Heaven’s Gate, 1980.
Written and Directed by Michael Cimino.
Starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Brad Dourif and Isabelle Huppert.
In 1870 privileged Harvard graduate James Averill enjoys the exuberant pomp that is associated with the educational attainment which he and his equally well-off peers have achieved. Twenty years later he arrives in Wyoming as a Marshall, where he becomes involved in a bloody battle between government-funded barons and immigrant settlers. What unfold are the events that became known as the Johnson County war of 1892.
Using legal force, the barons use Nate Champion (Walken) to end the castle rustling that the desperately poor immigrants must employ to survive; a “death-list” is made of 125 immigrant names for the barons’ “enforcers” too extinguish. Struggling to stand by and watch as this brutal, yet legal, regime is carried out, Averill (Kristofferson) tries to mediate between the parties. However, his difficulties are compounded by Champion who is not only a friend but also has desires for his romantic attraction Ella Watson (Huppert), whose name is on the list to be “removed.” Unfortunately the battles escalate, causing pain to all involved.
This DVD release is the full uncut three hour and twenty-seven minute vision of this historically factual battle from Cimino. Just about every scene is brilliantly composed and shot; great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is matched by the historically correct details found within the frames. The scenery is fantastic and clearly immense care was taken in making this film to entice the viewer into an immersive experience. Although I found the DVD transfer poor in places; several shots that zoomed in seemed very grainy.
Unfortunately, I found that the characters lacked the attraction to match, or even come close to, the aforementioned production standards. Huppert was good enough to keep me watching her performance in general, but her character’s important role in the triangle with Champion and love rival Kristofferson, didn’t achieve the same levels Cimino’s visuals demanded. This was not her fault but perhaps a sign that too much effort was placed on other parts of the film. Considering that a good portion of the film is taken up by the two rivals vying for the girl, not enough effort is made to interest the viewer in the outcomes of those involved.
For the final climatic scenes, it appeared that Cimino abandoned his lingering, well constructed shots, in favour of rapid, quick-fire (no pun) efforts. Perhaps this was to suggest the extreme efforts the sides had been forced to employ in their war, or it may have been an attempt to make a final grasp for those viewers who had been enthralled by the quality of the construction, but not the heart of it.
For me it was like a wonderfully made and presented box; undoubtedly a lot of time, money and talent were used making it. When you open the box however, what you find inside just cannot match the enticement and suggestion of the outer display. As a result I felt let down. It’s a shame really because you have to applaud Cimino’s ambition and indeed execution of how he wanted this epic to look, but his downfall was that he couldn’t “fill the box he’d built.”
Extras are interviews with Jeff Bridges and cinematographer Zsigmond, and an extract from Michael Epstein’s documentary based on the Steven Bach book: The making and unmaking of Heaven’s Gate.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
J-P Wooding – Follow me on Twitter.