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Horses and Wagons and Hats

February 14th, 2010 · 11 Comments

Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Written by Michael Cimino
Produced by Joann Carelli
Running time: 219 minutes (original cut)

Should I Care?
As the 1970s came to a close, five runaway film productions loomed on the horizon, piling up doom and gloom courtesy of the mainstream news media. Suffering from fiscal recklessness at best, studio mismanagement at worst, if the poor buzz was to be believed, these five big budget movies were determined to bankrupt Hollywood: Apocalypse Now, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1941, The Blues Brothers and Heaven’s Gate. Four of these would-be disasters quickly recouped their heavy costs at the box office. The one that didn’t make it into the black seems to have been conveniently lost in time along with its infamous director. That would be Michael Cimino and the movie would be Heaven’s Gate, a 3 ½ hour western of pictorial brilliance, almost unparalleled scope, outstanding performances and haunting grandeur. For all his excesses and notoriety, Cimino captures a certain lyrical beauty missing in epic filmmaking since the passing of David Lean.

It’s time to call Heaven’s Gate what it is: the last great American film of the 1970s. Cimino’s screenplay not only paints the Old West with the contours I imagine actually existed there — crowdedness and expanse, serenity and violence, beauty and ugliness – but fills that landscape with intriguing characters and dialogue of surprising depth. Kris Kristofferson leads a fairly overlooked cast of talented character actors, all of whom are elevated above the din and clamor of the massive production and are enabled to deliver excellent performances. Few movies recreate a bygone era with the detail of this one, with Vilmos Zsigmond overseeing the majestic cinematography and David Mansfield composing a staggering musical score. Unlike so many turkeys that truly qualify for “worst ever” status, the craftsmanship here is never in question. For all the money spent on Heaven’s Gate, we can see exactly where the bucks ended up and why.

So, What’s This About?
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard College graduating class of 1870 — which includes James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) — assembles to hear their class orator Billy Irvine (John Hurt) speak. Irvine rejects the high-minded ideals sewn by the reverend doctor of the university (Joseph Cotten), and advises his fellow classmates to merely rise no further than each of them is capable. 20 years later, Averill arrives by train in Casper, Wyoming after transporting an immigrant woman to St. Louis to be hanged. Averill is sheriff of Johnson County, pristine territory which more Polish, German and Ukrainian immigrants seem to be pouring into every day.

By the time Averill visits a saloon operated by his friend John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) in the town of Sweetwater, the sheriff learns that the local cattle association, led by the unscrupulous Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) has drawn up the names of 125 settlers suspected of cattle rustling or troublemaking and put them on a death list. The most efficient assassin on the cattleman’s payroll is Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who roams Johnson County executing immigrants who’ve stolen livestock. Meanwhile, Averill returns to his pastoral home and to his girlfriend Ella Watson (Isabelle Hupert), who operates a bordello and accepts stolen cattle as payment.

After adjourning to the town reception hall — Heaven’s Gate, which hosts music and roller skating — Averill asks Ella to leave the county, not wanting to tell her that her name is on the death list. Champion, who in addition to being one of Ella’s customers is also in love with her, offers to take her away under the protection of his men (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke). She rejects both offers and chooses to stay in Sweetwater. Three mercenaries intercept Ella at her place of business and attempt to scratch her name off the death list. Standing behind Averill and Champion, the rest of the town elects to stay their ground and attempt to repel the invaders.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
In 1971, a filmmaker no one in Hollywood had heard of — putting his pictorial eye and camera skills to use in New York directing commercials for Kodak, Pepsi and United Airlines — wrote a screenplay titled The Johnson County War. The screenwriter was Michael Cimino and his script was loosely based on a range war that took place in 1892 between cattle ranchers and settlers, many of them immigrants, who flowed into Johnson County, Wyoming after passage of the Homestead Act. Producer David Foster set the project up at Fox, only to have production head Jere Henshaw put it into turnaround in 1972. Henshaw later told American Film, “It looked to us like a pretty downbeat story at a pretty heavy cost.”

An idiosyncratic caper Cimino wrote titled Thunderbolt and Lightfoot fared much better, with Clint Eastwood enjoying the script enough to gamble on the first time director. Co-starring Jeff Bridges, the picture was very favorably reviewed and a modest box office hit in the summer of 1974. Four years later, Cimino was riding a tidal wave of industry buzz for his second film, an ode to brotherhood and sacrifice set against the Vietnam War titled The Deer Hunter. Among those in Hollywood who were high on the movie was David Field, a production executive for United Artists, who later recalled, “We saw an advanced print of Deer Hunter — I don’t know how many weeks before it was released — and we were blown away.”

Cimino’s agent submitted a package for his client’s next film — The Johnson County War — to United Artists. The studio’s head of production Danton Rissner read the script in August 1978 and responded coolly it. His story department concluded: “If it were not for Cimino, I would pass.” What distinguished the script from the typical western was its assertion that the United States government had sanctioned the range war in what amounted to ethnic genocide. Rissner remained dubious that theater exhibitors would welcome such liberal revisionism of a fading genre. But by September, UA agreed to a pay-or-play package of $1.7 million for The Johnson County War: $250,000 for Cimino’s script, $500,000 for Cimino’s directing services, $100,000 for Cimino’s producing partner Joann Carelli and $850,000 for Kris Kristofferson to star, all to be paid whether the movie was made or not.

Cimino continued to tune his script. He inserted a prologue introducing the characters of Averill and Billy Irvine at Harvard 20 years before the events in Wyoming, and added a brief epilogue, taking place 10 years after the range war. Averill is moored in a yacht off the coast of Rhode Island, still haunted by the events of the film. The script concluded with the quote, “What one loves about life are the things that fade.” Cimino had also arrived on a new title, and in April 1979, one week after The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, principal photography began on Heaven’s Gate. Glacier National Park in Kalispell, Montana had been selected as a filming location and a release date of December 1979 set. The accelerated schedule dictated a budget of $11.5 million, $15 million at most.

Recalling Cimino’s exacting work methods, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond stated, “It was very unusual the way he worked. He would actually paint by selecting extras and put them in the right place in a set. It was like a painter would paint them. He painted by picking up people and put them into the right place. Then, once we started to shoot, you know, sometimes we would go for three takes, sometimes you would go for ten takes. And many, many times you had to go for forty takes.” In the first six days of shooting, Cimino had fallen five days behind schedule, with roughly 90 seconds of usable footage in the can. After 12 days, Heaven’s Gate was 10 days behind schedule.

In his book Final Cut, Steven Bach recounted the expenses that began accumulating: “It was true, as later press reports informed, that Michael Cimino was building sets and rebuilding them, hiring 100 extras, then 200, then 500, adding horses and wagons and hats, shoes, gloves, dresses, top hats, bridles, boots, roller skates, babushkas, aprons, dusters, buckboards, gun belts, rifles, bullets, cows, calves, bulls, trees, thousands of tons of dirt, hundreds of miles of exposed film, and all this mattered economically. But what mattered most was that what he was adding was takes and retakes and retakes of the retakes. And retakes of those. Michael Cimino was taking — and retaking — time. Getting it right.”

To get it right, Cimino was shooting as many as 30 takes of shots and printing nearly every one, burning through $200,000 a day and $1 million per week. Actor Brad Dourif recalled, “I’m not used to seeing fifty seven takes. I’m really not. I’m not used to doing a minimum of thirty-two takes. He wanted to try a bunch of different ways. It was like workshopping on film, you know, we did the happy version, we did the crying version, we did the furious version. I mean, each scene was taken to these degrees, beyond which you weren’t going for the ultimate take, you were going for a lot of choices.” At its current pace, Heaven’s Gate was on track to exceed its budget by 500% and end up costing United Artists a then stellar sum of $35 million.

The studio got its first peek at Heaven’s Gate on June 6, 1979 when Bach and David Field made the trip to Kalispell to view about 30 minutes of the film. Bach recalled, “The footage was ravishing. There was nothing that anybody on Earth could say to criticize the footage, so we knew it wasn’t the case of a production that was falling apart. We never thought it was a case of Michael sitting in his trailer eating chocolates and watching television when he should have been out on the set. That was never the issue. The issue was we didn’t agree that you could take this much time to achieve perfection. And if you continue to take this much time to achieve perfection, you’re going to break our bank and there’s not going to be any company to release the picture.”

Jeff Bridges later offered his recollection of the production by stating, “From somebody on the outside it would look like it was almost too much, but it never appeared that way to me. It was like, this guy really cares.” But with John Hurt due to start work on The Elephant Man in October 1979 and the mountain roads in Montana closing for winter, Cimino heeded United Artists’ pleas to pick up the pace. UA pushed the release of the film back a year, settling on Christmas 1980. The studio planned exclusive reserved seating 70mm print engagements in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto for November 1980. Heaven’s Gate would then expand to additional cities in December before a general release in February 1981 to benefit from the many Academy Award nominations the film industry would naturally bestow on the picture.

On June 26, 1980, after eight months of editing, Cimino was ready to show United Artists the film. Studio executives assembled in Los Angeles for a private screening. Bach recalled, “I thought Michael looked exhausted, truly, truly depleted. I remember asking, ‘How close are we to a final cut?’ And he said, ‘It’s a little long. I can lose maybe fifteen minutes.’ And we sat down and we watched the movie. And the movie that we saw was five hours and 25 minutes long. The battle sequence alone was as long as most feature motion pictures. I was angry, I was angry, I was angry. The company had been put through turmoil … And the internal hope that had kept us all going for those two or three years at this process now — which was that it was going to be a masterpiece, and that would justify everything that we had gone through — was suddenly gone.”

By mid-October, Cimino had Heaven’s Gate down to 3 hours and 39 minutes. No one at United Artists bothered viewing his cut until its public unveiling in New York one month later. Jeff Bridges recalled, “I can remember going to the first screening, the premiere in New York, and we were all very excited and Mike was quite anxious because I don’t know if he even saw the film before it was shown, you know, it was wet right out of the soup. He had just put it together and just barely made the deadline to get it all together. And the movie comes on. I remember my first impression of seeing it was, you know, kind of the splendor of it was wonderful, but the rhythm of it was so unusual and so kind of slow and not what you expected to see that the audience certainly was frustrated. And you hear that [smattering of applause] terrible applause at the end. Ugh, it was terrible.”

The next morning, Michael Cimino, Joann Carelli and Bridges were on their way to Toronto for the next screening when they picked up a copy of the New York Times. The opening paragraph of Vincent Canby’s review read: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.” Brad Dourif recalled, “Well I read Vincent Canby’s — I don’t read reviews, that’s the first thing — I read Vincent Canby’s because it actually had the line in it, ‘like being given a four-hour tour of your own living room’ and I just wanted to see how bad a review could be and it was really scathing. Angry review. I mean, basically, everything that people hated about the direction of film was piled onto Michael.”

Interviewed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1982, film critic Pauline Kael defended the stoning Heaven’s Gate was given in the mainstream media. “I did think Canby’s review was rather brutal. On the other hand, the fact is the picture does not have one good scene, or one good character, and it goes on for several hours. I think it’s very interesting visually, but there is nothing that can carry it with an audience. If the company had thought that the critics were wrong, they would have put in millions in advertising and they might have recouped on the picture. A lot of terrible movies get by if the companies believe in them … But they were dismayed because they could see the justice of what the reviewers were saying, that there was nothing there.”

Steven Bach disagreed. “I think the critics were reviewing the production history. They were rewriting their reviews for The Deer Hunter, which they thought they had over praised. They were getting back at what they perceived as hostile treatment from the director. I think they were slapping United Artists for having allowed this to happen. But I never felt that there was a real serious attempt to see what is this picture trying to do and does it succeed on its own terms. It didn’t succeed on the terms they wanted to lay on the picture and that was what they were writing about, was their terms for the picture, not the picture’s terms.” After playing for a week in New York, Cimino took out ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter asking UA to withdraw the film from release so he could rework his 219-minute cut.

A 149-minute version of Heaven’s Gate opened in 810 theaters nationwide in April 1981. But audiences ignored it completely, buying $3.4 million in tickets in the United States. Tom Brokaw introduced a segment on Heaven’s Gate for the NBC Nightly News by proclaiming “a $40 million film from an Oscar winning director may be the biggest bomb in Hollywood history.” The loss to United Artists was tabulated at $44 million. Within a month, Transamerica decided it was done with the movie business and sold UA to rival studio MGM. Michael Cimino and Kris Kristofferson were at the Cannes Film Festival in May when the news broke. UA’s new president Norbert Auerbach maintained that while Heaven’s Gate had not been directly responsible for the collapse of the prestigious 62-year-old studio, the movie hadn’t steered UA away from disaster either.

Naturally, the first audiences to appreciate Heaven’s Gate were French. In December 1982, celebrated film magazine Cahiers du Cinema sponsored a screening of Cimino’s 219-minute cut in Paris. Word reached Los Angeles, where Jerry Harvey and Fred Grossbud of pay cable’s Z Channel persuaded MGM/UA to let them air the long version of Heaven’s Gate starting on Christmas Eve. It marked the first time a wide audience had been permitted to see the film at its original length. In the Los Angeles Times — whose film critic Kevin Thomas had been one of the few to submit a rave review of Heaven’s Gate while it was in theaters — Charles Champlin wrote, “Not a damn thing was gained economically by forcing Cimino to eviscerate his work, but audiences were denied the chance to see fully whatever it was that Cimino had in mind.”

In August 1983, England’s National Film Theatre booked the long version of Heaven’s Gate for six performances, with Cimino on hand to introduce the film. Derek Malcolm wrote in The Guardian: “The full version, I can assure you, is quite an experience – an extraordinary attempt to make a major American movie at a time when only the minors held sway.” The long version was released theatrically at the Plaza 2 theater in London, but its box office was so negligible that MGM/UA nixed plans to re-release the uncut Heaven’s Gate elsewhere. Michael Cimino — who has not directed since 1996 and refuses requests to discuss his infamous magnum opus — had this to say in 1990:  “I would respond to Heaven’s Gate the same way Jack Kennedy responded to the Bay of Pigs. I’d take full responsibility and all other questions are answered by the film itself.”

Where Are You Getting This?
Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach (1985)

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (2004), directed by Michael Epstein

Tags: Drunk scene · Hitman · Prostitute · Shootout · Small town · Train · Unconventional romance · Western · Woman in jeopardy

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flickhead // Jan 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Excellent piece, Joe.

    When it eventually came out, after months and months of time and budget reports to rival those surrounding Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate landed with a dull thud…while the Coppola film still managed to attract a sizeable amount of curiosity-seekers. What has worked against the film is the hype: it’s difficult not going into it without your perception colored. From the very first frame, so many of us are thinking about what we’ve heard rather than let the picture speak for itself.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Ray: Thanks for the reflection. I don’t know if film students or anyone under the age of 30 would really have a negative perception of this film based on something a critic said in 1981. Audiences today are more likely to glance at the running time and think “OMG”. I think the only thing preventing a full reappraisal of Heaven’s Gate is Michael Cimino, who has become a sort of looney tunes Lorax, hardly the “auteur” scholars are going to wager their professional reputation on.

  • 3 Flickhead // Jan 2, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Sigh… I forget about time…to me, Heaven’s Gate came out not too long ago…but, for what may be the majority of online readers, it came out…gulp!…before they were born.

    The film also fell victim to the collective press attacking Coppola (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart), Scorsese (New York, New York), Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love) and most members of the New American Cinema which was then folding under the weight of the blockbuster.

    The documentary A Decade Under the Influence covers this epoch very well.

  • 4 Christian // Jan 6, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Saw the director’s cut at LACMA with Zigmond in attendance, so that was a treat and I told my friend there that this was indeed the last 70’s film. It’s unwieldy, too dusty and somewhat silly, but there are many affecting scenes, and this is one of Chris Walken’s great roles.

  • 5 the communicatrix // Jan 8, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I’m rather ashamed to say I’ve never seen it. That was such a magnificent explication of context, though, that I’m ready.

    Now I need to find a friend with a really, really big screen…

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jan 8, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Christian: I would have really enjoyed to go to that screening. It is truly impressive to list the movies that Vilmos Zsigmond has shot: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Blow Out. And I think you have a point about this movie being too dusty; even the Harvard scenes are tinted copper. I’m glad to hear you sort of pretty much liked the movie though!

    Colleen: “Massive explication of context”. Wow. Thank you. Will you write the blurb for my book? I don’t know how long your friend with the really big screen will remain your friend if you bring this DVD over, but I would definitely be curious to hear what you think of this epic. Thanks for commenting!

  • 7 Tee // Feb 16, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I thought it was a beautiful film… graphic, but beautiful. The essence of ‘the old days’ was captured in the movie– I think it puts the viewers in the right setting. It was a little slow for my taste but the action of the war scene was good. It is just so sad to think about it being based on an actual event in America’s history.

  • 8 Vincent Pereira // May 23, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Nice piece on one of my favorite films. There’s a facebook fanpage for the film if anybody is interested.

    I’ve been posting some rare stuff there, like scans of magazine articles from the time of the film’s original release, and screen caps of shots unique to the short recut version of the film.

  • 9 Alex Patterson // Dec 29, 2009 at 11:55 am

    It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever watched. It was not like a film, was my first mental note. My second: It was as real and ecstatically human as things sometimes can get in lucid reaming. I was blown far far away by this film. It’s dimensions are multitudinous in every way thinkable. That profundity in art comes with artists like Rodin, Leonardo, Picasso, Stravinsky, Ibsen, Joyce. I’ve never seen it come in film. I thought I had: Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, even Taxi, even recent films like Seven Pounds or Man on Fire. That changed recently, having viewed the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate. There’s a saying that great artists should take head of: ‘If you are chiseling, you can’t trust anybody.’ Qualified, that would mean: “really and truly chiseling.” There’s my passionate appeal for this film.

  • 10 Egil Ovrelid // May 15, 2010 at 7:12 am

    The thing that strikes me the most, is that in the film “final cut – the making and unmaking of Heavens gate”, there is a lot of people who is not interested in the films artistic, historical, scenografical etc abilities at all. Only money! And ignorant people who knows nothing about film is making horrendus comments. Are american obsessed with money?

  • 11 Jeff Sayre // Sep 25, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    I worked on the movie in 1979 in Wallace, Idaho. I was a part of the “special effects” team or crew. It was a great experience. It was huge in scale of the sets and intricate details. It was very time specific and I think Mr. Cimino captured it the way his eye saw it and it worked. It was a wide eyed movie to watch. Huge in scope. The scenes in Montana at Glacier park are spectacular. The attentio to detail is unparralelled in motion picture scope. It truely is a great movie despite what it cost to make and the return on investment as well as its history. I can’t wait to buy the remastered version out this fall of 2012! One memory is the food they served on set. Awesome! The other is Mr. Cimino wearing the same white Dior sweater for way too many days in a row………prime rib drippings an all! Great experience for a 19 year old kid and in Wallace, Idaho to boot. Drinking age was 19, prostitution was “legal” or accepted anyway and it was a fun place to learn how a movie was really made in person. Plus, I got my picture on the cover of TIME! I’m hard to see, but if you look on the roof of the fake building….you will see my head.

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