Collecting Criterion – Heaven’s Gate (1980)


For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, it is like manna from heaven for film nerds.  Criterion is an independent home video publisher that includes in its library films that range from the classic to the obscure.  Many of them are foreign masterpieces not widely seen by American audiences (such as the classics of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman), but Criterion also adds many lost classics to its library including the films of Charlie Chaplin, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or cult hits like 1958’s The Blob.  What’s so great about the Criterion Collection is that not only do they release these hard to find films onto the market, but they also give them much needed restorations along with a healthy collection of behind the scenes material as extra features. For film buffs, it’s essential to have at least one or more Criterion title in their home video collection. If you’re an avid collector like me, a Criterion set would be like having a masters course curriculum on your shelf.  That’s why I want to highlight select films from the collection with you in this series of reviews, in the hope that it will make some of you consider looking at the Collection as a way broadening your film knowledge as a whole.
Since this week marks the release of a notoriously over-budgeted and under-grossing Western into theaters (The Lone Ranger), I thought it would be appropriate to look at another such Western that had a troubled history.  Today I’m reviewing Criterion Collection #636, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  Heaven’s Gate has earned the reputation over the years as being one of the biggest box office disasters of all time; so much so that it actually led to the bankruptcy of the company that made it, United Artists.  UA had existed since the early years of cinema, when it was founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks; the first film company not owned by Studio executives, but rather by the artists themselves.  It was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories and the company made many classic films over the years, including being the home of the James Bond franchise.  But things turned sour when the company put their money behind director Cimino’s ambitious new epic.  What followed was a perfect storm of ego-clashing and unchecked ambitions that ultimately led to the destruction of many careers.
While it’s unfortunately not included on the Criterion release, there is an excellent documentary that the Trio Channel created called Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, which goes into more detail as to what the hell happened with the making of this film.  Basically, the documentary states that Heaven’s Gate was made at the tail end of a period of time when film directors had enormous clout in Hollywood, and were given free reign to make whatever films they wanted.  While this paid off sometimes, such as with George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what more usually happened was that studios ended up pouring money into self-indulgent productions that satisfied the filmmakers, but were a tough sell for audiences.  Michael Cimino had just come off his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter (1978), and he was ready to tackle an epic retelling of the Wyoming Johnson County War of the 1890’s as his next film.  What looked like a sure win on paper turned into a nightmare scenario, as United Artists found the film going over-schedule and over-budget within the first week of production.
Cimino’s refusal to play by the rules was one of the main issues behind the film’s problems, according to the documentary, as was United Artists timidity in addressing those problems. The film ended up costing close to $44 million; nearly four times it’s initial budget.  Cimino finished the film after a long 11 month production period, and his first cut came in at an un-releasable 5 hours in length.  UA managed to get Cimino to cut it down to 3 1/2 hours for it’s premiere, which still proved to be a disaster for all.  Critics panned the film and it made only $3 million at the box office.  In today’s numbers, that equals a loss of over $100 million.  The fallout from this could be felt for years afterward.  Of course, United Artists lost it’s independence as a company and ended up selling off all of it’s assets to MGM.  Michael Cimino’s career has never recovered too; he’s only made a handful of modest films since.  Only the cast seemed to come out unharmed, though they don’t look back fondly on the experience.  For a film with this kind of stigma attached to it, it’s a surprise that Criterion has chosen to include it in their collection.
The story follows a Harvard educated lawman named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as he tries to defend the immigrant population of Johnson County, Wyoming, of whom many have been put on a death list by the greedy cattle barons of the region, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). While maintaining the peace in his town, Averill is also caught up in a love triangle with a local brothel owner, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and her volatile hired gun boyfriend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).  Averill soon learns that he’s powerless against the forces coming up against him, and all he can do is stay true to his position in life, which is to protect the helpless.  Keep in mind, this is a very simple story that takes 3 1/2 hours to tell; one of the main problems with the film.
As far as my reaction to the film, I didn’t think it was as bad as the reputation behind it would have you believe.  Is it flawed?  Absolutely, but I’ve seen more tedious films than this.  One of the key problems is the pacing.  It’s not so much slow, as inconsistent.  Some of the scenes are very full of life and engaging, such as the roller-skating dance or the final battle at the end, while other scenes drag on longer than they need to; particularly the ones surrounding the love story elements.  What helps carry the film along are the visuals.  You can see that Michael Cimino put special care into the compositions of his shots, and the cinematography by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond is top quality. The vistas from the location shooting in Glacier National Park are absolutely breathtaking and really help to transport the viewer into the old West.  The cast likewise is also excellent; with Christopher Walken being a particular standout.  Kris Kristofferson does okay with a main character that is sadly very generic.  Good supporting performances also come from John Hurt and Jeff Bridges, and you also get to see actors like a very young Mickey Rourke and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn in their first film roles.  All in all, it’s a fascinating watch, seeing this film separated from the toxic reputation behind it.
While the film is a mixed bag, the Criterion edition is nothing short of excellent.  Housed in a two disc set is the restored director’s cut of the film, with a restoration supervised by Michael Cimino himself.  The restoration is top notch, especially on Blu-ray.  When the film was first released, there were no tools available to do an accurate color correction on the picture, so for many years Heaven’s Gate looked washed out in very brownish hues.  Roger Ebert once called it “one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.”  Now, with the technology we have today, Cimino was able to restore the film to the way it was meant to look, especially when it comes to the coloring.  Gone is the brownish tint and all the blues and greens are now in full splendor in this restoration.  The film takes up the whole first disc, while the second is devoted to extras.  Among them is a new, 30 minute audio interview with Cimino, where he details his experiences and perspective on the film. Also included are short video interviews with star Kris Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield, and 2nd Assistant Director Michael Stevenson.  A booklet is also included in the set which includes scholarly essays, as well as a print interview with Cimino.
So, while I would give the film a pass, I do give the Criterion set a strong recommendation.  This set represents what Criterion does best, which is to give a film a proper release where it where it wouldn’t otherwise.  It’s been over 30 years since Heaven’s Gate crashed and burned in theaters, which has led the film to being rediscovered by a whole new generation today.  While I don’t think the film will ever shake off it’s toxic reputation in Hollywood, it can nonetheless stand on its own as a film thanks to the care that Criterion put into their edition.  In any case, watch the film and judge for yourself.  This is a prime example of a quality Criterion release.  I hope to share more with you as this series goes along.  Look through the collection yourself and see if you find a lost gem worth rediscovering.