars
12/11/04 Lucas Stensland Big business controls gov. and murders the poor. Very relevant. Thanks Dubya. 5 stars
11/10/04 D. Kremer Too many people's knee-jerk reaction is to crucify this film? Watch it first. Really. 5 stars
11/01/04 Camilla Extremely beautiful 5 stars
9/14/04 Michael Don't believe the hype, an accomplished, beautiful film. 4 stars
7/19/04 sdfr don't know why the bad word of mouth, this is a good movie! 4 stars
7/04/04 Mary Simultaneously ultraviolent and ultraboring; an amazing accomplishment! 1 stars
6/25/04 Karen Stockdale I so wanted to admire this film - but instead I just love it 4 stars
6/21/04 Xavier R. Maybe I'm the 2nd rating Awsome but not the last 5 stars
3/12/04 Chris J. Who on earth are the 19.35% that rated this film "awesome"? 1 stars
12/07/03 Mike The ,ost painful film I've ever watched. It sucks! 1 stars
11/27/03 John mr cimino's overindulgence in his non existent genius - good music for what it's worth 1 stars
11/22/03 adguy If Ed Wood had been given a blank check, his movie would have looked like this. 2 stars
4/11/03 Earl Dittman - Wireless Magazine The most justly maligned film in cinema history. 1 stars
12/29/02 Jack Sommersby Magnificent photography; godawful story and characters. 1 stars
2/12/02 john james could've been a great film, but it was so poorly written. stunning cinematography, though. 3 stars
8/21/01 Alan Stuart The very good elements do not make a convincing whole 3 stars
6/19/01 Steve Langton The most unjustly maligned film in cinema history. 5 stars
4/11/01 iCaptain Yossarian! Confused but forever breathtaking. 5 stars
10/02/00 bobabooey It seemed like it was 3 DAYS long! 1 stars
7/19/00 iCaptain Yossarian! The best movie I've seen. Has all the coherance it needs to keep your attention! Top notch 5 stars
2/27/00 Steve Magee Great photography,Great music, Great Film. 5 stars
2/19/00 Joe Morgan Excellent fucking movie. Excellent detail 5 stars
1/16/00 Steve DeLisle Cimematography, great! Everything else, bad! 2 stars
10/07/99 Larry Gannett Millions went starving in '80 for the cash shilled out to this dreckfest. 2 stars
6/15/99 Dylan Ive never seen anything that is quite as fucking shit as this pile of crap. 1 stars
11/25/98 little jerry I wanted to say it is the most justly maligned film of all time but it isn't that good. 3 stars
10/24/98 Vincent The most unjustly maligned film of all time- a masterpiece 5 stars
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  19-Nov-1980 (R)
  DVD: 29-Feb-2000



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