Very Loosely Based on a True Story, the film takes place in 1890s Wyoming during the Johnson County War, and tells the tale of two men, Sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and gunslinger Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken). 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 Watson (Isabelle Huppert), 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.
Savaged by critics on its release, the film became a Box Office Bomb—earning $3.4 million on a $44 million budget (losing more money than The Deer Hunter gained)—and 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. The film had gone way, way over budget, causing Transamerica to sell United Artists to MGM, thus ending that studio's sixty-year run as a distribution company for independent producers.note It is also regarded as a milestone signalling the end of the New Hollywood era, the period in the late 1960s and '70s in which auteur directors enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom and control over their work; this environment would quickly fade out over the next three years as studios reasserted control and The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood rose to prominence.
However, 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 among film critics outside of the controversy of its genesis, with its acclaim only rising further with the release of a new director's cut by The Criterion Collection in 2012.
In addition to Kristofferson, Walken, and Huppert, the All-Star Cast includes John Hurt as Billy Irvine, Sam Waterston as Frank Canton, Brad Dourif as Eggleston, Joseph Cotten (in one of his last film roles) as the Reverend Doctor, Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges, Terry O'Quinn as Captain Minardi, Mickey Rourke as Nick Ray, and Willem Dafoe (in his film debut) as Willy.
Heaven's Gate contains examples of:
- Action Girl: Both Averill and Champion try to get Ella out of Johnson County, hoping to protect her. But she proves herself to be a badass, shooting her way out of a trap at Champion's house, vaulting from a broken carriage to her horse while escaping said trap, then later proving a very effective fighter on horseback during the final battle.
- The Alcoholic: Billy Irvine, so very much.
- Artistic License History:
- The climactic battle never happened—or at least, no one was killed. In fact The Cavalry came to rescue the evil ranchers before any fighting could start.
- James Averell and Ella Watson were a married couple accused of cattle rustling. They didn't even live in Johnson County and were lynched before the "war" started (their deaths were one of the events that sparked the conflict, in fact). The pair quickly became Shrouded in Myth, and historians are still trying to pin down exactly how the whole incident unfolded.
- Based on a True Story: The Johnson County War. There really were a bunch of hired killers imported into Johnson County. There really was a siege. A real person named Nate Champion really did go down shooting outside his blazing cabin. And the United States Cavalry really did come to the rescue of the ranchers. Beyond that, though, it's Very Loosely Based on a True Story.
- Beastly Bloodsports: German immigrants in 1890 Wyoming amuse themselves by going to cockfights.
- The Cavalry: Subverted in the Downer Ending, as the cavalry rides to the rescue—of the bad guys, just as the immigrants are on the verge of victory.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife / Determined Widow: The Serb woman who tells Averill "We'll work our land" after her husband has been murdered by Champion.
- 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.
- Distant Finale: The last scene shows Averill on his yacht off the coast of Rhode Island 13 years later.
- Distant Prologue: Starts with a 20-minute sequence in which Averill and Irvine are graduating from Harvard in 1870, before jumping to 1890 and the main story.
- Downer Ending: The immigrants lose, and Ella, Nate, and Bridges die.
- Epic Movie: Cimino clearly wanted this to be his Ben-Hur. The original print was 5 hours and 25 minutes long; the November 1980 premiere was 3 hours and 39 minutes long. After that version got a disastrous reception, a 2 hour and 29 minute version died a quick box office death in April 1981. Even that version is still an Epic Movie, however, with the all-star cast and the jaw-dropping scenery and photography and the exhaustively ornate sets.
- 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!
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The original poster and much of the promotional material for the film called it Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate.
- 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.
- Miss Kitty: Ella runs a whorehouse, as well as working herself as a prostitute.
- 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. (And that cockfighting scene? That was real.)
- Orbital Shot: Used for the scene where Averill and Ella are waltzing alone in the dance hall.
- Oscar Bait: In spite of its lofty asperations, it only managed a single nomination for Art Direction.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Averill cradling Ella's body at the end.
- 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. (The film no longer looks like this, as the 2013 Criterion Director's Cut restoration also corrected the color.)
- Reality Is Unrealistic: The scene where Nate Champion writes his Final Speech in a burning cabin, which was unsurprisingly criticized for being melodramatic and an unnecessary addition? That actually happened. One of the few scenes true to historical events, actually.
- 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 3 hours and 37 minutes.
- Satellite Character: Billy Irvine is just kind of...there, not affecting the story in any way at all other than to throw out the occasional one-liner and piss Canton off. Lampshaded toward the end of the movie, during the battle, when Canton snarls "Sometimes I don't even know why you're here." Seconds later Irvine is shown standing amongst the violent chaos, drinking from his flask and muttering "Last time this year I was in Paris. I love Paris." John Hurt actually signed onto The Elephant Man simply because he was so bored waiting for something to do on this film.
- Scenery Porn: The cinematography is lavish, but spoiled by the Real Is Brown aesthetic.
- "Shut Up!" Gunshot: Bridges does this to quiet the jabbering citizens before starting the meeting at the dance hall. Later he has to do it again after the jabbering starts back up.
- 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?") One legendary anecdote had Cimino deciding that the street on his main set wasn't wide enough, and then having both sides of the street torn down and moved back three feet, at great cost and time wasted. Steven Bach's book relates another story about how Cimino insisted on spending a ton of money to transport an authentic 1890s steam engine train to the set. 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.
- Skinnydipping: A large dose of Isabelle Huppert fanservice as Ella bathes in a stream.
- 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.
- Time Skip: 20 years between the opening graduation ceremony at 1870 Harvard and 1890 Wyoming.
- Trivial Title: "Heaven's Gate" is the name of the skating rink.