Plan 9 Cinema: Heaven’s Gate

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September 21, 2012 by abbyo

Sometimes, the story of a film’s creation overshadows the movie itself. The story of Bob Guccione’s re-editing of “Caligula” to make it more pornographic, for example. Or, in more recent times, Christian Bale’s expletive-ridden on set meltdown during the filming of “Terminator: Salvation.” But of these legendary troubled productions, one towers above the rest, a movie that not only had on-set issues, but killed a studio, and a cinematic movement (not to mention countless horses). That movie is Michael Cimino’s sprawling 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate.”

In the late 70s, director Cimino was a star on the rise. He’d just made “The Deer Hunter,” which won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. He was a hot commodity, and everyone wanted in on his next film. This was also at the tail end of the New Hollywood movement, characterized by movies like “Taxi Driver,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Godfather.” Studios were giving visionary directors a lot of control over edgy movies. Hollywood was ready to give Cimino anything he wanted. What nobody realized—or perhaps just didn’t want to realize—was that this golden boy was a nutcase with an ego the size of Montana.

On “Heaven’s Gate,” Cimino famously shot scenes while wearing an admiral’s cap and carrying a gun loaded with blanks. He barred the American Humane Association from the set, a set which saw countless animal slaughters—a horse was blown up, there were cockfights and chicken decapitations. At one point a steer was bled so the director could have actors use real blood in a scene instead of stage blood. Cimino posted armed guards at the screening room door to keep troublesome executives from getting in and seeing what he was doing with their money.

All this is to say, the story behind “Heaven’s Gate” explains a lot about the film itself, both the good and bad parts. The cast, for example, is spectacular, almost certainly because the prospect of making Cimino’s next big movie was a major draw for talented people. The film stars Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Sam Waterston, and Isabelle Huppert in her first-ever English-speaking role. That’s to say nothing of the supporting cast, which includes Jeff Bridges, Tom Noonan, Brad Dourif, and a very young Mickey Rourke. Blink and you’ll miss Joseph Cotten. And say what you want about Cimino’s apparent grudge against poultry and livestock, there’s a definite vision at work in this film. “Heaven’s Gate” is a sweeping epic, with shots that range from gorgeous to completely confusing. It’s got a strong (if bitterly cynical) message about the plight of the poor and immigrants in America that still rings true, a message that stays strong and consistent from beginning to end.

The story concerns Kris Kristofferson’s lawman James Averill, who’s trying to keep things civil in rural Wyoming at the turn of the century. Averill’s territory, Johnson County, has a high population of European immigrants, some of whom are rustling steers from the area’s wealthy cattle barons, led by the snotty, privileged Waterston and Kristofferson’s heavy-drinking, weak willed college classmate John Hurt. Waterston and his fellow barons declare war on the immigrants, writing up a kill list that consists of 80 percent of the county, and sending out hired gun Nate Champion (Walken) to do their dirty work. Walken is conflicted because of his relationship with brothel owner Ella (Huppert), who’s on the kill list, and is also sleeping with Averill. Averill tries to reason with the cattle barons and the U.S. Army, but doesn’t manage to avoid the inevitable massacre of pretty much everyone.

The whole of “Heaven’s Gate” is an exercise in excess. Sometimes that excess is kind of wonderful, and sometimes it’s gratuity at its cringe-inducing worst. The first two-thirds of the movie are mostly of the positive kind, with Cimino piling detail atop detail. It’s not enough for him to have a hoedown. It has to be a hoedown where everyone (including the musicians) is on roller skates. It’s kind of like watching one of those wedding dress shows on TLC, where the bride picks a gown that’s already pretty ornate, and then asks for extra bling.

This is the Cimino the studios hired, the award-winning “Deer Hunter” guy. Everything is very pretty, if a little slow-moving, and feels like the revisionist westerns that were so popular a few years before. It’s a little “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and a lot of Sam Peckinpah. Things may drag a bit, but you want to give points to Cimino for aiming high. Then, the final 90 minutes of the film arrive, and we get the Michael Cimino who liked military dress and carrying a gun on set. Everything explodes, literally.

The last hour and a half of “Heaven’s Gate” is when the tension that’s been brewing under the surface finally breaks, and things get nuts. Horses are blown up. One-eyed women wail forlornly from caravans. Shootouts and firing squads leave behind bullet-riddled bodies. And if you’ve ever wanted to watch a scene that included both Christopher Walken randomly shooting a man in cold blood and Sam Waterston bitch-slapping the sense out of John Hurt, you’re in luck.

(Beware: this clip contains offensive language)

The victimized immigrants finally decide they’ve had enough, and form a posse to fight the cattle barons in not one but two separate battle scenes that last 10 minutes each. Not only are these scenes violent, they are sometimes unnecessarily so. In the initial charge, for no reason whatsoever, a cart falls off a bridge, and a woman is trampled to death while everyone else keeps on going. Later, during the actual battle, Cimino gives us close-up shots of a man’s legs being run over by a wheeled barricade, and a woman blowing her brains out, just because he can. Take your glitzy bridal gown and pour about eight gallons of fake blood (or, in the director’s case, cow’s blood) over it. That’s the finale of “Heaven’s Gate:” 20 minutes of pure, violent, unrestrained crazy.

One gets the feeling that there were lots of themes Michael Cimino wanted to communicate in “Heaven’s Gate.” The working poor getting constantly spat upon by the entitled rich, for example, class violence begetting class violence in a never-ending circle of guilt and resentment, for another. On the whole, it’s a very grim movie, with no sense of hope whatsoever. Any sense of justice or redemption dies around the time Cimino has an immigrant woman put a gun in her mouth and pull the trigger. There are lots of ideas at play here, but so many, and told over so long a time (the edited version is 2.5 hours, the director’s cut is a little over 3.5) that the whole thing seems unfocused. When you add to that allegations of animal abuse and tales of a director gone out of control, you end up with a disaster of legendary proportions. And that’s precisely what “Heaven’s Gate” ended up being.

Random observations:

-My favorite line in the whole movie is Waterston’s reaction to Walken after he shoots the man in the tent, simply because it makes me laugh: “I have nothing to say to you.” I’m pretty sure that if someone walked into my tent and shot a man through the head, I’d have some words ready.

-Other fun casting facts: T-Bone Burnett plays a member of the roller-skating hoe-down band. Also, as I mentioned in last week’s profile on Brad Dourif, Willem Dafoe is in this movie as an extra. Cimino ended up firing him for laughing at a fellow extra’s joke.

-Loads of great essays and books have been written about the making of Heaven’s Gate. I’d urge anyone interested in finding out more about the movie to read Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” a first-hand account of the film’s destruction of United Artists, and Nathan Rabin’s “My Year of Flops” review of the movie on the A.V. Club, which is a bit kinder than my own. Bonus: the book edition of “Flops” contains an interview with Tom Noonan about his experiences on the film.

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