Heaven’s Gate (1980)
You can almost set your watch by it. Every few years, some periodical of note will publish an article provocatively proclaiming the ‘Death of the Western’, laboriously lamenting the passing of a great American icon, as apple pie as Jazz, fast food gluttony or the occasional, utterly avoidable school-yard massacre. Here’s the latest addition to the roster, a unsurprising polemic given the proximity of one of this years bond-fide cinematic catastrophes, a film whose exhausted cantor has been accompanied by a limited re-release of one of the most notorious film fiasco’s in American cinema history – the studio slaying Heaven’s Gate. Now obviously the Western is not a genre that’s been in the ascendant since the waning shadows of the studio system, but it tenaciously hangs in there and every couple of years a valid new addition to the paddock comes trotting along, just off the top of my head we have all enjoyed the nicotine stitched likes of Rango, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Django Unchained, Brokeback Mountain, Cold Mountain, True Grit, Meeks Cutoff, 3:10 To Yuma, No Country For Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Proposition, whilst the small screen has executed the likes of Deadwood or the genre melding likes of The Walking Dead, Justified and Firefly. These are just the good ones which have stuck in my craw, I’m sure there are many others which got a hoedown of sorts, and I’m not even hurling the lasso to hogtie foreign interlopers such as Sukiyaki Western Django or The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Distant smoke signals hint at the continuing scalping of the Stephen King scribed The Dark Tower series which continues mosing down the path to greenlit activation, and the long rumored adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s visceral Blood Meridian still oscillates through A list directors production companies hands. The point is that the announcement of this death has been greatly exaggerated, whilst the studios may not be churning out the horse opera two-reelers as they were a century ago they are not complete box-office poison, and even enormously maligned examples of the genre can receive something of a critical resurrection despite initial scathing reviews and financial performance which can moderately be referenced as a ‘holocaust’, a decade or three after they initially hit the wilderness trail.
Given the films astonishing cast of Menagerie favourites I guess it’s not completely surprising to learn of my mild adoration of the picture, with early turns from a hood eyed Christopher Walken, a bespectacled Brad Dourif, a polish Jeff Bridges and a blink and you’ll miss him Willem Dafoe in his first, uncredited screen appearance. The film is a love triangle arrayed between Walken’s reluctant assassin Nathan Champion, his beloved French madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert in her first international role) and main lead Kris Kristofersen as the disillusioned James Averil, these melancholy matters of the heart given a dusty bruising against a brutal oppression of the proud yet poor immigrants scrabbling for survival during the final fading of the frontier. Cimino was inspired by the real-life history of the notorious Johnson County Wars, opening with context setting 1870 Harvard prologue the film presents Averil and his graduate colleagues as blazing with an optimistic fervour for the future, a sense of the nation on the cusp of change and opportunity, gracefully arranged in a balletic dance which you can see below – we’ll come back to that. Twenty years later and this spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead has been crushed out of existence, as the realities of the country and its arrangements of strata and power eclipse the promise of the American dream, with the indigenous native people suppressed to the point of near extinction – and curiously no native American makes a single appearance in this film – the capitalist elite now turn their caracal attention to the immigrant threat who are compromising their widening profit margins, by having the temerity to feed upon the natural resources of the widescreen country in a proud but not entirely legal hand-to-mouth ingenuity. The instructions to initiate a war of terror among the population are personified in an unofficial kill list of 125 victims, quietly sanctioned by the government through the sinister machinations of the wicked Frank Canton (a superb Sam Waterson), as another gentleman of Harvard he and Averil share a soused mutual friend in the scotch swilling William Irvine (John Hurt), this second triangle representing Cimon’s vision of the country as the century moved from the 19th to the 20th, from the rural to the city, from exploration to industrialisation; the jaded idealist, the righteous plutocrats, the lamenting jester.
The production anecdotes are legendary, with dark murmurs of the set being swamped with enough cocaine to fuel a Medellin cartel consigliere’s Studio 54 themed birthday celebrations. Cimino was flying high on the enormous commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter and bristling with a clutch of Academy Awards, yet hubris is a wicked foe, as his directorial demands violated any sense of scale, fiscal responsibility or even on occasion crew safety – allegedly. Actors and extras were in genuine fear of the life during the closing battle when the Johnson county natives face off against the mercenary enforcers, as horses and carriages careened wildly around the expansive set in undisciplined and dangerous maneuvers, and many of the quivering witnesses cite that it’s a miracle that no-one was killed or seriously injured. Insisting on the absolute perfect environmental conditions Cimino even had the temperament to grapple with the weather, leaving the entire cast and crew loitering at a cost of $200K a day until the mercurial megalomaniac solemnly pronounced that the light was right in order to commence shooting on the next fragment of his undisputed masterpiece. Perhaps most infamously Cimino instructed that the enormously elaborate set of the frontier town of Casper be demolished and rebuild to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to widen the dimensions of the central avenue by a mediocre six feet, an insistence born of his striving for historical fidelity to the architectural fashions of the era. When his production designer suggested only destroying and rebuilding one side of the set, and rebuilding it six feet in alignment to one of the standing sides Cimino exploded and demanded that both sides be extinguished and each widened by three feet – that’s just sheer tyrannical madness.
Yet it’s in that perfectionist attention to historical detail and the elaborate and impeccably researched production design that the film really breathes, that astounding set crafted for the frontier is where the film leaps some twenty years alter after the Ivy League prologue, and it’s in this environment of Wyoming that it remains for the remainder of its gruelling ellipsis. Arguably the recreation of a different period of history is among one of the highest achievements of sheer production craft that Hollywood has ever constructed, the lavish costumes, sets and props suffocating the vibrantly cluttered sepia hued frames, the hustle and bustle of the 19th century resurrected with a craftsmanship equalled to other undisputed masterpieces such as Gone With The Wind. Despite the alarming rumour mill the nervous United Artists executives gave Cimino the benefit of the doubt once the ravishing dallies began trickling through, with anticipation of a film being compared to the epic ilk of David Lean’s historical odyssey’s they turned a blind eye to the increasingly vortexing schedule, and the production budget ballooned to an unprecedented $44 million against its initial $11 million agreement. Just to put that transgression in context this catastrophe is the equivalent (strictly conservatively estimated) of a contemporary $120 million project going four times over budget, so even if they (again very conservatively estimated) saddled up a paltry $20 million marketing budget you’re looking at a $500 million production budget, which in turn means that given the vagaries of the exhibition and distribution models of gross shares the film would have to bushwack a staggering one billion dollars before actually breaking even, and back in them olden days the alternate revenue models of VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray simply didn’t exist. On its initial run it received an unprecedented critical savaging with even the respected Village Voice critic Vincent Canby branding the heifer as an ‘unqualified disaster’ and pushing aside the rather thorny issue of critics being perceived as some sort of influence on the box-office which again has arisen with the foolish and petulant remarks from Messers Depp and Bruckheimer the public stayed away in droves, the film scrabbling for a pathetic $3.5 million, subsequently bankrupting its overextended parent studio United Artists and exiling Cimino, Icarus style, to the darkest depths of artistic and financial exile.
Quite apart from the restoration of the excised material – over 70 minutes of footage which harkens back to the directorial castration of Von Stroheim’s Greed or any of Welles butchered masterpieces – the new print has received the requisite digital scrub, with emulsion damage and frame gate misalignments corrected to produce a perfectly aligned and centred image. More unusually and with a truly sacred adoration the restoration team have retained much of the dense, grainy veneer of the picture, embalming the frequently brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond’s amber hued illumination of the elegiac odyssey, preserving the nostalgic and shadowed glow of the film which feels that it was illuminated with a single, stuttering, gas-fired hourglass lamp. The dialogue and ADR remains muddied in the opening sequences which should urge the elderly to deploy their earhorns in a redundant effort to apprehend some of the exchanges, I’ll never forget being quietly amused when a fellow punter stormed out of the confines of the NFT2 screen back when I first caught this at the BFI back during its initial distribution in 2005, the stuttering clod angrily alerting the authorities to errors with the projection, but this was exactly how Cimino wanted the film to sound in order to enunciate the chaotic patina of frontier life, the smothering of interpersonal relations drowned by the relentless march of commerce, the endless procession of industrial movement and battered yelling, of life and love in flux and motion. This chaos and confusion stands in contrast to the stark civilised beauty of the Harvard sequence, as the first dancing sequence elegantly elucidates;
Whatever the films perceived merits or misgivings of Heaven’s Gate it is sequences such as this which are transformative on the big screen, simply for their pure, unadorned immediacy – this scene was staged at a huge cost to house, feed and costume all those extras, to arrange them in that orchestral movement through the frame, the choices of film stock and delpoyment of lenses to capture the moment in the correct light, of lightning trapped in the viewfinder. It a far and mournful cry from the current riot of pixels and polygons whose weight remains intangible, whose scattering across the screen yield no romance, I don’t wish to sound like some grumbling old grouch but they simply don’t make ’em like that anymore. On that level this film can be taken as a melancholy ode to a form of cinema no longer financially viable or deemed desirable, with spectacle now programmed for suffocation not seduction, the medium in equal flux as it was from the transition from silent to sound as it is from chemical to digital.
I think there’s a great book to be written which compresses four films as a cohesive tetrad of the era which all encapsulate and in totality square the account of America’s bloody genesis, along with Heaven’s Gate you could cattle prod Once Upon A Time In America, Days Of Heaven and Apocalypse Now into a ring-fenced paddock of movies whom overlap each other in a Venn diagram of repetition, whether it’s the directorial excesses, uncompromising runtimes and lofty artistic ambitions – Leone, Malick and Coppola all expressed the self-centred belief that were making the American masterpiece of the Seventh Art. Then there are the metaphors of our socioeconomic masters gorging at the trough, human life and agency reduced to cogs in the political, criminal or military machine. Three feature a central love triangle which gives the films a narrative engine to explore yearning and loss through their amorous pirouette’s, and they all resulted in hyper inflated budgets and in some cases critical bloodbaths which drove their respective directors into the wilderness, in Malick’s case not to return to the screen for over twenty years. I’m sure there are other themes, they all had European cinematographers so you could probably make some aesthetic linkages through that, naturally for American cinema they climax with a bout of violence which in this era curiously despatches a protagonist rather than the antagonist, but for now lets press on with another dance;
Isn’t that such a beautifully chaotic counterpoint to the rigid ballet of the 1870 Harvard prologue seen above? More bustling energy, less mannered and stuffy, energy trumping elitist elegance. Like Barry Lyndon this is a film whose definitions and dimensions ripen as the decades cantor into the horizon, reading this today it’s a film chiefly concerned with class and strictures, of the little man and woman of the immigrant experience transplanting their culture and traditions from persecuted Europe into the fulcrum of the American womb, a stark contrast to the cold, controlled and sneering bourgeois viewing the labour backbone of their country who are literally building the myth from the soil up, considered as little more than vermin by the overarching elite.
So even in its restored format Heaven’s Gate is gloriously chaotic, it’s fractured and muddied, even in this exhausting 219 minute cut of the film there are confusing omissions and transitions which reflect the fading of a ravishing dream, of half glimpsed memories as elusive as a dissipating cloud – and that’s what I think it’s true devotees really cherish about it. It certainty feels the length of its draining three and a half hour lexicon but I don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way, its more the sense of folding into a truly epic and epoch spanning story which demands these exploded dimensions to fully realise its ambitions. Like all Westerns the allegories are contemporarily clear and unimpeachable, Watergate was still cresting high in the cultural climate so official corruption and the notions of absolute power corrupting absolutely were firmly set in the American cultural psyche, of compromising your ideals and dreams to the officious functions of the state seen in John Hurts ravished and weeping Irvine, of watching lofty dreams and ambitions wither and wane in the coruscating Wyoming sunlight. The closest screen genre analogies are just about any Peckinpah of the early Seventies and Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, if you’re interested in learning more of the fascinating production fiasco then this is the definitive documentary. I’m sure moments will wax and wane as I revisit this favourite over the years but from this screening I was most struck with this glorious sequence, the central figures trapped in historic amber, a glorious flourish of sculpting in time, of the impalpable beauty of fleeting moments and their inexorable passing into our personal legends and myths;