1890: The world's first roller disco
opens in Johnson County, Wyoming.
"It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country."Heaven's Gate
—John L. Bridges
, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken
and Jeff Bridges
, is best known as the film that destroyed the career of its director and writer Michael Cimino. Cimino went way
over budget on the movie, 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 the studio forcing the Cimino to recut 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. That said, the whole disaster is generally seen as the end of New Hollywood
The film itself 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
Not to be confused with the infamous cult.
This film provides examples of:
- 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 this guy anyway.
- And Kris Kristofferson's career as a leading man never recovered.
- The Danza: Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges.
- 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.
- 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!
- Genre Killer: Effectively destroyed the artistic credibility of The Western. In addition, this, and quite a few other films, marked the end of the "New Hollywood" era, causing studios to keep a much closer eye on directors to ensure they didn't go drastically over budget.
- 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.
- Scenery Porn: The cinematography is lavish, but spoiled by the directly above-mentioned trope.
- 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.