Harvard graduate James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is the sheriff of prosperous Jackson County, Wyo., when a battle erupts between the area's poverty-stricken immigrants and its wealthy cattle farmers. The politically connected ranch owners fight the immigrants with the help of Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), a mercenary competing with Averill for the love of local madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). As the struggle escalates, Averill and Champion begin to question their decisions.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Barbed wire and women are the two greatest civilising agents in the world.
Heaven’s Gate is written and directed by Michael Cimino and stars Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Sam Waterston. Music is by David Mansfield and cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond.
Picture is based around the real-life Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, where here we have a Sheriff born into wealth attempting to protect immigrant farmers from the rich Stockholders Association.
Lets begin by stating that for the clear facts about the financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate, and its impact on studios and film making in general, then research it so I don’t have to write two paragraphs about it. Also it should be known that this is hardly an historically accurate account of the so called Johnson County War (when are big epics ever truly accurate anyway?), so again research pays off there as well.
Heaven’s Gate, the film, was savaged by the critics upon release, especially given that the originally theatrical release they viewed was over an hour shorter than what Cimino intended for release. Thankfully now, if you are a fan or not of the pic, we can at least see the fully formed longer version (three and half hours worth). The charges of self indulgency by Cimino are fair enough, but his vision is clinically focused to the point of producing a potent and meditative (anti) Western epic.
Cimino is in no hurry to tell his story, and rightly so as he gets to grips with character building and methodically slow burning the tensions that led to the Johnson County blood bath. Before we even consider the technical smarts on show, there’s a strong emotional current swirling away in the narrative, an intimacy that’s beguiling and holds those fully invested in the first half of film – in readiness for the pay off in the superb second half. I do wonder just how many of the 1/10 reviewers actually made it to second half? The point when the gang of hired assassins ride over the hill and begin their terror of murder and sexual assault?
Visually (Zsigmond on top form) the pic blends elegiac tones for the hopes and dreams of the immigrants looking for a new life in the new world, with the grainy realism of the financial greed and oppression dished out by wealthy corporate stockholders. Cimino isn’t found wanting for quality of sequence construction either. Pic features community dances, the kind that John Ford himself would be tipping his hat to. Most notably is the immigrants roller derby dance gathering, a delightfully zestful experience showing a community in love with being a community. The main battle section was laughably trashed by a couple of those original critics, it’s a breath taking sequence of events, a thunderous whirl of dust and circular carnage (circles a thematic for Ciminio), “those god damned Romans” indeed.
Flaws? Absolutely, this is far from a flawless picture. The first half hour featuring Averill (Kristofferson) and Irvine’s (Hurt) Harvard Graduation is draggy and could easily have been cut by twenty minutes. Also scratchy is that both actors look way too old for such a scenario. Cast are mostly unfussy (perfectly so), but there’s an itch that although Huppert has simmering qualities for a bordello babe, she’s a touch miscast for the love triangle verve and the genre surrounds. The script sometimes lacks for 1890 chatter, while the screenplay needs the utmost attention or else you could easily lose the thread of things. True also to sadly reflect upon some obvious animal rights issues, thankfully Hollywood has moved on from such things since.
A flawed masterpiece? Yes I think that fits right when revisiting it nearly 40 years after the disaster of its initial release. It’s a lyrical and majestic piece of work, one that has seen its plus column reputation grow as it is re-evaluated by new critics and new age cinema lovers alike. The themes at work, with the debunking of American mythologizing et al, were too close to the knuckle for many back in 1980, but now it stands proud as a bold, beautiful and brutal film. Yes, even with the flaws. 8/10
United Artists by Michael Cimino.
Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston.
Genres: Adventure, Drama, Western
Keywords: montana showdown brothel marshal dance immigrant studies idealist
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