I know, I know - it’s not that great a declaration but damnit, I’ve been avoiding this movie for 28 years and I actually made it through the whole thing today.
I literally mean a whole day because although the length is 3 hours and 39 minutes, I kept pausing it. I took breaks to sleep, check email, and read reviews of said movie online which made me admit to myself that I preferred reading about the movie than actually watching it.
I mean you understand that HEAVEN’S GATE was the movie that bankrupted United Artists in the '80s and director Michael Cimino’s career never recovered as the story goes. Roger Ebert called it “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen” and Vincent Canby wrote that is was “an unqualified disaster.”
Worse though it became synonymous with the word “flop”. As in Flop (n) - An utter failure - see HEAVEN’S GATE, ISHTAR, and HOWARD THE DUCK. Nathan Rabin's hilarious My Year Of Flops column at the Onion A.V. Club (which has extended way past a year) covered the movie for Case File #81 and made the argument that it was actually a “secret success.”
I’m not so sure about that but there are many defenders of the film and time has definitely been good to Cimino’s vision but critical consensus is still pretty damning - it stands with a 45% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatometer.
Enough about the film’s reputation though. When a friend who loves it lent me his DVD copy I felt it was time to see it for myself. I didn’t realize that it would be the biggest challenge so far of my film geek blogger career. At first I loved the imagery - the sepia tint, the long sweeping shots of the endless landscape, and the overhead tracking shots were all gorgeous.
The film immediately identifies itself as an epic as it introduces the characters of James “Jim” Averill and William C. “Billy” Irvine, played by Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as they graduate from Harvard in 1870 on the brink of a new country yet to be fully conquered. After a massive celebratory dance we skip 20 years to Johnson county, Wyoming. Kristofferson is now a sherriff who learns from Hurt that The Stock Growers Association is planning to murder the immigrant settlers in the region for stealing their cattle.
Sam Waterson, in probably the most evil role he’s ever played, offers $50 a head for each of who he calls the “thieves and anarchists” while Kristofferson and Hurt protest to deaf ears. Mix in Christopher Walken as a cold killing enforcer, Issabelle Hubbert as a brothel madam, Jeff Bridges as a roller skating fiddle-playing (no kidding) friend, Joseph Cotten in his next to last film role as a preacher, and Mickey Rourke in a part of no consequence and you’ve got yourself a modern Western classic, right? On the surface yes, but the movie is so slow and meandering that all these elements drown into a murky mess.
So it’s a modern Western classic flop but a beautiful one that I fully understand a film lover falling for. Along with Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible cinematography, Cimino’s indulgent ambition to portray the historic 1892 Johnson County War as the ultimate example of class warfare is impossible to dismiss so there is much to admire if not enjoy here. There were many times that I caught my mind wandering so I’d rewind the scene (or skip back - whatever you call it with DVDs) and rewatch the scene only to find that I didn’t really miss anything.
For all the magnificent splendor of the open terrain and the visual artistry on display the dialogue is weak (Kristofferson even says “I told you so” to Hubbert at one should’ve been emotionally affecting moment) and the characters are all one note. Kristofferson is so stoic and short-lipped that he never lets us in to care about him. I wasn’t sure whether or not to hate or have empathy for Walken as he faces off against Kristofferson for the love of Huppert while John Hurt tries to find poetry in his part but more often just finds his flask to take another drink. Hard to blame him. The editing feels off especially during the battle scene of the last third of the film and there are many uninvolving sequences that just go nowhere.
Still it is an amazing looking film with many stunning shots that are worthy of study for aspiring film makers. What more likely will be studied though is how it not just destroyed careers, it ended an era - the director-driven 70’s died here so this is less a review than an autopsy. It’s neither as bad as Ebert or Canby or its sweep of the Golden Raspberry awards scream nor is it the misunderstood masterpiece that it’s defenders yell back; it’s at best gloriously sprawling and at its worse a blustery bore.
I loved hating it as much as I hated loving it.
So, I finally saw the notorious HEAVEN’S GATE. I’m exhausted but proud that I finally conquered this beast of a box office dud. One day I may actually take on another infamous flop - Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE. That’s a film that I think of as the “Metal Machine Music” of movies i.e. I don’t know a single soul who has ever sat through the whole thing. Whew! That’ll be the day.