The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - Heaven's Gate (1980) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - Heaven's Gate (1980)

Michael Cinimo's notoriously troubled western, now available in hi-def from Second Sight Films.

Directed by: Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges, Richard Masur, Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O'Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe

The Movie:

Heaven’s Gate may be considered a turkey by many. A victim of a controlling studio. Or a director out of control, a hubristic dictator demanding progressively more and more. Way over budget and bloated beyond endurance. The tales of the making and ultimate destruction of the film are the stuff of legend. Who knows in truth the full extent of the internecine fighting and tyrannical behavior ‘twixt studio and director; to quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
Another way of looking at a turkey is as a magnificent feast with all the trimmings, a massive, trouser loosening beast of a meal. Let's ignore the legend for a bit and concentrate on the meal. Weighing in at over three and then some hours it’s not a film to come to lightly. This is a work that demands your attention and concentration. The basic story of this epic is simple, following Harvard student James Averill (Kristofferson) from graduation ceremony to his adult life as a Wyoming marshal. There he finds himself caught up in the growing enmity between the rich cattle barons and the impoverished migrants who are branded as “thieves and anarchists”. A death list of over a hundred names are drawn up and the barons, led by the malevolent Frank Canton (the always brilliant Sam Waterston), puts into action a plan that involves hired mercenaries and a bloody and pitiless retribution.
In cold print it sounds very much like a traditional Western, black hats and white hats are clearly defined (although this does embrace the values of socialism, rather than the pioneering spirit of right wing adventure so boldly iconised by John Wayne). It ends with a shoot out and is based on true events. It’s the execution of the film where the differences lie. This is just as much a love triangle between Isabelle Huppert’s brothel madame Elle Watson and suitors Nathan Champion (Walken) and Averill, a film that highlights small intimate moments drawn out on an epic canvas. It’s an approach that Terrence Malick has made his own since his recent return to film making.
The sedate pace of the film is one of its great virtues, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the setting, the amazing realization of an embryonic town, all smoke, dirt and shit adding a rich sepia tinge to the visual style that perfectly encapsulates the way most people view the old West. Its a grandstanding achievement; not a single frame feels forced, the hard history of the immigrant experience etched on the faces of the populace. When you have people and a set this good, why wouldn’t you take your time?
It’s not just a chocolate box of visual splendor though, some of the set pieces are breathtaking. Our introduction to Walken is as bravura a set piece as anything Sergio Leone has come up with. A roller skating shindig which is both surreal and inventively shot with some consummate fiddle playing. An opening dance in Harvard (actually filmed at Oxford University) beautifully choreographed like a Visconti movie. It is a film made in the firm tradition of the epics of old, the David Leans and De Milles, but imbued with the movie brat sensibility of the seventies.
Now let's return to the legend. Did the success of The Deer Hunter make Cimino invincible in his own eyes? Was his unreasoning take-no-prisoners approach following in the shadow of the great artists or was he being a spoilt little boy complaining that they were going to take his train set away? Looking at the work anew you can feel the meticulous passion, the drive to make the greatest film ever made. Is there arrogance there? Certainly, but not in the vainglorious "look at my genius" type of way. It’s impossible to imagine how badly the negative reaction must have hurt him. The almost physical need to make a masterpiece may well have been his downfall. Like a band trying to repeat the success of their first album, going into a studio and continually trying to make those songs better, always tweaking, always poking, just trying to make perfection and in the process loosing sight of the kernel of genius at the center.
For such a sprawling film with such a large cast, many of the characters barely resonate. John Hurt as Billy Irvine may be Averill’s Harvard chum, and appears throughout the film to no real effect, a cypher of weakness against Kristofferson’s more noble aspirations. Jeff Bridges also does little as the town factotum. This is not to denigrate the performances; they are all strong, they just don’t have the same room to breath as the romantic triumvirate that makes up the axis of the story. If you asked Cimino, I bet he would know everything about these characters; where they were born, their aspirations, what drives them. He has lived with these characters for years, he knows everything there is to know about his work, every nail, every piece of timber. Cimino’s face is pressed so close to the window he is unable to see the bigger picture.
The most depressing part of Heaven’s Gate is how little has changed in American history. You can substitute the cattle barons for America’s oil interests today. Or the one percenters that influence so much of the political thinking in the modern world. As Brad Dourif’s character Eggleston espouses “they want us poor people to have nothing to say in the affairs of this country”.
A film of this beauty would have been a tragedy to lose forever. When Heaven’s Gate was released you had cinema, and then TV if you were lucky. The fact that the film was so unceremoniously dumped and the vigor with which it was attacked critically could have left this film to rot in its cans. You can’t compare it to more modern failures such as John Carter because the TV rights, the DVD and the Blu-ray are all in place. It might not be good but it will always look good. Anyone who has seen Heaven’s Gate on TV, VCR and even DVD will know just how truly terrible it has looked previously, its gauzy, slightly out of focus sepia beauty transformed into dirty brown indistinct smears. The restoration returns the film to its visual splendor, allowing Vilmos Zsigmond’s breathtaking cinematography to get its just rewards (his amazing work also graced McCabe & Mrs Miller, Close Encounters and Deliverance. It was something of a shock to discover that he now does the camerawork on TV's The Mindy Project). 
This new Blu-Ray release is the best it has ever looked. It may be flawed and just shy of a masterpiece but its importance in film history can never be understated. You also now have the choice of 5:1 dts and lossless 2:0 sound; both impress. The biggest oversight in this release is having no option for subtitles. With heavy Slavic accents and dialogue far down in the mix, a lot of dialogue goes missing. It’s the only fault I can find on an amazing presentation of an essential release.
The extras:

On a second DVD disc you get a 20 minute interview with Jeff Bridges who is engaging and amusing about his time on set.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond also gives a short talk about the difficulties and rewards of shooting the film.
The most substantial extra is a 55 minute extract from Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, an interesting account of the troubles and history of the film (Bridges loses points for repeating the same anecdotes, making it feel less nostalgia tinged memories and more actorly schtick). With so much beauty to comment on it seems somewhat harsh to concentrate purely on the failure of the film. Like finding a poo on the floor of the Sistine Chapel and taking photos of that rather than the magnificence just above your head. The film deserves a more considered approach when it comes to the extras.

Jason Abbey