Things I Learned From Movie X: Heaven’s Gate
By Edwin Davies
April 18, 2012

I've never been part of a bomb before! This is quite exciting.

After recently watching Disney’s John Carter (which will be the subject of a future column because, oh boy, is that thing a mess), I was surprised to see that many people were comparing it to Michael Cimino’s legendary flop, Heaven’s Gate. Whilst the Western motifs of both and their respective deaths at the box office make comparison easy, the main reason for my surprise was that, for all the talk of the money that Disney is going to lose over John Carter, it really doesn’t compare to scale of Heaven’s Gate. Made for $44 million in 1979 (which inflation adjusts to $114 million), the film took in only $3 million (or roughly $7.8 million nowadays), which is the sort of failure that the people behind John Carter could only dream of. (I don’t know why they’re dreaming of failing that big. Maybe they’re caught in some sort of masochistic cycle where they have come to hate all their previous success and now actively want to be punished.) Those figures are especially bad considering that the film was made at a time when international box office was not the saving grace that it has become for so many big-budget under-achievers.

Put simply, Heaven’s Gate is the Heaven’s Gate of movies. There is literally no other point of reference for how big of a failure it was. No other film best represents the follies and pitfalls of big budget film-making and the danger of letting someone with a crazy, ambitious vision run wild with the company checkbook. Disney is going to take a bath over John Carter, and a particularly long and cold one at that, but at least they’ll get out of it, dry themselves off and go about their day. When United Artists took a bath over Heaven’s Gate, they fucking drowned in it. Its failure was so monumental that, in 1997, members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide so that they wouldn’t have to live in a world in which Heaven’s Gate existed (I assume).

Cimino’s by turns bleak and ridiculous anti-Western remains a fascinating work to this day, and it’s easy to see why it has left such a divisive legacy as simultaneously the peak and the nadir of the creative freedom afforded to the New Hollywood of the ‘70s, which it almost single-handedly ended. It’s that legacy that makes it interesting to examine in order to glean information and lessons from, lessons like...

Sometimes first impressions are wrong, other times...

Aside from the apocalyptic commercial failure of the film, which is so impossibly massive that I’m pretty sure it altered the nature of space and time, the other defining feature of Heaven’s Gate original release was the vitriolic reaction it received from critics. It was hated. Truly, truly hated, and the bile heaped upon the film - combined with the accusations of animal abuse that followed the film around like a recently exsanguinated horse - helped to seal its fate as an historic flop. Yet over the years, the critical reputation of the film has improved somewhat, largely as a result of the efforts of a now-defunct cable outlet called the Z Channel, which began airing the 219-minute uncut version of the film - as opposed to the hurriedly assembled, positively anorexic 149-minute cut which went on general release - and the subsequent availability of this version and only this version on home media has led some to re-evaluate Heaven’s Gate as a lost masterpiece.

Well, let’s stop that nonsense right now: Heaven’s Gate is a terrible, terrible movie. It's way too long, indulgent in the worst possible way, and it hinges on a love triangle between country music legend and Blade actor Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken as a Marshal, a brothel madam and a hired killer, respectively, that is about as dynamic as a lawn jockey, though nowhere near as colorful. There, I’m sure that will put an end to it.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t things about the film that are good, because that would be completely disingenuous. Heaven’s Gate is an absolutely beautiful looking film that captures the dust and grit of the old west better than perhaps any other film ever made. Every single shot in the film is a gorgeous masterwork, it’s a sepia-tone elegy to the frontier that makes turn of the century Wyoming look positively mythic, and it’s hard not to look at the visual beauty of the film with anything other than awe.

That’s saying nothing of the scale of the film, which is jaw-dropping. Cimino’s obsessive attention to detail was somewhat infamous - he once asked for a whole street set, which had been painstakingly built to his specifications, be taken apart and put back together again because it didn’t look right - but it also resulted in a film that has the scope and grandeur of an old-school epic. It recalls Doctor Zhivago and Once Upon A Time In The West: grandiose films about grandiose themes, and in an age where we can great whole worlds inside a computer, it’s undoubtedly impressive to see a film in which so much of what was on screen had to be built from scratch.

However, praising the cinematography of an historical epic is a bit like praising the set design in porn: it’s a bonus if it’s good, but it shouldn’t be the main attraction. The central relationship between Kristofferson, Huppert and Walken is dull and leaden, never reaching the heights of emotion that an epic like this deserves, More importantly, it distracts from the genuinely interesting setting of the film, which takes place against the backdrop of the Johnson County War, a conflict between rich, wealthy landowners and poor European settlers that escalated when the landowners started bringing in hired guns to flat out murder anyone who was caught, or even suspected of, stealing their livestock. Truly, it was some OG shit.

The Johnson County War went on to become an important part of the mythology of the West, and its easy to see how it has become romanticized in the hundreds of Westerns - most notably Shane - that use the basic set up of rich, greedy and corrupt landowners violently suppressing the poor farmers who had to steal to survive. It’s a story of class struggle that resonates throughout American history, and if someone made a film based on the Johnson County War today, it’d easily work as an allegory for the current tension between the uber-rich and everyone else. It’s played a crucial part in shaping the way in which America perceives its own past, and I don’t think it is going too far to say that you could pretty much guess someone’s political affiliations nowadays by asking them if they sided with the ranchers or the immigrants.

Basically, the backdrop of Heaven’s Gate is so rich and important that it should be thrilling, but it falls completely flat because it chooses to focus on a series of relationships that aren’t especially interesting and don’t really matter in comparison to the events surrounding them, and because the film is nearly four hours long and it's two and a half hours before the war even starts. And in that two and a half a hours, more time is given over to singing and watching people dance on roller-skates than it is to people trying to survive or to crush their enemies. The only explanation I can think of for this grave imbalance is that Cimino accidentally walked into Andrew Lloyd Webber in a corridor one day whilst they were both carrying scripts, and in the ensuing collision and confusion he wound up walking home with a screenplay that was half-Heaven’s Gate and half-Starlight Express.

Walk without rhythm, you won’t attract the worm

Once the war actually starts, the film turns incredibly brutal and nasty, shifting somewhat uncomfortably from the sweeping grandeur of its opening two-thirds to a grim and violent finale that finds the efforts of the heroes thwarted by the combined forces of the landowners' hired guns and the US Army, who are brought in to “arrest” the killers but have really been brought in to save them from the vengeful settlers. It’s incredibly cynical, and the final battle features plenty of blood, guts - some allegedly provided by unwilling cows that were supposedly disemboweled on set to provide “fake intestines” - and a general lack of humanity that is pretty bracing, or it would be if the preceding three hours hadn’t stripped away any interest the audience may have had in what happens to the characters.

The brutality of the last scenes are presaged by the death of Christopher Walken’s character, Nate Champion, whose name is made no less ridiculous by the fact that he is playing a person who actually lived at the time and actually had that actual name. Champion starts the film as a contract killer for the landowners, but turns his back on his paymasters after he sees company men gang-rape Huppert’s character. Deciding that he doesn’t want to work for men who would sanction such action, Champion leaves and is eventually cornered in a log cabin by a veritable platoon of his former colleagues. After writing a farewell note to his love, Walken bursts out of the burning cabin and is gunned down by the assembled mass gunslingers. It’s meant to be tragic, but he takes so long to die, despite being riddled with bullets, that the scene becomes slapstick. You’d expect such a lurid, over-the-top death to occur in a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker style spoof, not as one of the key scenes in a bloated epic.

However, all credit should go to Walken, who maintains his dancer’s sensibility in the scene and makes getting shot full of lead look funky. How his death throes have not become a gif-worthy Internet meme by this point is truly beyond me. Hopefully the good people at 4Chan will find time in their busy schedule of making everything on the Internet to actually make this a thing, because I am way too lazy to even contemplate doing so.