by Allan Fish
(USA 1980 219m) DVD1
In principle, everything can be done
p Johann Carelli d Michael Cimino w Michael Cimino ph Vilmos Zsigmond ed Tom Rolf, William Reynolds, Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald Greenberg m David Mansfield art Tambi Larsen, Spencer Deverill, Maurice Fowler cos Allen Highfill
Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Christopher Walken (Nathan D.Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr Eggleston), Joseph Cotten (Rev.Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L.Bridges), Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Masur, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth McGovern,
Among a host of monumental films that bombed at the box office, stretching back to Intolerance through La Fin du Monde and Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate surely still holds pride of place. Even now the very term ‘a Heaven’s Gate’ is synonymous for financial debacles in the movie industry. For here was a director, Michael Cimino, fresh from the almost universal praise allotted to his The Deer Hunter, given carte blanche to make whatever film he liked by a studio – United Artists – that would come to regret it. For all the endless vitriol and critical mutilation (one recalls Pauline Kael sharpening her poison quill with “it was easy to see what to cut, but when I tried afterward to think of what to keep, my mind went blank”), Cimino’s film deserves placing altogether higher in the eyes of posterity. To these eyes, it’s a far better film than The Deer Hunter, for all that film’s merits.
Twenty years after graduating from Harvard, James Averill returns to Caspar, Wyoming, after a visit to the east, and finds the town crowded with poverty and an incontrollable influx of immigrants. Soon after, he meets old friend Billy Irvine, who informs him over a game of pool that there is a death list of 125 settlers the wealthy cattle barons want to eliminate. Returning to Sweet Water, JohnsonCounty, James delivers a present to his beloved Ella, the young immigrant madam of a brothel. To complicate matters, the cattle baron’s hired gun, Nathan Champion, also loves Ella.
It’s true that Cimino’s film is not for everyone, and the history is undoubtedly dubious, but it operates on such a massive canvas that few could dream of. At the time of its release it was seen as a masterpiece in Europe, though they were fortunate enough to see the full version (it was cut to 147m in the US). Then there’s the afterthought of the Harvard opening showing the actors as far too old for their younger selves, and while Kristofferson has the right level of sadness, Hurt and Walken seem rather subdued (one wonders if DeNiro was approached and for what role). Yet it can be argued that it’s that very subdued nature, beyond elegiac, that makes it all the more fascinating, as they submit themselves to the director’s vision. Few films have such a mixture of fatalism and nostalgia, while whole set pieces deserve their place amongst the very best yet filmed. The opening sequence was actually shot at Oxford just prior to Granada decamping there for Brideshead Revisited, but it’s still a magnificent sequence; the speech offered up by orator Hurt rather sums up the entire film (“we disclaim all intention of making a change in what we esteem, on the whole, well arranged”), while that offered by Cotten rather sums up the eternal struggle of the director with his audience that Cimino was doomed to lose and, like Von Stroheim before him, expected to. Yet even this magnificent scene is later topped in a remarkable roller-skating dance which literally takes the breath away.
The few people who came out of it unscathed were those who worked with Cimino behind the camera – Tambi Larsen’s sets were truly something to behold, while Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is a beautiful mixture of gorgeous colours and muted sepia like browns in the towns. Not forgetting David Mansfield’s guitar score, which is often too beautiful to concentrate on the action. Culminating in an ending as enigmatic as that for Leone’s later Once Upon a Time in America, still discussed by adherents to this day, it’s a dazzling work. When Hurt asks Kristofferson “do you remember the good gone days?”, and Kristofferson replies “clear and better, every day I get older”, it rather sums up the way the entire film proves impossible to dislodge from memory. Simply a masterpiece.