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