"What one loves most in life are the things that fade."
Based on 'The Johnson County War', "Heaven's Gate" is set in late 1890's Wyoming, where cattle barons wage war on immigrant settlers from eastern Europe. When the odious Frank Canton draws up a death list (with government backing) containing 125 names, James Averill (Kristofferson) must decide whether to help the oppressed settlers or stand aside and allow Canton's hired hands to engage in an orgy of bloodshed.
History records that "Heaven's Gate" cost $44 million to make, took $1.5 million during a brief theatrical run and brought United Artists to financial ruin.
Critical response to the most unjustly maligned film in cinema history was largely unfavourable, with the majority of critics indulging in their own kind of vicious bloodletting: "boring", "at least 90 minutes too long", "sketchy characterisation"...... just a few of the comments aimed at a director who "didn't know when to stop shooting!" Maybe those same 'learned scribes' should sit and watch the two hour abortion occasionally screened on Sky, and then return to Cimino's 219 minute cut. It's here they'll find a film of exquisite beauty, where Vilmos Szigmond's painterly photography ensures damn-near every shot is a work of art, set to David Mansfield's celestial score.
Performance-wise, "Heaven's Gate" almost manages to surpass its sumptuous visuals:Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges (saloon keeper, James H. Bridges) deliver career-bests, Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson) has rarely been better as the feisty Madame who juggles her emotions between Averill and part-time lover/mercenary Nate Champion (Walken) while John Hurt is unforgettable as the almost permanently blotto William Irvine.
Despite an excellent ensemble cast, the eye/ear candy provided by such splendid sound and vision could result in the screenplay being overlooked: subsequent viewings, however, will reveal an intensely moving script, conveying its characters collective feelings of loss, jealousy and regret. Even the finale is a masterpiece as we realise Averill has spent over 3 hours reliving his past from a ships deck, before ending the film with wordless acknowledgement of a request for a cigarette from his old college sweetheart; possibly the most moving scene in the entire film as Averill's eyes confirm a life that once was so full of promise has now lost all meaning.
Far from being an unmitigated disaster, "Heaven's Gate" is a staggering accomplishment and never fails to remind me of that classic line from Edith Wharton: "Next to death, life is the saddest thing there is."
One of the most controversial directors to emerge from the burst of American talent of the nineteen-seventies. None of those directors had a totally easy ride from the critics or public, but he seemed to suffer the most, having started out moving from advertising to writing scripts for Silent Running and Magnum Force. Once Clint Eastwood noted his promise, he hired him to direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which some still believe is his best effort thanks to Eastwood reining him in. But next was The Deer Hunter, an Oscar-garlanded Vietnam War drama that the world responded to far better than any before, and he had his pick of projects.
Alas, this success went to his head and he became increasingly unbalanced, as the horror stories from his next movie Heaven's Gate would show, a huge flop that still divides opinion on its merits to this day. Cimino resurfaced with Year of the Dragon, a Mickey Rourke cop vehicle tainted by racism, and The Sicillian, an unpopularly benevolent view of an Italian crime lord. The Desperate Hours was a remake laughed off the screen in most places, and his last feature was spiritual drama The Sunchaser, barely seen in cinemas. He was discussing new projects to the end, but it seems his ego continually sabotaged his undoubted talent.