"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."