In 1870 at Harvard University one student, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), races through empty streets to reach a parade marking his graduation and those of the others in his year, catching up and marching alongside his good friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) who when they arrive at the main hall to be greeted by their peers and tutors and lady friends, is called upon by the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotton) to prove his worth as a master debater. Billy takes the podium and demolishes the old man's speech; he was telling the graduates to get out there and change the world for the better, but Billy counters that by saying the world is fine as it is - but do he and Averill still believe that twenty years on?
There's no way to discuss Heaven's Gate by pointing out what a howling disaster it was both critically and financially. Some lay the blame for the end of United Artists as a creative force at the feet of the director Michael Cimino - this almost bankrupted them until James Bond saved their skin, if not their innovations - and others point to the demise of the Western as the fault of audiences staying away from what looked to have been intended as the Western to end all Westerns, though not quite as literally as that turned out. As it was, everything in the genre after this was either a nostalgia piece or a comedy, with the few breaking free with something to say (such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) very much the odd ones out.
Especially as Clint's post-1980 Westerns were successful. Cimino never recovered from this debacle, he directed again but was regarded as damaged goods as far as quality cinema went, though there have been film buffs flying the flag for him ever since The Deer Hunter who never saw Heaven's Gate as anywhere near the creative disaster popular opinion viewed it as. You have to admire the adherents' standing by their man, yet the fact remained this was strictly a niche movie on a huge blockbuster budget, and no matter how they claim Cimino was in complete control, it definitely looks like a production which got away from everyone involved to result in a nearly four hour long work that in spite of having the services of famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond contained barely a memorable image.
About the best you could do for an arresting visual was to try and make out the majestic Wyoming landscape through the swirls of dust. Why dust? Because Cimino was obsessed with rendering the material as authentically as possible, in that case meaning natural light, meticulously crafted sets and costumes, location filming, dialogue barely audible over background noise, scenes of characters doing nothing in particular to keep what story there was going, and so forth. This was based on actual events, and there was a genuinely strong tale to be portrayed here as the big businesses of the United States did indeed sanction mass murder and destruction of the lives of all those who stood in the way of the railroad or, in this case, the cattle farming. Not that you'd be especially riled up by injustice here, in spite of the moral outrage depicted it was very difficult to care what happened to any of them as scene after scene was fumbled.
Did this get away from Cimino in the editing room? He did recut it to half the time after the dreadful initial reaction, but the bad reputation was too much to save it, though with the minor sequences confusingly presented with as much significance as the major setpieces the purpose seemed increasingly obscure, unforgivable in what should have appealed to a general audience. If you've ever complained about movies dumbing down, in particular the expensive ones, lay the blame here as after this few wanted to take chances on overestimating how far an audience was prepared to stay watching a work with high-falutin' ambitions. Conversely, if you prefer the populist approach you have this to thank, though watching a bunch of name actors all at sea (Sam Waterston as a badass?! Christopher Walken eclipsed by his meagre moustache?! Isabelle Huppert apparently solely hired for nudity?! John Hurt's barely understandable rambling?!) and an ending which resolved nothing was likely too much. Even Roller Boogie had better rollerskating in 1980. Music by David Mansfield.
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.