Film / Heaven's Gate

"It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country."
John L. Bridges

Heaven's Gate is a 1980 American Western film starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges, that is best known as the film that destroyed the career of its director and writer Michael Cimino, who was coming off the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter. Cimino went way over budget on the movie,note  and the movie itself did so poorly at the box office that the combined effect of the high budget and low income sent the studio (United Artists) into deep financial trouble. It saw a very limited release in 1980 before going wider in 1981, with Cimino cutting the film down to 149 minutes—at which point it flopped huge.

In spite of the critical and commercial backlash, the film was saved by independent film channel Z Channel, which was run by a friend of Cimino and who convinced Cimino to restore the original version of the film with an eye towards the cable and home video market. Upon its re-release (and sparked by the notoriety of the film), the director's cut of Heaven's Gate has seen its reputation rebuilt somewhat amongst film critics outside of the controversy of its genesis.

The film itself takes place during the Johnson County War, and tells the tale of two Wyoming men, Sheriff James Averill and gunslinger Nathan Champion. Averill's lawful duty is to keep the peace between poor immigrants and rich farmers, while Champion is the farmers' means of lethal property protection. (The immigrants have been stealing cattle, but only to stave off hunger.) Both are in love with the same woman, Ella—a madam who falls on the farmers' "hit list". As a result, they end up opposing the farmers and join the immigrants' side in the subsequent Johnson County War. Let's just say this battle is a long one.

Became an infamous Creator Killer. Michael Cimino, who had been one of Hollywood's hottest young directors following his Academy Award-winning The Deer Hunter, never recovered. He worked sporadically after this film (even serving as the director of Footloose before his constant requests to make it more extravagant—and expensive—led him to him being fired and replaced due to fear of another Heaven's Gate), but never enjoyed the success he had prior to it. Kris Kristofferson, who had enjoyed a very successful career as a leading man in The '70s, never headlined a film this big again. And United Artists, which had been in business for sixty years as a distributor for independent filmmakers, went bankrupt, eventually being bought out by MGM. It also is regarded as a milestone in the end of the New Hollywood era, the period in the late Sixties and The '70s in which auteurs enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom and control of their work.

Not to be confused with the infamous cult.

Heaven's Gate contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Billy Irvine, so very much.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Despite having lost the war, Averill, Ella, and Bridges live and are about ready to leave Wyoming a start anew together..... only for Canton and his men to suddenly pop up and kill the latter two, with Averill the sole survivor. Especially egregious since Canton had already won and got what he wanted, and he ends up shot dead by Averill as a result of this.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Not only did it kill Michael Cimino's reputation, collapse United Artists, and essentially put an end to the Auteur era of New Hollywood, but the loss of money also made it impossible for UA to run an Oscar campaign for Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, possibly leading to one of the most notorious Best Picture snubs of the modern film era. And finished off the already dying Western genre, for everybody except Clint Eastwood anyway.
    Roger Ebert: The most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon.
  • Distant Finale: The last scene shows Averill on his yacht off the coast of Rhode Island 13 years later.
  • Downer Ending: The immigrants lose, and Ella, Nate, and Bridges die.
  • Epic Movie: Cimino clearly wanted this to be his Ben Hur.
  • Fan Edit: Steven Soderbergh put together an "immoral and illegal" edit that trimmed it to under two hours. He tightens up the narrative, ditches the epilogue and puts the Harvard scenes at the end as a flashback.
  • Final Speech: Nathan Champion writes a letter containing this to his friends in a burning cabin. No need to guess what exactly is wrong with that. It was attacked by contemporary critics as unrealistic, but ironically is one of the few elements true to the historical events on which the film was loosely based!
  • Leave the Camera Running: Constantly, and to a degree never seen before or since in the history of film. In particular, the original cut of the movie includes one long continuous battle sequence that lasts over an hour.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Caused a huge stink that led to this being a required part of all movie end credits. The American Humane Association brought numerous cases against the movie asserting horses were mistreated, bled, and in one instance BLOWN UP ON CAMERA.
  • Oscar Bait: Oh yeah, after all that, it managed a single nomination for Art Direction.
  • Real Is Brown: Especially in some of the earlier scenes. Naturally this doesn't improve the quality of shots where the frame is dominated by dust and smoke. Roger Ebert stated that this was one of the ugliest films he had to watch.
  • Re Cut: Michael Cimino's original cut was 5 hours and 25 minutes long. This was edited down to 3 hours and 39 minutes and then down to 2 hours and 29 minutes. In 2012, it was later restored to Cimino's original vision of 216 minutes.
  • Scenery Porn: The cinematography is lavish, but spoiled by the directly above-mentioned trope.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The Central Theme of the film; Averill and Irvine start out as idealists who have their hopes slowly crushed by the brutality and corruption of the times they live in.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: It's epically long, and after all the youthful hope at the beginning and the heroic struggle in the middle, the immigrants lose, most of the major guys get killed (including the Big Bad, but his side has already won) and the main character is left an Empty Shell. No wonder that, even before it started to run wildly over-budget, the studio was worried that it was potentially a bit depressing.
  • Shown Their Work: One of the reasons the film cost so much was that Cimino was obsessed with getting all the period details right. (A promotional tie-in with Kodak film quoted him as saying, "If you don't get it right, what's the point?") But this trope was so abundant that people refused to accept its little quirks as "real" at all. Cimino tended to abandon generic verisimilitude in favour of being "accurate", in turn ignoring a lot of things that people expect (or want) to see in a western. See Final Speech above for a good example, as well as the widespread criticism regarding the infamous roller skate dance scene.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Jim Averill's arc is the slow slide from one end to the other. He starts out as a Harvard-educated son of privilege who rejects a cushy life in favor of becoming a lawman and doing some good in the world. At the end, he's an Empty Shell who completely failed to protect either the immigrants or the woman he loved. "I hate getting old", indeed.
  • Trivial Title: "Heaven's Gate" is the name of the skating rink.