Reviewed by Reed Hubbard
Rating: 4 Beans
s I browsed through the video store the other day, looking for films of questionable merit, I realized I hadnít seen the king daddy of bad movies. No, not "Manos" or "Plan 9." Those movies never had a chance of being good. Iím talking about a big budget film. A film so notoriously bad that it bankrupted its studio, United Artists. A film that cost over $35 million in 1980 and made back about three. A film that, for all intents and purposes, ruined the skyrocketing career of its director, Michael Cimino. The film I mean is the mega-bomb, "Heavenís Gate."
After huge success with "The Deer Hunter," Cimino was allowed to do pretty much anything he wanted. He chose to make a sprawling western epic based on an 1892 conflict between wealthy landowners and poor immigrant farmers in Johnson County, Wyoming. Had he focused on the conflict, he would have had a great movie. Instead, he spent almost half of the 220 minutes on the personal relationships between three of the main characters: James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), the local lawman, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the town madam, and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), an immigrant hired gun who works for the cattlemen.
The movie starts as the Harvard class of 1870 is graduating. Averill and his friend William Irvine (John Hurt) are two idealistic young men who seem ready to take on the world. The scenes are beautifully shot (as is the entire picture) and the opening segment is truly inspiring as the young graduates dance, sing, and orate, anticipating their future. Then, BOOM! Itís twenty years later and two thousand miles away as US Marshal Averill arrives in Casper, Wyoming. We have no idea what has brought him here. Neither do we know what brought Irvine to the same county as a cattleman. Irvine appears sporadically throughout the rest of the film, always drunk, bringing nothing to the rest of the movie, save his apprising Averill of the Stock Growers Associationís plan to murder 125 immigrants, ostensibly to purge the county of thieves and anarchists.
The immigrants chatter in their native tongues, often making for pandemonium. Averill disagrees with the death list, but he only sort of helps the poor farmers, choosing to spend more time with Ella than doing his job. Itís hard to like a guy like this. Averill has no fire, no real passion. He is just watching events transpire, getting involved only when necessary. After three hours, the final battle between the immigrants and the cattlemen occurs, but nothing is really resolved. In fact, thereís so much smoke and dust that the battle can hardly be seen. The US Cavalry arrives and rescues the landowners, but most everyone is dead, especially on the immigrantsí side. In a bizarre epilogue, we see Averill some 10 years later on a boat in Newport, Rhode Island, leading us to believe, he chucked his ideals and returned to his familyís wealth, but Averill never seemed to have any clear-cut ideals to begin with, so whatís the big deal?
The saddest part of "Heavenís Gate" are the moments of true inspiration that seem to reveal the film that got lost in the gorgeous scenery and shallow characters. In one scene, Champion explains to Ella that he has wallpapered his cabin because it "civilizes the wilderness." Later, as the cattlemen set his house afire, we see the wallpaper burning, symbolizing the chaos of the war devouring any civility that may exist. Another example is the photograph of a young Averill and a former love that is shown several times throughout the film. Averill obviously holds those times dear, and they haunt him as he faces the reality of the brutal frontier. When we see him aboard the steamer at the end, the photograph is visible on a table, a golden memory of the past. In another shot, as Averill and Ella dance and roller-skate, Cimino turns the film into a sepia ferrotype. These scenes underscore the softening effect of time on the memory and prove that there was something to this film before ego and indecision destroyed it.
The plain truth is that the movie is not that bad (hence the low rating). I find myself fondly remembering parts of it. Cimino has directed only a handful of films (most notably, "Year of the Dragon") since "Heavenís Gate" failed so dismally. It seems that the spectre of this debacle looms over an obviously competent director. Perhaps he is gun shy after such a humbling experience. Perhaps the studios are. Whatever the reason for his sparse output over the last eighteen years, hopefully it has not killed the talent that produced "The Deer Hunter." That talent is exposed, albeit briefly, in "Heavenís Gate." I hope it is still alive.
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