Heaven's Gate: a bitter, scathing attack on America's upper echelons

24 November 2013

Michael Cimino's 1980 historical epic is released on DVD/Blu-ray on Monday, 25 November...

Following Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) and The Deer Hunter (1978) - the latter taking Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars - Michael Cimino wangled carte blanche from United Artists in order to make his previously-shelved Heaven's Gate. As legend has it, Cimino went so far in excess of his given budget and production timescale that the magnitude of the film's critical and commercial failure upon initial release was felt all the harder. The simmering, knock-on effect is still felt: Cimino and his film carry the burden today of having catalysed the end of a more auteur-driven arthouse sensibility in Hollywood.

They carry it well. Over three decades after the film's initial release, Heaven's Gate looks and feels the epic its writer-director presumably intended it to be: 216 minutes in length, it boasts the scope and sweep apparently required of any formidably sized classic. But the film's length and budget were only part of the problem. Unfashionably themed around class, Heaven's Gate is a bitter, scathing attack upon the upper echelons of American society. Preceded by Apocalypse Now the previous year and followed in 1981 by Warren Beatty's Reds, the film was part of an overall artistic trend through which a palpable hatred for US officialdom came seeping through in buckets.

Set in 1890s Wyoming on the run up to the Johnson County War, Cimino's epic paints America as a land in which being poor is dangerously punishable and being wealthy is an all-too selective right. The propertied classes establish and amend the law to protect their position and land; those disenfranchised by mass displacement - geographic and economic - are treated with contempt. In response to an increase in the mid-1880s in cattle theft by starving families, a wealthy group of men known as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) banded together, with assistance and backing from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, in order to strengthen their control over land and water supplies; many legalised murders were carried out on locals suspected of cattle theft.

The WSGA is led in Heaven's Gate by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). A death list formed by Canton and his cohorts contains the names of 125 Johnson County residents ("thieves and anarchists"). The film follows the romance between the town's marshal, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), and bordello madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), which is complicated both by Ella's affection for WSGA enforcer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) and by the fact she is named on Canton's death list. Though Averill counts many of the European immigrants that populate the town as his friends - John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) chief among them - his wealthy background and Harvard education make many of the locals wary about his efforts to warn and help them against Canton's imminent arrival in town.

Averill is bound to his class. The film opens in 1870, when he and good pal Billy Irvine (John Hurt) graduate from Harvard as two men at the forefront of their generation's thinkers. As things turn out, Averill's wish to escape or transcend the severe political limitations of his social class are fundamentally precluded. Billy, meanwhile, is both aware of and overwhelmed by the hypocrisy and contradictions that characterise his contemporaries; he drinks himself into a wisecracking, pathetic compromise, and is by the end of the film a symbol of utter incompetence, of wasted intellectualism.

There's a sense of inevitability about the film. Its prosaic sensibility carries a certain sense of doom from the outset. Though he is capable of intermittent lyricism, Cimino is an emotive filmmaker; his chief strength is the simple and literal depiction of a communal spirit (the film takes its name from the skating rink where the European community enjoys a dance). You can feel at several points in Heaven's Gate a deterministic force at work, a kind of emotionalised irony that only a distanced historical perspective allows. It makes the film aesthetically pleasing and even perhaps impressive, but unlike The Deer Hunter it is rarely moving - its excellent performances notwithstanding.

Has there been as healthily a hateful American epic made since Heaven's Gate, though? And how much does the welcome rehabilitation of this work (released on DVD and Blu-ray by Second Sight) chime with a growing discontent for current prevailing political forces in the country? Though the battle with which the film concludes ends on a sorrowful note, its result is heavily determined by outside intervention. For a moment, things look to go the other way; the optimistic implication being that organisation, numbers and a proper military strategy are preconditions of any successful cause. The film remains topical.

For all its lavish production, for all the attention to detail that Cimino and his collaborators give in creating the vivid sense of an entire, lived-in community, the one line that cuts to the crux of things quickest here comes from that great deliverer of dialogue, Christopher Walken. Sam Waterston's villainous WGSA man concludes an arrogant speech about his present purpose by boasting, "I represent the full authority of the government of the United States - and the President." Walken takes half a second to consider his response, and replies from the gut: "Fuck him too."