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Archive for October 6th, 2012

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

Prologue

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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. (more…)

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