Note: This evening Heaven’s Gate is screening in a digital restoration as part of the 50th New York Film Festival, its first major theatrical exhibition since its release over 30 years ago. In honor of that, and its upcoming release on home-video from the Criterion Collection, this piece is re-running.
by Bob Clark
The time is 1890, and the place is Johnson County, Wyoming. A man and his wife butcher and clean a carcass of cattle on their isolated farm, as their children look on and help. The farm is surrounded by sheets of canvas billowing in the wind, erected on all sides to shield any neighbors from the ugly sight of their bloody work (not that they have any neighbors within sight). As his wife and children drag the animal’s remains away, the man finds himself alone, and hears a noise from behind. From the other side of the canvas curtain, the silhouette of a man wearing a hat appears. The farmer cautiously says his name out loud, and tries to talk to this stranger in his native tongue, while nervously raising a butchering knife. The hat wearing man does not move, but raises a long object which he crosses himself to point straight ahead, and perhaps we see it just long enough to recognize the shadow’s shape as a rifle, and that he is aiming it point-blank at the farmer. No more than a second or two later, however, it doesn’t matter—the hat wearing man fires and the farmer is struck down, leaving his wife a widow and children half-orphaned, and only the bleak, dismal prospect of working their land to sustain them.
But as that fatal shot is fired, we enjoy a shot of a completely different kind, for as the rifle’s double-aught buck tears through the canvas sheeting, we get our first good look at the hat wearing man, who has just murdered an immigrant farmer in cold blood. The man’s name is Nathan Champion, and the man who plays him is Christopher Walken. Champion was a real figure, of sorts, who played a famous role in the infamous event surrounding east-coast cattle barons hiring out an army of Texas mercenaries to hunt down the immigrant farmers accused of stealing their cattle, but were more importantly standing in the way of their owning as much land as possible. Dubbed the “Johnson County War” land-owning citizens refused to back down and mounted a defense against the professional gunslingers, the several day-long siege of the territory became a notorious spectacle of class-warfare in America, with the poor gunned down in cold blood to fill the pockets of rich land speculators. But the Nate Champion seen onscreen is not the same man who went down in history as the first rancher shot down by the Texas mercenaries, fighting back in a valiant effort to stay alive, and writing a quick note to the outside world when it became clear he would be unable to survive the onslaught.
Instead, he is presented here as one of the top-enforcers of the cattle-barons, a man who shoots thieves suspected of stealing livestock and threatens others away before they can get a chance to do so. But he is also identified by several of the immigrants as one of their own—a second-generation American who takes money for murdering men and women who share his Eastern-European ancestry. While in the end he repeats the real Champion’s heroic last-stand, in the film it becomes the necessary dramatic consequence of developing a conscience, rather than simply standing up for his property and liberty. The mixture of historic fact and fiction turns the character into a figure of mythic proportions, fittingly played by an actor who has since gained a long reputation for playing parts of brooding intensity. Audiences in 1980 might’ve known Walken as the deranged brother in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but it wouldn’t be until later in the decade and beyond that he really began to cultivate his persona of B-movie gravitas and song-and-dance self parody. Filmgoers certainly would have recognized him from his previous collaboration with writer-director Michael Cimino, on the critical darling and popular sensation The Deer Hunter, which made both their names, netted them Oscars, and catapulted them into the lofty position of being able to pick, choose and write their own creative tickets.
Moreover, they would recognize Cimino’s cinematic style in this sequence, as well—the delicate patience of his pacing, the imagination of his set-piece, and the elegance of his studied and deliberate use of American iconography. They might even recognize the luscious cinematography provided by master Vilmos Zsigmond, and with his canny use of natural lighting enhancing the careful choreography of Cimino’s camera and the timing of his cuts, the sequence shines with a grace that reaches the heights of poetry without ever abandoning the earthy grit of realism. As a drawn-out introduction, it’s right up there with the shock of recognition that greeted Henry Fonda’s entrance in Once Upon a Time in the West, but if anything, Cimino is able to get far more mileage out of his sequence than Leone’s, which rested so heavily on the dimming wattage of a fading, but familiar star, and the artificial enhancements of Ennio Morricone’s sweeping score. Cimino has the confidence to play out his sequence in silence, and doesn’t merely turn his camera around for everyone to get a good look at the villain’s face. Instead, he builds suspense, moment by moment, teasing his audience with mystery man by the naturalistic setting, the silhouette in the windblown canvas, until finally ripping the curtain away in an act of violence that reveals both the character’s face and his actual character.
It’s a master stroke from a master filmmaker in a work which by all rights ought to be deemed a masterpiece of the highest order. Except, it is not—released in 1980, Heaven’s Gate suffered the ignominious fate of high-profile failure both with critics and at the box-office. It marked several endings—it was the end of the fabled “New Hollywood” renaissance of the 1970’s and the unprecedented pairing of financial leeway and creative freedom guaranteed to filmmakers by the biggest and most powerful studios in the land. It was the beginning of the end for United-Artists, one of the first true studios to be created by and run for cinematic innovators, who with this movie suffered a financial defeat so crippling that not even James Bond could rescue them from. Finally, it was, for all intents and purposes, the end of Michael Cimino’s career. Following the disastrous reception of his third film, Cimino suffered a downfall in the film industry as prolonged and dark as his meteoric ascension had been fast and bright. Unable to even hold down the production of mainstream no-brainers like the Kevin Bacon-pic Footloose, the director would find himself working on films that suffered more and more obscurity, and lower and lower budgets.
Of all his subsequent pictures—the embarrassing Mickey Rourke vehicle Year of the Dragon and a mis-begotten remake of The Desperate Hours, the ambling, aimless art-house near-hit The Sunchaser—only his 1987 film of The Sicilian, based on Mario Puzo’s little-known side-story Godfather novel, reaches the same poetic heights as his previous work, however briefly. Cimino’s candle burnt out almost as quickly as it had been lit, but for a few effervescent moments at the end of the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s, he enjoyed all the powers and privileges upon Hollywood’s throne, and while he would wind up squandering not only his own opportunities but also those of an entire generation of contemporary filmmakers, the result of his efforts in Heaven’s Gate might just be worth all the consequences. Here is a work of both stunning ambition and humbling hubris, an epic on par with the deserts and tundras of David Lean, a dream of the American West that gleams with all the awe and wonder of science-fiction. It is both of this world and out of it, and perhaps like no other failure before it or since, it deserves a rediscovery just as surely as it deserved to be made, no matter what the cost. Lavish, luscious and long, it remains one of the last great pieces of art made from an era where the big studios lived by the words of the madman who ran Jurassic Park—“We spared no expense.”
Part I: The Education of a Nation
Right from the film’s opening moments, Cimino sets us off our feet by a subtle defiance of expectations. As David Mansfield’s somber, folksy guitar-strumming plays over the opening credits, we begin to expect a rustic film either somewhere in Eastern-Europe, or perhaps in one of the Russian-stock steel-mill towns of America that The Deer Hunter opened with. This is more or less what Heaven’s Gate will turn out to be, of course, but not at first, though as the first shot begins with a pan down revealing what at first appear to be onion-dome tops of an Orthodox church, and with the slow movement, sepia-tone and widescreen composition we might be excused for getting the brief impression of an early Tarkovsky film. That illusion is punctured as soon as we see the academic buildings and cobblestone streets, and destroyed outright when the title card appears to inform the audience that the setting is Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a lone young man runs into frame, we follow as he joins a marching band (playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and the cheering students parading alongside them, where he is greeted by a drunken friend of his. These two men are Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill and John Hurt’s Billy Irvine, and we are watching the beginning of their commencement ceremonies as the graduating class of 1870.
It’s a quick, and very subtle trick, but Cimino helps cushion the audience’s transition into his vision of the past by setting up one expectation with audio, and slight visual cues, and then settling them into something quite literally miles apart. It is also the first instance of his theme of social conscience in turn of the century America that the rest of the film will elaborate on, juxtaposing musical and architectural elements of lower-class immigrants with the patriotic songs and rich upper-class vibrancy of Harvard—the Old Country meets the New World. Once the initial shock wears off, however, we’re treated to one of the most meticulously detailed recreations of years past that movies have to offer, with enough ambience in setting and characterization for audiences to soak in all the atmosphere without necessarily paying too close attention. Cimino’s camera is agile, but patient, and for the most part lets the action come to it, only moving in long pans, dollies and cranes to capture as much of the pageantry as possible. There’s a hint of the fetishistic quality that devotees to historical-reenactments possess in the vast density of period-perfect dressings of characters and sets alike, from the lowliest crowd bystander to the most remote and distant background element. With top-hats tossed into and falling from the air like confetti at a wedding and multitudes of comely young women looking down on dashing young men from high perches, Cimino shares an excitement of sound and image that’s as palpable as the spirit of youth bristling at the doors of its gilded cage—he captures pomp and circumstance without ever condescending to telegraph it as a musical cue, a fitting feat indeed.
Among the remarkable things about this first segment of the film, about one half hour of its running time which has no concrete connection to the main bulk of the plot, is the near-total absence of scene, in the traditional sense of the word. Cimino does not give us exchanges of dialogue that give us details of the characters’ backgrounds or personalities—indeed, for the most part the sound mix does not even focus spoken word at all, and instead favors all the ambient surround of pumping brass and cheering ladies. Traditional film exposition is ignored here in favor of a series of sequences that drive home their meaning almost entirely through visual impression and aural atmosphere. Yes, there’s a lecture from the Reverend Doctor on the necessity of these privileged youths to remember their position in society as one of intellectual and moral responsibility, but more important are the glances exchanged between Kristofferson’s Averill and a pretty young woman with a blue ribbon in her hat, who grins upon him from the balcony. Even Irvine’s valedictory speech, delivered with an irreverent aplomb by a delightfully unsober Hurt, isn’t really as important as the volleys of laughs it inspires from his peers, or the shots of men from the older generation made uncomfortable by its frankness. Here, Cimino does an excellent job setting up the cinematic method silent-film era directness for the entire picture, and getting us accustomed to his habits in a long-form sequence that is free from narrative obligations. Just as Averill and Irvine are graduating from a house of higher learning, so too are we being taught how to watch the rest of the movie.
Part of Cimino’s lesson plan involves showing us the patterns that the film indulges in—setting Averill as a solitary figure either joining with or standing apart from great masses, offering pieces of oratory which exposit information that audiences can already surmise from non-spoken elements, and the practice of spectacular, carefully choreographed set-pieces, most of them following a circular motif, on a scale larger than few other motion-pictures dare mount. Music remains either diagetic or indigenous to the period, and the section following John Hurt’s speech before the Class of Seventy stands as a surprisingly audacious needle-drop—Johan Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube”, played as dozens of new graduates dance with wide-skirted ladies around a tree on the Harvard lawn. Strauss’ music had already been famously fitted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it scored the slow, graceful flights of manned space vehicles to, from and around the moon. Such previous usage, especially in a noted film by a world-famous director in a completely different, indeed almost antithetical genre, makes Cimino’s decision here a risky one, but along with his daring there’s a sense of savvy and carefulness that makes that risk pay off. It helps that the music fits the context and the period—written by Strauss in 1866, it’s a reasonable match for a celebratory waltz in the posh New England setting of 1870. One can’t help but wonder where the music is emanating from in the scene, though—for a film that in upcoming scenes will place a zealous premium on the energy of diagetic source of the soundtrack, it’s a bit surreal to see all these kids dancing a grand waltz with no sign of an orchestra in sight. As such, it operates in the same kind of dream logic that all movie musicals do, and all movie surrealism as well (that horse-drawn carriage that circles the dancers might as well be carrying Catherine Deneuve on her way to one of Bunuel’s floggings). And while he isn’t afraid to use a piece of music with which his audience would have pre-existing associations, he’s also smart to try and dodge direct contact wherever possible—we never hear the waltz’s most famous and recognizable bars of music, or at least here, and certainly not in full symphonic swing.
Furthermore, there’s a sense that the music’s cinematic allusions work, and that if they weren’t exactly intended, they certainly had to have been expected, and on some level allowed. Cimino’s circling dancers recall Kubrick’s orbiting space-station, and while at first glance there may not seem to be much in common between one man’s fever-dream recreation of the past and the other’s oracle-vision of a possible tomorrow, there’s a distinctly nationalistic quality in which both indulge, in keeping with the character of their country. 2001 and Heaven’s Gate are both pictures of the popular myth of Manifest Destiny in one way or another, where final frontiers move either westward or towards the stars themselves as new destinations to plant an American flag. It may even be worth pointing out that both films make an effort to depict a distinctly American character without necessarily being filmed on American soil—Kubrick had already become an English expatriate by the time he worked on his collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke and begun to grow the shabby, Rabbinical beard of monklike asceticism, and Cimino was forced to let Oxford’s college campus stand in for Harvard in order to keep his spiraling budget under control. Thanks to those alien surroundings, there’s a necessity on the behalf of the production to work even harder than necessary to articulate this vision of an American aristocratic past, a heightened effort to compensate for the overseas location-shooting and effectively turn the former parent country into the one-time colony, itself.
As such, Cimino’s Harvard seems not only real, but hyperreal. There’s an excess of details gleaned from the period, from the style of women’s hats and dresses to the arrangements of flowers so distant in long-shots they challenge the audience to acknowledge the sheer volume of effort. Cimino strives to envision the past with the same drive for authenticity and imagination that Kubrick strove for in 2001, emblazoning crafts with famous brand-names like Pan-Am, IBM and Howard Johnson’s to lend a familiar feeling to all tomorrow’s parties, and designing starships and stations alike with a scarily prescient eye for scientific engineering. Next-generation auteurs like John Carpenter and George Lucas would aim for the same level of fetishistic detail in their own science-fiction projects, filling frames with a dense abundance of visual details that might only remain onscreen for a moment at most, but helped to gain the audience’s trust in the authenticity of their cinematic verisimilitude. Perhaps the director who best took advantage of this has been Ridley Scott, who gained the reputation of “world builder” in works as varied as sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner, to antique period-pieces like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven or even his Napoleonic debut, The Duelists. Part of Scott’s flexibility from one genre to the next has been his careful application of the same atmospheric attention in any project, layering details both visually and aurally to create a reality as immersive and convincing as everyday life.
Cimino’s technique is very much the same, and helps show the similar reasons as to why pictorially oriented filmmakers are continually drawn to both science-fiction and period-pieces alike, as both genres usually call for constructed realities that cannot be sustained by contemporary location-shooting, thus necessitating a director to infuse as much visual attention as possible and allowing them the free-reign they crave in terms of creating and controlling the images in their movies. That’s why Heaven’s Gate at times has a perfectionist zeal often found only in fantasy-films, especially in the Harvard sequence, which at times resembles an attempt to create a living diorama of human life for a museum of natural history on an alien planet. It has the same transporting effect that fantasy has, removing an audience from their mundane reality into one that resembles either their richest imagination or the deepest recesses of the past. It is also, however, a cinematic cushioning effect that helps provide the right context for the film’s later, more rustic settings, priming the audience for the richly reenacted Wyoming with the more obviously detailed Harvard. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s filmgoers had already grown accustomed to gritty, verite-styled recreations of the American west by directors as varied as Leone, Altman and Peckinpah. By framing his film with richly decorated depictions of east-coast upper-class life, Cimino not only provides a contrast for the bulk of the film’s setting and characters in terms of social differences, but also gives a lens of attentive cinematic detail with which to view portions of the film that some audiences might’ve taken for granted. As always, he uses this first section not only to show us what we’re going to see, but also how to see it, instructing us in the literacy of reading the motion-picture unfolding before our eyes, the way that Orson Welles taught the world how to watch movies with Citizen Kane.
That connection is unavoidable, to an extent, thanks to the presence of Joseph Cotton, perhaps the leading Mercury Player next to Welles himself, who is there to symbolically pass the torch from one generation of filmmakers to the next, just as his Reverend Doctor does for one class of Harvard graduates to the next. It’s fitting to see him watching over the earliest section of the film, which brims with the same grandioelequence and romantic Americana as The Magnificent Ambersons, itself another fatally ambitious work that marked the beginning of a talented director’s ambivalent relationship with the studio-system. Perhaps Cimino tempted fate a little too daringly by invoking the spirit of Welles in the attempt to construct his own cinematic Xanadu, but as his rhapsodic vision of a nation’s eager coming of age unfurls, it’s hard to care, or even notice. As Kristofferson shares glances and dances with the enigmatic girl with the blue ribbon and rambunctious graduates party-crash rings of maypole dancers and marching-bandsmen in the square, the film captures the all but uncontainable energy of men as young, vibrant and naïve as the country they belong to—a picture of pastoral innocence projected on a national scale. David Mansfield’s guitar returns while the boys serenade their ladies in windows with a boisterous college-song in the fallen evening, as a drunken Hurt weeps over the end of their care-free school days and Kristofferson sings at his blue-ribbonned girl, bringing back the musical strains of rustic enchantment as dusk consumes the splendor of a life freshly blossomed in richest New England.
Part 2: In Principle, Everything Can Be Done
And before we know it, even before the title card comes up to inform us, we know that 20 years have passed. Mansfield’s strings arrive in full Eastern-European force, giving a folksy reverence to our first glimpse of James Averill as the Sheriff of Johnson County, now wearing the full, graying beard that Kristofferson was already famous for as a folk-musician himself, before his acting career took hold. Waking up from a Venetian-blind sleeper car as his train pulls up into Casper, Wyoming, Averill has the look of a man aged not only in body and mind, but spirit as well, not exactly defeated by life but certainly challenged by it. Even putting on his boots has become an effort for the man we once saw galloping to make his own graduation in time, and as he makes his way through the hustle and bustle of a town-square crowded with passengers, immigrant farmers and cowboys in long-coats, it doesn’t take too long for him to tell that something’s rotten in his neck of the woods. Eyed suspiciously by Stetson sporting men in the general store where he purchases a rifle and whiskey before halting an onstreet altercation between a new citizen rancher and another of the increasingly hostile duster wearing tough-guys, Averill asks the train-conductor, an able Richard Masur, as to what’s going on, and is told to check in on the visiting men of the Stock Grower’s Association.
Enter Sam Waterston. Now most famous for his 15 years and counting on Dick Wolf’s long-running series Law & Order as Manhattan Distict-Attorney Jack McCoy, Waterston had previously enjoyed a long career on stage and screen, gaining notoriety in theatrical productions as Abraham Lincoln and in films as diverse as Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One, Roland Jaffe’s The Killing Fields and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. He had previously waded in territory similar to Cimino’s American epic in the 1974 Coppola-scripted adaptation of The Great Gatsby as Nick Carraway, about the closest thing there is to a voice of reason and conscience in Fitzgerald’s ode to the shallow pleasures of a lost generation. Here, he is Carraway’s antithesis as Frank Canton, the heartless aristocratic leader of the Stock Grower’s Association, who seeks to invade Johnson County with the permission of the state and federal governments with an army of hired guns to execute 125 “anarchists and thieves” accused of stealing Association cattle. With his princely mustache he is the picture of a sentimental penny-dreadful villain of the time, and in his slim black coat and Russian fur-cap he looks not unlike a Cossack raider about to sack a wintry town in bloody pogrom. Waterston lends a calm, rational voice that makes his actions all the more cold-blooded and ruthless, dispassionately discussing the writing of death-lists and carrying out of what amounts to a state-sanctioned genocide with the same remote air of detachment as if he were laying off a swath of employees. His Frank Canton is a coolly impersonal monster, whose voice is only raised in anger towards fellow patricians like Averill, who opposes him, and John Hurt’s Billy Irvine, who shows up as a fellow member of the Association.
Irvine is an especially interesting character in the film, particularly thanks to how useless he is, in the grand scheme of the narrative. The only real function he has is to inform Averill of the Association’s death-list; beyond that he serves only a foil to his old friend, falling over himself physically and ethically as a drunken sot who keeps making feeble attempts to raise a point of moral objection to Canton’s murderous aims, but remains an impotent, craven coward. In a lesser film, he might have been handled lightly as a voice of conscience who resists the bloodthirsty greed of his fellow upper-classmen. Thankfully, Cimino has enough guts to showcase a character who clearly has none of his own, yet with an air of guilty self-loathing that makes him an object of pity, rather than abject hatred. The lion’s share of profit for the success of the character is indebted to the illustrious John Hurt, who from the glory days as an erudite and enthused valedictorian to his sad, dejected maturity as Canton’s stooge, projects a wounded self-importance befitting a mouse of a man who could participate in the wonton murder of countless innocents and still strain to call himself a “victim of his class”. He dies an ignoble, almost laughable death late in the film, shot down by a woman while drinking himself to the point of obliviousness, shouting on about how much he loves Paris in the middle of a circled-wagon gunfight. As a character who doesn’t mean anybody any harm, yet also doesn’t lift a finger in earnest to offer any help, he is a man the film renders utterly pathetic, yet never entirely sympathetic. Even the way Cimino photographs him belies his irrelevance, disappearing in a soft-blown cloud of dust at mid-film, before the intermission. He might as well vanish into thin air—save for a few gin-soaked words, it’s not as though he made an impact on history worth remembering.
Of course, what is and is not history is a questionable matter in the memory-fog of Heaven’s Gate. Like Walken’s Nate Champion, several of the film’s major characters are named or modeled after real-life figures from the Johnson County War, yet bear precious little resemblance to their actual exploits. Frank Canton, for example, was a classic figure of the Old West, a Virginia-born cowboy who turned bank-robber and cattle-rustler in Texas, at various turns in his life he fashioned himself a gunslinger, outlaw and lawman alike. During the events which Cimino’s film is based upon, he served as a stock detective, regulator and was even elected Sheriff of Johnson County—save for his dress, he was never anything remotely like the eastern-born aristocrat Waterston plays, with family ties to the Governor of New York and Secretary of State. Likewise, Kristofferson’s Averill is largely a fictional creation, based largely upon a Wyoming homesteader named James Averell, who in reality might never have risen to a higher office than of county postmaster. In altering these figures into high-born society-men, Cimino injects a greater amount of social commentary than would be possible if dealing with the characters as they were according to history. By depicting Canton as an American aristocrat, we are given a picture of an east-coast cattle-baron as he might’ve appeared on the front-lines of the battles dictated by the bloodstained purse of his bottom line. Likewise, by elevating Averill to become not only a tough lawman but also, in the words of Terry O’Quinn’s cavalry captain, “a rich man with a good name who wants to pretend he’s poor”, we enjoy a picture of patrician conscience and heroicism not merely as it was, in fact, but perhaps as it should have been.
Thus are we also given a clear line that shows the hazy relationship the film’s fiction enjoys with the history he portrays onscreen. Had audiences been better schooled in the actual events of the Johnson County War, they might’ve noted just how wild and daringly inaccurate the film is, at times. With an edge of revisionism somewhere between Scorsese’s Five-Points opera Gangs of New York and Tarantino’s alternate-history Inglorious Basterds, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate conveys a vision of the past that is at once dreamy in its romance and nightmarish in its nihilism. Like Leone’s Once Upon a Time pictures, it paints a glowing, somewhat sentimentalized depiction of ritzy posh and impoverished squalor that invites itself into acceptance as hazy recollections with all the nostalgia and bad-grudges of memories long past. Yet Cimino avoids making the personal, impressionistic quality of his movie’s history as obvious as Leone did, who forever remained self-conscious as a filmmaker and mythmaker, dropping hints to the unreliability of memory as subtle as turning the Beatles’ “Yesterday” into a music-cue. Instead of the long-drawn out close-ups and scene-work of spaghetti-westerns, Cimino relies largely upon a well-honed naturalism achieved through patient sequences, a studied use of long-shots which showcase the pastoral landscapes and domestic farms, and especially Zsigmond’s delicate balance of lighting, which remains at once utterly inartificial yet breathtakingly beautiful. His idealized picture of America is one that lives by the same dramatic rules as his treatment of history as an artifact of intimate memory—too good to be true, yet too terrible to be false.
Part 3: Sweetwater
Of course, Westerns have always had a somewhat shady relationship with truth and fiction. Printing legends was already commonplace before the practice was made famous in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Fritz Lang called Westerns the American equivalent of his Germanic Nibelungen while making raunchy, surreal fare like the Marlene Dietrich saloon-pic Rancho Notorious, and Francois Truffaut once called Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar a kind of fairy-tale as well, not unlike Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. But the impulse to mythologize the Old West was always there, even before Hollywood started fashioning its tall-tales into cinematic bedtime stories. The exaggeration of characters and events to fit anxious imaginations kept restless in an era without radio, film or even widespread print in some places became an essential way for reputations to be grown, and in some cases cut down. Men would build up their exploits with embellishments, half-truths and outright lies in order to gain the fear or respect they craved. At the same time, for anyone with a grudge or vendetta against somebody, a relatively easy way to get the ball rolling was to start spreading rumors. After all, a good name could be one of the only meaningful references you had at your disposal in the days when even Western Union and the Pony Express were expensive commodities, and if the right people believed the wrong stories it might be all that was necessary to get you thrown in jail, or worse.
It’s no wonder that the Nick Ray Johnny Guitar has a McCarthy-era paranoia about it not unlike Arthur Miller’s look at the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible, and it’s a spirit that Heaven’s Gate evokes in the Association’s “Death List”, which seeks to obtain warrants to shoot or hang more or less the entire population of the county on trumped up political charges, no large feat with easily mistrusted Eastern-European immigrants. Among the names on that list is one Ella Watson, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, whose relationship to her real-life counterpart is perhaps the most telling of all Cimino’s fictionalizations. A key figure in the Johnson County War, Ellen Watson, also known as “Cattle Kate” for her role in the repealing of the Maverick Law, which saw all cattle that were not marked by an established brand as becoming automatic property of the Stock Growers’ Association, shared a romance with the historical Averell, supposedly by then a justice of the peace, alongside whom she was lynched by enemies linked to the Association. Accused of rustling cattle when in reality she sought to buy the a pre-existing brand from an established rancher, her name was later tarnished in death by a smear campaign that rewrote her life story as that of a wonton prostitute and outlaw menace to society. Though she lives on as a legend of the west, the reputation she gained had more to do with her challenging a corrupt corporate authority than it did slinging guns or stealing steer.
In working her into his fiction, Cimino mixes far more of the rumors, innuendos and outright propaganda of her sullied reputation than the recorded historical facts. The Ella Watson of Heaven’s Gate is not only a prostitute, but the madame of her own cabin-brothel out in the countryside, where she gains notoriety and infamy for accepting both cash and cattle as payment for services. This gets her in trouble not only with the Association, who seek to assassinate her for possession of stolen property, but also with the citizens of Johnson County themselves, who want nothing to do with a woman of ill-repute. While she remains locked in a romance with Sheriff Averill, that relationship is now expanded beyond the scope of history by the insertion of Nate Champion, whose presence not only turns it into a love-triangle but furthermore one compounded and complicated by conflicting alliances. After all, the film’s Champion is a mercenary gunman hired by the cattle-barons, and who doesn’t necessarily see fit to inform Ella right away that her name is on the Association’s death-list. The tug-of-war between Averill and Champion for Ella’s heart is easily one of the weaker elements of the film, an emotional conflict seemingly inserted to live up to the standards of romantic epics like Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. Far stronger is the storm of stubborn wills between Kristofferson and Huppert as a pair, with his Averill wanting nothing more than for her to leave Johnson County before trouble starts, and her Ella unwilling to budge without the company of her man, who as Sheriff must stand his ground. Even that subplot, however, is indulged in for far longer than is truly necessary at times, repeating the same themes over and over again. For a film as concerned with the visual motif of circling dancers and gunfighters, Heaven’s Gate sure does a whole lot of wheel-spinning where its plot is concerned.
Myths gain their resonance through repetition, and as such it’s fitting that Cimino keeps repeating the same conflicts and dilemmas for long stretches in the film, almost as though it were designed to be perfectly understood for filmgoers who ran into the movie late, to catch them up and bring them to speed on the story’s progress at any given moment. Like any good Western, Heaven’s Gate lives as a hybrid of myth and reality, somewhere between the eye-witness account and a tall-tale, but if Cimino fudges his facts a little too messily at times, it’s only to keep the specifics of his story as simple as possible in the hopes of reaching audiences. The facts of the Johnson County War, especially as relating to the real-life travails of “Cattle Kate” are fare more complicated than tend to be shown in films of the event—the dispute was based less upon ranchers stealing cattle from Association land as it was the ways in which the laws of that land were written in the Association’s favor. While the Maverick Law allowed farmers to mark cattle with their own brands, those brands had to be applied for and accepted by the state, which included requirements such as an exorbitant price that few could pay, leaving cattle-barons like those of the Association as the only game in town, free to sweep in and gobble up as much territory as legislation would allow. This is the stuff of fascinating history, worthy of coverage in densely written books or documentary features, but it doesn’t exactly make for lively fiction, or motion-pictures.
That’s why Cimino simplifies the truths, and at times opts for convenient half-truths as long as they help in selling the same basic moral conflict of downtrodden immigrant farmers beset by fat-cat land speculators. In radically embracing the myths of “Cattle Kate” for his vision of Ella Watson, he gives us a figure who is both an emotional focus and a historical lynchpin of more or less easy reference. With a lesser performer, such a feat might not have been pulled off, and only floundered as a half-baked attempt to mix fact and fiction without informing audiences which was which, but with Isabelle Huppert, we have a godsend of an actress. Though she had already been active in the film industry of her native France since 1972, Heaven’s Gate marked her first appearance in an American feature, and while it would turn out to be anything but an auspicious debut, the exuberance and comfort she brings to the role helps to make her Ella one of the most memorable and endearing characters of the film. The generally understated and unforced delivery with which she greets most of her dialogue helps make the giddy excitement and enthusiasm of her first moments in the movie that much more palpable, leaping into Averill’s arms, shoveling pie in his face and all but squealing in bed with him before going off on a rollicking ride on her new horse-and-buggy. There’s a naturalism she brings to her character that makes her romantic attachments and profession feel happily matter-of-fact—when she strips her clothes either to cavort with Averill or bathe in the river, it’s not with the same kind of vain, self-conscious drive that aims to turn her body into an erotic object, no matter how sexual her everyday life may be. Hers is a spirit and body at once youthful and mature, genuinely womanly in the best way possible, yet not without at least a little bit of girlish spunk that makes her respectfully beautiful and exciting.
More than any other individual figure, Huppert’s Ella is a forceful embodiment of life, which makes her the essential figure of the film’s breathtaking first half. She can be naked without being ashamed or calculating, showing off her nude body as though it were nothing more than the punchline to a joke. It’s part of an atmosphere of carefree innocence present throughout the early-to-mid sections of the film, which enjoy a tighter sense of scene-work than the film’s first section, but display an ambition that is matched only by the playfulness and imagination with which Cimino states his action. During the Harvard scenes, he is largely shooting events that are tightly controlled and heavily mannered; yes, all those running young men are bursting at the seams with energy, but for the most part they’re standing and moving in their places. The sequences show off Cimino’s gifts with choreography and composition, aspects that are all the more evident thanks to the conservative nature of the social rituals on display—the marching band, the waltzing dancers, the maypole rings and the serenading students. As soon as we get to Wyoming, however, there’s a hectic, bustling atmosphere to the large-scale spectacles, a feat of carefully staged and arranged tableaus of widespread chaos and confusion. While in Harvard both the events and presentation are heavily scripted, here Cimino’s mis-en-scene must remain strictly under control even while portraying a sense of things being out of control.
It’s a balance the director none-too-subtly makes reference to himself, as Ella and Averill’s horse-driven carriage speeds past a photographer shooting an assembled crowd in town just as the flash is about to go off. Heaven’s Gate aims for the kind of happenstance, lifelike imperfection that only a zealous perfectionist can achieve. In spite of his carefully arranged compositions that take wonderful advantage of the 2.35:1 scope and showcase Zsigmond’s delicate lighting like nothing else, Cimino seems to encourage his actors to weave themselves in and out of the frame whenever the scene does not call for following the exact pattern their director has laid out for them, like fumbling freshmen learning a new dance from footstep instructions. Yet at the same time, there’s such a strict discipline to every element onscreen that you have to wonder if even the seemingly off-the-cuff moments are heavily pre-scripted. Halfway through the film there’s a moment where Nate Champion shares a few brief words with Sherrif Averill and tavern-keeper keeper John H. Bridges, played by Jeff Bridges, in a role that raises the possibility that his ancestors might’ve played a part in Johnson County. Champion stands apart while heckling them with the kinds of folksy, colloquial sayings the script is peppered with (“You sound like a man with a paper asshole”); stuff that looks great on paper, sounds authentic when spoken out loud, but feels a little stiff and rehearsed in the mouths of trained actors. Averill and Bridges sit in front of a window in a shot that appears perfectly natural and relaxed until you look a little closer, and see a juggler way outside in the distance, framed perfectly in the middle of the window.
No matter how many times he went over the scene with his main actors, you get the feeling that Cimino may spent more time than anything making sure that juggler was lined up correctly, and it stands out as the kind of small, almost impossible to spot detail that demonstrates exactly how tightly composed every moment of the film is, no matter how seemingly off the cuff. Improvisation was something of a premium in American films of the 70’s, encouraged by nearly all but the most dictatorial of directors as far as performances go, and capitalized upon first-hand by filmmakers themselves who wanted to invest their products with a verite-quality of documentary-realism. It’s there in the grimy, unfriendly streets of Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection, the high-wire emotional theatrics of Dog Day Afternoon.It’s especially present in the ensemble-dramas of Robert Altman, where cameras were placed as far away as possible to give actors the comfort level necessary for them to branch out and deliver powerhouse performances, and the transcendental approach Terrence Malick applied to Badlands and Days of Heaven, which capture much of the same old-fashioned Americana landscape as Heaven’s Gate but with an almost Zen mindset that could be described as the filmmaking of method-acting. But Cimino is able to deliver the same kind of naturalism without sacrificing his own inimitable auteurist sensibility or going too far into showy self-indulgence, presenting every bit the same level of ambition with his camerawork and choreography as he does the levels in his cast’s acting.
Perhaps no other sequence showcases the director’s trademark combination of audacious scale and pure cinematic imagination as the famous roller-skate sequence, a 10 minute stretch that is at once welcoming, familiar and yet absolutely unlike anything else the silver screen has to offer. With the entire town gathered into Bridge’s barnhouse dancehall and clapping in expectation, a young band leader tunes up his violin and starts skating circles throughout the crowd, fiddling furiously as he does. The fiddler is played by none other than composer David Mansfield, who projects an easy confidence in his playing, skating and body language alike, a self-assured demeanor fitting a man who at a young age had already worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and scored an Oscar winning motion-picture. Cimino’s camera speeds along ahead of Mansfield, keeping him at the arm-length’s distance of a comfortable medium-shot, capturing the fiddler’s grinning smirk and the rushing, blurry applause of the crowds at a dizzying pace. We’ve seen him before in the film, acting chummy with the whores over at Ella’s brothel, and there’s an awkward, shy way about him at those moments that suggests he isn’t entirely comfortable around those, or any women, along with a casual familiarity he has with them that suggests he might do odd-jobs and favors around the bordello, but that he never takes advantage of their hospitality himself. Here in the dancehall, however, he’s in his element, and he knows it. There’s a pleasantly cocky demeanor he brings to the part, showing off a few quick two-steps as he skates and fiddles, a lad who believes he can do almost anything and demonstrates that within the tight-knight community of friends, neighbors and other relations, he certainly isn’t far off. After a finishing flourish he hops onto stage, where he’s greeted with the raucous applause of the townspeople and the impressed congratulations of his bandmates. As soon as they’re ready, the music starts again in full swing, and everybody but the band hits the floorboards on-wheels.
Scenes of celebration can be a very tricky thing to pull off in the movies. You need some kind of a hook to keep it from devolving into a mere cliché of the happy times before a story’s inevitably stormy conflict asserts itself in full. The most obvious and frequent choice is to pick an occasion that anybody can relate with—a birth, or events surrounding one like christenings or birthdays; a marriage, or at the very least some part of the wedding ceremony or reception; even a funeral or wake can be staged with a similar, if not exactly the same kind of fond festivity of other events. Religious and secular holidays alike are a bit too exclusive for all audiences to really appreciate, no matter how universal occasions like Christmas or the Fourth of July might seem when seen from the inside. It’s those personal ceremonies that everyone experiences on an intimate level that retain the biggest emotional impact when presented in any medium, and films are no exception. Coppola staged variations of all three in his landmark Godfather films—even the first film alone includes two weddings, a baptism and a funeral, plus a visit to the morgue thrown in for good measure. Cimino’s own The Deer Hunter begins its tale of Vietnam trauma with a Russian Orthodox marriage ceremony before its protagonists set off for war in Southeast Asia. The elaborate ritual, full of details unique to a distinct ethnic-group, helps serve as a way to bond the young men together as much as their subsequent hunting trip before shipping off to join the Army. It also adds a bitter dimension to the physical and psychological torture inflicted upon them by their Viet-Cong captors during the war—one moment they’re at a Russian wedding, the next they’re playing Russian roulette.
Cimino had a savvy eye for the psychological implications and benefits from social rituals such as these, which is what makes The Deer Hunter works as much as it does, despite how histrionic its treatment of history becomes. That’s why the roller-stake sequence is so unusual, because there is no justification for it in the narrative. There’s no wedding, birth or eventful life well-lived that’s being celebrated in this sequence. Earlier in Heaven’s Gate he offered another such unique celebratory sequence in Averill and Irvine as part of the graduating Class of Seventy back at Harvard, but here in Wyoming, there’s no explanation offered as to why everyone in town is lacing up newfangled contraptions on their feet and dancing around in circles as a honky-tonk band plays on. It serves no actual purpose in the film’s narrative, and runs the risk of merely adding more and more running time to a film that is already stretching about 90 minute’s worth of actual plot into a gargantuan, potentially bloated epic. What saves the sequence is a daring on the part of the director, a commitment to both historical accuracy of the period and the ambitious limits of his own imagination. Cimino’s excitement with the kineticism, complexity and daredevil spirit of covering an entire town’s worth of roller-skaters and musicians is as palpable as that of the characters themselves at just gathering together for the then novel-attraction of fixing wheels to your feet and seeing just how fast you could go. Considering how dark the film is bound to get once the director dedicates himself in earnest to the matter of the Association and their army of gunslinging mercenaries, the audience needs this period of lightness just to see how much is at stake for the rest of the film. Through Cimino’s camera, we’ve seen nearly the entire culture present in Johnson County, everything from farmhouses to whorehouses, fistfights to cockfights. We need to fall in love with all these characters before their lives are put in danger, and that’s exactly what the first half of the film accomplishes.
Part 4: It’s the Rules
First, there is the long-shot, as if to say that at this point, that’s what all hope is. Richard Masur’s train conductor is woken from tentative sleep under a flimsy nest of lumber by a long-coat wearing cowboy. In the distance we can see the entire valley, with a river down below and mountains far off, and as the light turns alternately dark and bright we know that clouds are passing by overhead, giving us a sense of a whole landscape’s worth of natural splendor. But in the foreground, trouble’s brewing, as Masur nervously tries to get away while the cowboy talks about how soon he plans to start paying off his expensive new suit—$50, the same price that Sam Waterston’s Canton has put on the heads of each of Johnson County’s citizens. Earlier Masur had greeted Averill at the train-station, and had only vague clues and sympathetic platitudes to offer him (“If the rich could hire other people to do their dying for them, the poor could make a wonderful living”) but plainly didn’t want to get involved. When the Association’s train speeds past his station’s stop in Casper, however, he knows that something’s up—he even puts his ear to the rail to check the vibrations and see how far away they’ve stopped, an act that gives him a Native American-esque familiarity with the increasingly industrialized land.
Against all odds, he decides to ride towards Johnson County and tell them all of the coming mercenaries, but in the end the army he sought to warn them about catches him first. With only enough time to get on his horse, but not nearly enough time to get away, he vainly shouts “They’re coming!” down the valley before bullets cut him off, and finally, tear him apart. It’s a savage violence, ugly and direct, quite unlike Nate Champion’s gracefully framed and paced introduction to the film by murdering a homesteader. Cimino holds on Masur as the mercenaries’ bullets blast through his flesh and bones, an unflinching sight that recalls the ends of Bonnie and Clyde or Sonny’s in The Godfather. But Masur is not ambushed with the balletic-gravitas of a slow-motion death-rattle, or ripped to shreds with the rapid redundancies of a machine-gun lullaby. Here, the bullets are shot one at a time, and we watch each and every one, feel the weight and impact of every last hit individually, until the target falls over dead. Masur’s murder isn’t dragged out artificially by cinematic gimmickry or quickened by the speed of modern weaponry. It is an old death, with antique rifles and the corpse of a man brought quickly to middle age by a hardened life—he does not leave a pretty, young body behind like Dunaway, Beatty or Caan, who requires only a few hours alone with a mortician who owes a favor to be made presentable for an open-casket funeral.
This is the way that the people of Johnson County will die, in this second half of the film, in a manner without the sentimentality of artful reconstruction, and there will be a lot of dying to do before the movie’s end. Some will die off-screen, leaving only their smoking, bloodstained bodies behind. Some will go out in blazes of glory, making defiant last stands as hails of bullets render them into porous bodies in expensive clothes. Most will die with single gunshots in the midst of frenzied battle, struck in the head by the expert marksmen of a mercenary army, and some will even be caught in the blast of bombs as the battle takes a decidedly explosive turn. One will even commit suicide, in what would be the most difficult death of all to stomach, were it not for the last body to fall. This is the action-packed part of the film, where Cimino shows off his skill at staging largescale battles with a panache worthy of Lean or Kurosawa. With armies of horseback riders on scope-spanning hilltops, circling cameras following circling gunfighters in a shoot-out that drives up dust-clouds so thick it turns pains the whole screen in a coat of sepia, and barricades blown to smithereens by a battle-plan borrowed from the Romans, the set-pieces with which Heaven’s Gate weaves the Johnson County War are sensational and thrilling, no matter how little they have to do with what actually happened.
If the first half of the film was a romantic vision of life, then the second half is at the very least a somewhat adventurous vision of death, with the pageantry of martial congress staged with an inventive sense of cinematic imagination. Cimino doesn’t settle for simply arranging a few gunfights here and there on a larger scale than we’re used to seeing. Just as the pageantry of Harvard and the roller-skate dancehall displayed his talent for displaying the seemingly ordinary social rituals we take for granted and turning them into full-blown epic expressions of human existence, the battles between Johnson County’s farmers and the Association’s army are invested with a keen sense of spectacle that finds itself put to screen with the same kind of ambitious scope and keen eye for composition and choreography that makes the lighter, sweeter moments of the movie so memorable. It’s essential for making the ugly matters of these battles somewhat easier to take—as Cimino dazzles us with the craftsmanship and audaciousness of his images, we can briefly allow ourselves to forget that we’re watching all the characters we’ve spent the last two and a half hours with. It doesn’t sugarcoat the ugly realities of war, but it does at least make the bitterness of life lost in harrowing ways just palatable enough to keep on watching. It’s the cups of water that friendly crowds hold outstretched for runners in the middle of a marathon, a quick merciful gulp of excitement to quench our thirst and make the rest of the endurance trial a little more bearable.
And it’s a good thing, too, because even amidst all this escapist free-for-all, Cimino still finds the time to turn the screws on his characters to astonishingly frightful degrees. We know how Nate Champion is fated to die, of course—it’s one of the few things that the director puts to screen with as little in the way of dramatic embellishments as possible. It’s the intimate nature of his end that makes it so striking, the way we get to see the cabin where he will be shot down by an entire army’s worth of gunfire before the onslaught starts. Earlier in the film, he brings Ella to his homestead, where she will give him lessons in reading and writing. Champion tries to impress her with a new addition to his cabin—wallpaper, specifically taken from newspaper articles and magazine advertisements. Throughout the film he’s nursed a wounded, prideful jealousy towards Averill, based largely upon the Sheriff’s privileged upbringing. Part of his longing for the societal acceptance of an aristocratic heritage is the mere gift of literacy, a way into the civilized world from the savage wilderness, and the dressing of his cabin in a newsprint wallpaper he cannot read is another example of Cimino’s gift of marrying visual expressionism with period naturalism, using the historical details available to create a picture of an individual that is as accurate to the interior as it is to the exterior. As the Association burns down the house, bringing up the wallpaper’s fancy words up in flames along with it, Champion’s final acts of jotting down a brief, unsophisticated note to Averill and Ella take on a heroic dimension. They are the last truly romantic moments of the film, the storied end of a man who lived by the sword, but dies by the pen.
Fate is far less kind to Ella, both historically and cinematically. While the death of the movie’s Champion more or less matches up with that of its real-life counterpart, Huppert’s Ella does not meet her maker by a lynch-mob’s noose at the side of her lover Averill, as did “Cattle Kate”. What she is greeted by early on in the film’s second half is far more cruel, and more difficult to accept as a product of celluloid storytelling. After leaving Champion in his cabin with a bear-tongue grabbing mountain man and a very young Mickey Rourke as friend Nick Ray (no relation to the director), she finds her brothel occupied by mercenaries who take her by force, cynically calling it her debt owed to the Association by accepting stolen-cattle as payment. Rape is perhaps one of the most difficult acts of violence to present on screen without falling into the trap of outright exploitation. Though A Clockwork Orange was notorious for its ultra-violent protagonist, it’s worth noting that the film never actually shows the physical act of rape itself, only the awful build-up to it. Peckinpah tried to put the act on film in Straw Dogs, but his presentation of Susan George as a woman traumatized into a seemingly wavering consent and acceptance of her violation struck nearly all audiences as disgustingly insensitive, displaying an almost total misunderstanding of sexual violence. Many years later Gaspar Noe would turn heads and stomachs with Monica Belluci’s prolonged rape in Irreversible, where the film perhaps benefited from never flinching from the violence, while at the same time refusing to eroticize it.
Cimino’s handling of Ella’s rape in Heaven’s Gate is done similarly, though without the same explicitness as Noe would later indulge. The mercenaries do not disrobe their victim before their attack, as the last thing the director wants is for us to enjoy this scene for any reason—Huppert is only nude for the camera at the lightest, most playful and relaxed moments of the film, putting this act of violence in stark contrast. The focus is on Ella as she fights back, finds herself restrained, and finally violated. We remain on her face in a medium shot, instead of the more invasive and exclusionary close-up. Though our attention is spotlighted on her, we never lose visual trace of her attackers, allowing us to keep her reactions firmly in the context of her assault, avoiding the mistake that Peckinpah made when he isolated Susan George’s face from her rape. Here, we cannot mistake the look on Huppert’s face as anything other than pain and anguish. It’s probably her most difficult moment in the film, the opposite of her bright, shining moments earlier on, but one that still demands the same matter-of-fact naturalism that keeps her believable as a down-to-earth woman who can sell her body and still carry on a multi-pronged love affair without seeing it as a contradiction in terms. Thankfully, Huppert is up to the challenge, and channels her character’s passionate drive for life into an awful, raw portrait of unmitigated suffering, as well as a stubborn defiance in the face of it. It’s that combination of refusing to give in without shying away from the physical defeat that makes her performance the most important part of the scene—play it too tough or too soft, and it’s no longer real. Her balancing act is the saving grace of a harrowing scene, and like all the most essential ingredients in Heaven’s Gate, it helps us keep watching, no matter how thick the going gets.
And what of Averill? Where is he while the Association’s men sack Johnson County? He’s certainly there to rescue Ella from murder, if not from the rest of her ordeal. When he isn’t trying to make sense of the love-triangle that he, she and the eventually-departed Champion are stuck in, he’s doing whatever detective work he can, getting hold of the Association’s death-list from a cavalry captain in the middle of an old-fashioned baseball game that looks like a photograph used in a Ken Burns documentary. In the same dancehall where everyone was once on roller-skates, he stands alone to inform the citizens of their predicament, reading the names of the death-list aloud, leaving the county’s population on pins and needles. After that, he keeps to his room, his drink and himself. He cracks a bullwhip at the town’s merchants, who wish to cooperate with the Association and hand everyone on their list over. He waxes bitter about getting old to Bridges, and shaves himself while Ella keeps coming back to restart the vicious cycles of their relationship. Most of all, he keeps quiet, and lets Cimino’s camera do his talking for him. Among the articles strewn about his room at the inn is a framed black-and-white photograph of himself, back when he was a young man of Harvard, standing alongside the same comely young lady with the blue ribbon in her hat—a reminder of the rich life he left behind, for whatever reasons, to come out west, and a striking contrast to the lively, vivacious Ella. Were it not for his stormy relationship with the latter, he would likely have not reason to possess such a keepsake of the former, but its presence is enough to remind us not only of where he came from, but perhaps more terribly, where he might be heading, if the awful portents of foreshadowing come true
For a long stretch he leaves Johnson County to more or less fend for itself, as the citizens are more and more radicalized by the likes of Brad Dourif, which leads to such a frenzy that their mayor winds up shot in the ear, before the town decides to take up arms, and fight for themselves. That’s when Averill springs to action. After riding into battle he organizes the townsfolk to put together a battle plan based on his studies of Roman warfare, back from Harvard, building shielded barricades on wheels to roll forward and throw sticks of dynamite from. For the first time we really see the leader in him, that ideal combination of lower-class spirit and upper-class refinement, wearing gentlemanly gloves as he directs his forces in battle, a truly patrician man in full waging a great, explosive act of catharsis against the mercenary men who’ve made these characters so threatened and miserable for the past hour and a half. But inevitably, the cavalry rides in, not to save our heroes from destruction, but instead to save the villains. Waterston’s Canton escaped from the battle when last we saw him, and at the time it seemed nothing more than a coward’s exit, but in the end it turns out he was making good on all those government promises. Soon, the Association’s force ride off, safe and sound, and all we’re left with are a handful of survivors, and scores of bodies. “The Blue Danube” returns on the soundtrack at this point, only now in the slow, mournful strings of David Mansfield’s guitars. It’s a sad, horrific moment as Averill and Bridges look on at the full physical and psychological toll of their defeat, and the music captures just the right note of bitter, ironic nostalgia to accompany the montage of the dead and hopeless. At this point, all is truly lost.
In 1985, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, the creative team that would go on to create the landmark graphic novel “Watchmen”, created one of the most famous Superman stories with “For the Man Who Has Everything”, which featured an enemy who all but defeated the legendary man of steel a weapon far more powerful than even the deadliest dose of kryptonite—wishful thinking. Trapped in a coma with a powerful psychic plant from outer space, Superman found himself in a totally convincing dream which derived its contents from his heart’s desire, living out a fantasy in which his home planet of Krypton had never exploded, in which he lived only as Kal-El, and never as the mild-mannered earthling Clark Kent. The life he leads on this imaginary Krypton is an ordinary one, far from the superheroics of his time spend on Earth, but it remains a persuasive, tempting and even touching illusion, even as it crumbles. It uses the touchstones of well-known comic-book figures to express a simple story of mere nostalgia and regret not unlike the tortured hindsight of Citizen Kane, in which longing for yesterday, whether in the form of a pretty girl half-glimpsed on a pier or the whispered name of a snow-covered toboggan, always leads to heartache. Love of the past can only ever be unrequited, something that characters like Superman and Charles Foster Kane seem destined to discover in a way that the less powerful never quite have to confront—men who have everything tend to be the ones who have lost everything, as well.
That’s where we find James Averill at the story’s end, 13 years later, standing on the deck of a handsome boat off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island. The suit he wears is crisp and tasteful, the type of navy-blue jacket and off-white slack combination you’d expect to find on somebody who owns a yacht, or yacht club. Most tellingly, his beard is gone, replaced by a small mustache, discretely shaved, and maybe even combed. Like the Viking’s mane he wore in Wyoming, this facial hair does an excellent, natural job of telling us much more about the time that has passed and the character he has assumed than any costume, set-dressing or title card could ever hope. With his clean-cut style, we know he has been assimilated back into his old role of high-society, his days as rough-and-tumble Sheriff long behind him, nothing but a storied-past of colorful anecdotes to share with the visitors of his summer home, his fellow members at the country club, or at the office in the city where he works, or at least sits watching as money falls into his bank accounts. Of course, it’s likely he doesn’t share his past with anyone, come to think of it, or even share much of anything with anyone at all. Throughout this brief coda, no more than a couple of minutes all told, he never opens his mouth to say a word, even to the servant who serves drinks to himself and a young woman in their quarters down below. At first glance, the girl appears to be the same one that Averill flirted and danced with at Harvard, 33 years ago, except she’s far too young to be the same one. Easily, she’s young enough the daughter of that lovely lady with the blue ribbon, maybe even his daughter, a possibility which raises disturbing questions. Perhaps she really is the girl from the photograph (which he still keeps on a chair-side table) and Averill simply doesn’t see the age on her face, like De Niro’s forever-young, forever traumatized Elizabeth McGovern in Once Upon a Time in America. Or maybe she’s just some girl who looks like her. It doesn’t matter, in the end, because whoever it is, it isn’t Ella.
She possesses none of the same trademark characteristics of spark and vitality that made his lover in Wyoming so attractive to him, and to all of us, as well. Lying asleep on a chez-lounge she only ever wakes herself out of a near-catatonic stupor long enough to ask for a cigarette, and wait for Averill to put it in her lip. A soul-dragged portrait of an entire class of the idle-rich, she looks and acts as bloodless as an Englishwoman freshly drained at the neck by a visitor from Transylvania. And yet, were we to stay with these two for very long, we would probably find her the more parasitic of the pair, the leech who sucks the life out of this once proud lion of a man and keeps him in his place. Though it’s far too early and he’s far too old by 1903 to be a part of it, Averill feels very much a picture of his own Lost Generation. As a young man he was Gatsby (or maybe Carraway), blissfully open to a life which seemed pregnant with possibility, with only the obstacles of a comely young thing from a wealthy family, whose name just might’ve been Daisy, for all we knew. At middle-age he was a picture of masculinity both rough and tender, strong yet intellectual, the kind of warrior-poet that Hemmingway self-styled and aimed to capture in his veteran, safari prose. But now he has grown old at sea, like Prufrock, and whether or not he wears the bottoms of his trousers rolled or dares to eat a peach, it isn’t hard to intuit that he values the life he’s measured out in coffee spoons for the last 13 years not quite worth living. As he leaves the girl behind to nurse her cigarette to the returning tune of Mansfield’s guitar (or is it mandolin?), he may be planning to return deckside for a little night swimming. Perhaps he plans to drown. At this stage, he probably wouldn’t see much difference between the two, anyway.
In the end, Heaven’s Gate amounted to a kind of suicide as well, for the career of its director. In the years following its release and the controversy it inspired in the media over its ballooning budget, Cimino was rarely given the chance to direct a motion picture of any kind, let alone the ambitious epics for which he gained both fame and infamy. Every so often he’d develop a project for years, only to find himself kicked off for fear he’d once again become the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. We can imagine how films like Footloose or Michael Collins might’ve fared under his hand, but in the end all that we can see with our own eyes is the all-but vanished career of a man who was effectively banished from Hollywood at a time when other heavy-hitters like Malick and Kubrick enjoyed the self-imposed exile of prolonged creative vacations. Cimino seemed to pour an entire career’s worth of energy into Heaven’s Gate, and perhaps because of that surplus of artistry, it wound up as the end of his career. Moreover, it seemed to destroy far more than merely his own—with his on-set theatrics and money-wasting spectacle as an overbearing director, Cimino has largely been blamed as one of the primary causes of the premature end of the fruitful “New Hollywood” paradigm which saw fit to give filmmakers free reign on the studio’s dollar. Along with the rise of high-concept features that popular blockbusters throughout the 70’s inspired, the age of the studio-system auteur seemed to be over almost as soon as it began—ironic, seeing as those blockbusters were all made possible by that decade’s creative leeway to begin with.
In truth, Cimino doesn’t really deserve the blame for the way that the old studio-system reasserted itself in the 1980’s, but even if he did, it almost seems worth it if Heaven’s Gate was the result. Here is a movie that captured all the old silver-screen magic and wonder in long-ago life that the classics of Old Hollywood aimed for, but without the creative compromises forced upon them by the cultural and aesthetic considerations of the time. It demonstrates all the marvelous potential of American filmmaking at its most epic and personal, never betraying its art for the sake of commerce nor its appeal for the sake of pretentiousness. Done in more by its reputation as a money-wasting bomb than its own quality or merits as a piece of cinema, it deserves both a critical and, more importantly, popular rediscovery. Any film that can break hearts like this can surely please crowds in equal measure, the fact that it has not yet enjoyed a substantial renaissance by filmgoers at large remains something of a mystery, but one that might as well be solved starting here and now. I can think of no other single film that better encapsulates the cycle of life, with all its triumphs, pleasures and disappointments better than this. If at times it feels like a movie made on another world, then perhaps it is because it belongs to another world, one where it is given the appreciation it deserves. Forever looking back upon itself as a wistful, romantic rewriting of a savage history and a luxuriously sentimental piece of five-star, truly superhuman filmmaking, Heaven’s Gate is a choice vintage of cinema that cannot be recommended too strenuously. It’s a movie so beautiful it ought to inspire nostalgia for itself, a feeling which runs rich throughout its epic running time, and summed up best in the Averill’s last exchange with Hurt’s Billy Irvine, who asks if he remembers the good, gone days. “Clearer and better,” says Kristofferson, “every day I get older.”