Heaven’s Gate


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I grew up during a pretty amazing time as it relates to American movies. As a nine year old I distinctly remember sneaking out of my bedroom and into the hallway to listen to the announcement of “Rocky” as the best picture winner of the 49 Academy Awards. Many of the films of the day were too mature for me to be allowed to watch in the theater, namely the “Godfather” movies, “Midnight Express,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but I was aware of these movies and I read everything about them that I could find in the daily newspaper as well as in magazines at the doctors and dentists offices.

The movies I initially watched at home were sanitized and were delivered to my house via CBS, NBC and ABC’s movies of the week. These included the James Bond movies, the typical disaster movies of the day and most certainly the Planet of the Apes films. A short while after that we had HHT (Hollywood Home Theater) installed in our house. Shortly after that we had HBO which came in via a small cylindrical device we had hanging on the back of the television. Newer movies with adult content suddenly became available if I timed my viewing habits accordingly and some of the older films were now available in their uncut format. I mention all of this because as a kid I really enjoyed movies. I paid attention to what was popular and I watched all sorts of different movies, from comedy (“Up in Smoke”) to action (“Smokey and the Bandit”) to horror (“Halloween”) to science fiction (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) to drama (“All the President’s Men”).

So when “Heaven’s Gate” was released I was paying attention. I read all of those initial reviews about how much of an utter disaster it was. The bloated budget and massive overruns, the miscasting of Isabelle Huppert, the sheer length of the movie and the general mess of everything. It opened and then closed. It was re-cut and then re-released and the critics eviscerated it even more. It was the biggest bomb in movie history. It was responsible for the ruination of not only Michael Cimino’s career, but it killed United Artists as well. It cost 44 million to make and brought in only 3.5 million.

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In the time since the initial release I would periodically see the movie referenced in certain “Great Movie” lists. It was now supposedly a worthwhile movie that only came to be appreciated the further it became removed from the initial negativity.

When I saw that the original, restored version was going to be running on MGM HD I had to watch it. At 3 hours and 36 minutes if ever there was a movie that was designed for a DVR this was it. I watched the movie in 3 different sittings…maybe 4. The reality is I can’t remember. It all sort of blended together into one long, indistinguishable scene. In fact, I’m rather convinced that is the point Cimino was going for compared to moving the story along with a tight plot. He wanted to immerse the viewer into the movie. On many levels, he succeeded.

Several of the scenes are indeed breathtaking. The dancing scene at Harvard is one of the more noteworthy ones and I also enjoyed the lengthy roller-skating scene. Other notable scenes include the cockfighting sequence, the street scenes in Casper, Wyoming and of course the battle sequence.

Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges, Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson and Kris Kristofferson as James Averill in the 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, a director's cut of which was released in November.

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The cast of the movie is also rather impressive, although Kris Kristofferson is no Robert Redford, Robert DiNiero, Ryan O’Neill, Burt Reynolds or Paul Newman. In other words, even though his work in the movie is solid and his presence is consistent, he was certainly not an A list movie star of the period.  In addition to the aforementioned Huppert, the cast includes Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Sam Watterson, John Hurt and a young Mickey Rourke.

“Heaven’s Gate” is certainly a movie of the 1970s. And it is absolutely a “directors” movie if there ever was one. A cursory glance at various stories about the movie are floating around the internet. The excess. The extended scenes that simply run on and on. The minutia. The beauty of the cinematography.

After watching it and then digesting it for a bit I can’t exactly come out and say it needs elevated to the level of an American classic, but the movie certainly has its merits. If you have 3 and a half hours to spare for a nearly 30-year-old movie, then take the opportunity to witness it for yourself. It was the last of its kind, which in-itself seems to make it worthy.