Knocking Heaven's Gate

Some movies are cinematic milestones for all the wrong reasons – they fail commercially and critically, becoming celluloid nadirs of epic proportions.

One of the best known examples of these is Heaven's Gate, which screened over the weekend as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival.

The 1980 western cost roughly $45 million to make, but recouped only $3 million upon release. It contributed to the near-extinction of the United Artists studio, and virtually destroyed the careers of writer/director Michael Cimino and star Kris Kristofferson.

However, screenings at the 2012 Venice and New York film festivals have prompted a rethink about the film – so it was in this spirit of objective investigation that I called up a friend (a fan of car crash cinema ) and we went along to see it.

The story is loosely based on a real event in American history known as the Johnson County War, when rich Wyoming landowners hired mercenaries to kill off their small-ranch competition, under the guise that they were cattle rustlers.

Cimino exaggerated the story to represent the so-called rustlers as mostly poor eastern European immigrants; and added a love triangle between Kristofferson's noble marshal Jim Averill, Christopher Walken as rancher Nate Champion, and Isabelle Huppert as bordello madam Ella Watson.

At 219 minutes, this restored version is the closest possible to Cimino's original vision. Acclaimed for the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Cimino was in a line of “New Hollywood” directors that were essentially given free reign over their projects. That ended with Heaven's Gate – and there are some valid reasons why.

The whole thing needs to be tighter, but cutting it down for re-release as the studio did in early 1981 wasn't the answer. It needed to be scripted tighter, a classic problem encountered with writer/directors who refuse to take on a good editor.

As a result there are bloated sequences that sure, establish characters or drew you into the landscape or community, but carried on far too long. The opening scenes detailing Averill's Harvard graduation takes 20 minutes at the start of the film; it has recall value later on, but half that time would've done. A lovely sequence at the local Heaven's Gate roller skating rink featuring Averill and Ella skating among the townspeople was immediately followed by one of them skating alone together. Both were nice; one would've done.

Despite being the lead character, it's not clear who Kristofferson actually is – it turns out he's the Johnson County marshal, but he's never called “Marshal”, or seen in a station. The origins of his relationship with both Ella and Nate are not detailed; it's left up to the audience to work out. Much of the dialogue is incoherent and barely audible; and supposed corpses were seen twitching and moving.

But there are positives.

Cimino's emphasis on realism means attention to detail is excellent – costumes, vehicles, sets, all believably gritty. He also makes good use of the scenery (Montana standing in for Wyoming) to portray a mountainous landscape that looks beautiful, but could reclaim its people at any moment.

The acting is actually uniformly good. Huppert in particular is both vulnerable and tough as nails as a woman caught between two men, and not willing to compromise her independence. Her face is marvellously expressive. Kristofferson's face is like an Easter Island statue; cragged and heavy with tragic knowledge. Christopher Walken was doing that weird talking thing he does even way back in 1980; but his character's turnaround is believable. The always-watchable Sam Waterston as the Bad Guy, and John Hurt as a drunk and cowardly friend of Averill's are great. A young Jeff Bridges is solid as a bartender turned town defender.

I also appreciated that no subtitles were provided for the mostly Russian and German immigrants; a move that lent authenticity to the story and treated the audience intelligently. Besides, their fears and motivations were clear without words.

The final, brutal battle sequence is wild and disorientating – but realistic. However, Heaven's Gate is notorious for its mistreatment of animals on set, including a notorious incident in which a horse was actually blown up with dynamite. I don't recall seeing the exploding pony in the film, but it's possible I lost it in the heat of the battle.

The film's biggest asset is its political message, which wasn't a big focus for critics at the time. By making the story about established citizens turning on immigrants, including scarily familiar cries of “Go back to where you came from”, Cimino made a bold anti-American and anti-government statement. Kristofferson's character is standing up for a principle that freedom isn't worth anything unless it applies to everyone.

The closest thing I can compare Heaven's Gate to from recent years is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which starred Brad Pitt. I wouldn't call that a film so much as an extended dream, full of clouds and sunlight and bubbled thoughts. It was a love letter to the Old West, with its honour amongst thieves and misplaced nobility.

Heaven's Gate is its ancestor in that. It's not the worst thing you'll ever see – but it's not something you're necessarily keen to revisit.

I'd taken along a cinephile friend to the screening, and after some time to stretch our legs and gather our thoughts, I asked his opinion.

“There's an all-time classic film buried under nearly four hours of bloat and hubris. It's a beautiful mess.”

I can't disagree.

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This story Knocking Heaven's Gate first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.