Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and the Death of the American Dream

Updated on October 25, 2016

This past Sunday, filmmaker Michael Cimino died at the age of 77 at his home in Los Angeles. The truth however is that Cimino had disappeared long before his death. Once hailed as the next great director after he won two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture) for his Vietnam War masterpiece The Deer Hunter, Cimino ended up being the precursor to M. Night Shyamalan; the promising young superstar who watched it all slip away. Cimino would only make five films after The Deer Hunter (three of which you would’ve never heard of in the slightest) and would never get a serious look at rekindling the magic he found with his early success. The reason; his first film after The Deer Hunter, the United Artists produced Heaven’s Gate. If you’ve heard of it, you’ll know it because it killed Cimino’s career, led to United Artists being sold to MGM (a claim that isn’t altogether true) and because it doubled as both a colossal bomb and one of the worst films ever made according to critics and fans alike. In truth, Heaven’s Gate is a whole lot more than that, and not just because the film may be one of the most misunderstood masterpieces of all time. The film is in many ways a portrait of what made Cimino tick, the pathway to how a talented man lost everything in search of everything.

Cimino had actually wanted to make Heaven’s Gate for eons before the film started production in 1979, having scripted the film some eight years earlier while he was still a lowly screenwriter. The project, then called Johnson County War, was as loose a retelling as you could imagine about a long forgotten incident in American history between Wyoming immigrants and the land barons who looked to remove them by any means necessary. Taking real life historical figures from the time and turning them into his own characters, Cimino concocted an anti-western based around the “war” between the immigrants and barons, following three leads; a Northeastern born sheriff looking to defend the immigrants in his county, a stockmen enforcer caught between his orders and his ties to the immigrants and a bordello owner who is the object of affection for both men. The script lay dormant for nearly a decade as Cimino worked his way up the food chain, beginning as a screenwriter for cult classics Silent Runnings and Magnum Force before breaking through as a director with the cult classic heist film Thunderbolt an Lightfoot. By the time The Deer Hunter had struck gold, all Cimino had to do to get a film made was ask, and he took the opportunity to finally get Johnson County War off the ground. And thus Heaven’s Gate (the new title) was born and arguably killed instantly.

Why do I say that? Simply put the history of Heaven’s Gate following United Artists decision to give Cimino his film (and full control over the final product) is the last bit of info about the film itself that didn’t involve production. The truth is most people in film circles couldn’t tell you about the film itself, but they could tell you every last detail of how it was made and the numerous scandals that came with it. As covered in numerous documentaries and notably producer Steven Bach’s brilliant but harsh book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists, the making of Heaven’s Gate was a legend itself; over the years the tales of the film falling behind schedule, the massive budget that just grew higher and higher (the film ultimately cost $40 million, nearly $30 million more than the initial budget UA laid out), the rumored drug use by the cast and crew and much more dominated the narrative. No aspect was more prevalent however than Cimino himself, whose perfectionist nature and reckless abandon drive made him an easy target for both the studio and the critics waiting to tear him down a peg. In almost every way the long production and an even longer editing process that saw Cimino deliver two cuts to United Artists (the final one at 3 hours and 39 minutes and the original, a staggering 5 hour, 25 minute cut) was what doomed the film. The film was butchered by critics upon release in December of 1980 (famed critic Vincent Canby led the charge with a review that, quite frankly, might be the most unprofessional piece of film journalism ever) and by the time a third, shorter cut (2 hours and 29 minutes) was done in theaters it was all over but the crying. Heaven’s Gate was deemed a box office bomb, an all time terrible film and yet it appeared the reasons for that weren’t because of the film itself but the process of how the film was made. In a way, it was if everybody criticizing Cimino and Heaven’s Gate hadn’t really seen the film at all. In retrospect, they hadn’t.

So what actually is Heaven’s Gate, aside from its tortured production history? In simple terms it’s the same film Cimino had envisioned all the way back in 1971 when he first penned the script. Jim Averill (country music star Kris Kristofferson) is that former Harvard graduate who finds himself out in Wyoming 20 years later as the sheriff of Johnson County. Despite his high end background, he sympathizes with the local poor immigrants and is heavily involved with Ella (Isabelle Huppert, making her American film debut). Said immigrants are the target of the Casper based Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of racist cattle barons led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). The WSGA, who view the immigrants as “thieves and anarchists”, put together a supposedly government sanctioned death list of a 125 names and proceed from Casper to Johnston County to cross every name off. This leads to crisis of conscious for the wonderfully named Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a stockmen enforcer who is acquainted with Averill and involved with Ella. Champion eventually takes a side and the film climaxes with a dynamic battle scene that not so subtly sums up that there are truly no winners in war.

Christopher Walken as Nate Champion
Christopher Walken as Nate Champion

To take Heaven’s Gate on that plot, the performances and the rest of the technical aspects alone would still qualify it as a triumph many people missed. Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture some of the greatest scenery to ever make film, while David Mansfield’s somber part folk/part country score ranks right up there with Basil Poledouris’ score for Conan the Barbarian as the most underrated score in film history (in fairness, both Mansfield and Zsigmond were signaled out for praise even when the film was being bashed). The performances are universally excellent. Kristofferson at times could be mistaken for stiff, but his Averill is an understated, complex man capable of heroic deeds, quiet selfishness and great longing (more on that later). Walken arguably tops his performance from Cimino’s Deer Hunter (which won Walken the Oscar); he explodes off the screen in every scene he’s in, his Champion an even more complex and charismatic figure than Averill’s who threatens to cross over the hero to villain line, only to be pulled back by his romantic attachment to Ella. Waterson’s villain is one note (and strikingly bears a resemblance to Hitler), but he hits all the right notes and is easy to hate. Supporting players like Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, John Hurt and even a young Mickey Rourke all have moments to display their range. And Isabelle Huppert is simply majestic. One of the many things Cimino fought for in this film was Huppert’s casting, which was so vehemently opposed by UA that Bach at one point stated Huppert was so unattractive that the audience would wonder “why Kristofferson and Walken weren’t fucking instead.” Cimino told Bach to go fuck himself and thank goodness because Bach was dead wrong. Huppert’s Ella is a feisty, free spirited, astonishingly beautiful lady who you cannot take your eyes off her. It’s not even the tiniest stretch to believe how both Averill and Champion fall in love with her; after she’s been on screen for just five minutes you’ll have fallen for her too. I know I did.

Kris Kristofferson as John Averill and Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson
Kris Kristofferson as John Averill and Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson

What makes Heaven’s Gate even better than all of that is everything else Cimino was playing with in the ways of genre and thematically. The film, set in Wyoming and filmed in Montana, is for all intents and purposes a Western, yet it couldn’t stray any farther from Western conventions if it tried aside from the beautiful scenery. Indeed Cimino opts to abandon the traditional Western tropes of John Ford, Howard Hawks and others and instead goes towards the route of an anti-western. The film’s slow pace and gritty look call to mind Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the famous 1971 film that was a Western in name only. Besides technical aspects the similarities between the two are striking; both films feature heroes with shades of grey, a main female character who runs a brothel and a climax that differs from the traditional western finale of the mano a mano gunfight. Quietly Heaven’s Gate also takes some cues from The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Western masterpiece, particularly in its tone and ending. No one will ever be able to equal the grimness and shock of Corbucci’s classic (McCabe & Mrs. Miller itself tried) but Heaven’s Gate comes close. This isn’t intended to be a happy film (notwithstanding the film’s dazzling opening sequence in Harvard or a roller skating rodeo in the film’s halfway point), which leads into Cimino’s ultimate point of this film; the dissection of the American Dream.

Cimino starts with this by tackling one of the oldest themes in history; man vs. change, progression vs. conservatism. This is highlighted quite clear in the Harvard sequence, where we see Hurt’s Billy and Joseph Cotton’s Reverend Doctor give contrasting speeches on the concept (ironically Cimino flip flops the roles; instead of presenting the charismatic youthful as a man of change and the old stuffy authority figure as the symbol of the old ways, he presents the Reverend, beautifully portrayed in this short scene by the legendary Cotton, as a man who urges his students to change the world, while Hurt’s Billy proclaims he likes things just how they are). As the film carries on, so does this theme. The stock barons, clearly the villains of this film aside from Hurt’s Billy (a reluctant member who for some reason never leaves the group), represent the resistance towards change, clearly in fear of a world where the immigrants hold as much power, if not more, than themselves. The immigrants, Averill and Ella represent change and the drive to make the world a better place where everyone can thrive. It’s here that Cimino brilliantly puts Champion, who has ties to both sides, in the middle, caught between a force trying to move forward and another resisting the changing of the times. What’s interesting is that Cimino never has Champion truly pick; while he does ultimately side with the immigrants it’s due to his love for Ella, not his sympathy for their cause. Remove Ella from the equation and the discussion of Champion and his motivations becomes more interesting.

Sam Waterston as Frank Canton
Sam Waterston as Frank Canton

The second theme, and the least subtle, is immigration itself. This aspect of Heaven’s Gate is likely the biggest reason the film failed to make an impact with audiences when the film was first released and why it’s now begun to see revitalization in the 21st Century. Cimino’s clear sympathies for the immigrants and their cause in this film would’ve hardly registered back when the film was made. Though the film was barely (if at all) historically accurate to the event it was based on, the Johnson County War was and is still a black mark on American history, a horrifying look at how intolerance and bigotry has affected the country over the years. Those aspects, combined with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the devastating one two punch of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, pretty much guaranteed that no one was in the mood for a film like Heaven’s Gate that showed American cruelty to people of different races and countries. In truth the only fault of Cimino choosing to make a stand in favor of immigrants is that he was thirty years ahead of his time. If released today in the wake of Donald Trump and racial/immigration issues all across the globe Heaven’s Gate would likely be hailed as a masterpiece in commentary of the issue, at least from a left wing standpoint. Cimino makes clear whose side he’s on from the start; he gives all the immigrant characters (even the minor ones) a face that both literally and figuratively resonates with the viewer and he presents the Johnson County community (comprised of almost all immigrants aside from Averill and Bridges’ John Bridges) as a well running, well put together little town despite their economical situation, all while presenting the WSGA’s base city of Casper as an overpopulated, violent slum. That doesn’t even begin to account for how he portrays the villains, who are presented as clearly evil and with little to no complexities outside of Billy, who isn’t really a villain anyway. This one sided liberal view of immigration from Cimino actually surprising, considering many people considered The Deer Hunter to be a film of right wing ideology. If anything, the differences in these two films politics serve as proof that Cimino was apolitical, proven more so by his desire to one day film Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

That’s why in the end the main theme Cimino plays with isn’t a political statement but an emotional one; the journey to get back what you once had. It’s this theme that solidifies Averill as the main character and it’s a theme that only those who pay close attention from the opening moments on will see. As much as the film is about the love triangle between Averill, Champion and Ella, the film’s Harvard sequence actually shows a young Averill pursuing another woman (Roseanne Vela, credited as Beautiful Girl). Though she only appears in the opening and closing scenes, this woman hangs over the film throughout, with her picture appearing numerous times during the Wyoming scenes in Averill’s room. The biggest moment featuring her is right as the Harvard scene comes to a close. In this scene Averill, Billy and the rest of their classmates serenade the female Harvard students and this girl in particular; suddenly Averill is picked up by his classmates and looks as though he’ll be carried away. As he does Mansfield’s score starts to play a somber tone and the cameral slowly zooms out from the girl, pulling her further and further away from Averill and us until the next scene cuts to a drunken Averill twenty years later, sleeping alone on a Wyoming train. As the film unfolds it becomes clear that that moment represents Averill’s American Dream slowly slipping away. It’s impossible to say because we don’t see the twenty years Averill spent from Harvard till the events in Johnson County, or the ten years in between that and his arrival in Newport, Rhode Island (where the final scene takes place), but you get the sense that that moment is the best it ever got for Averill. He was young, he had found the love of his life, and he had the whole world ahead of him. And slowly it all fades away, leaving Averill to scramble for the rest of the film to get it back, with the immigrant’s cause as his second chance to regain his idealism and Ella as his second chance for love. In the end, the parallel ends the same; the idealism, the girl, the second chance and the dream fade away, and as such Averill ends the film as a broken shell. There is nothing left to see of this man except regret.

John Averill years after the events in Johnson County
John Averill years after the events in Johnson County

I guess in the end it’s safe to say that Heaven’s Gate had many more layers than those who first saw it in 1980 gave it credit for; it’s a historical epic, an anti-western, a pro immigration film and the tale of a man who watches his hopes and dreams get crushed by the never ending quest for the American Dream. I suppose that last fact is made all the more poignant by the fact that Heaven’s Gate crushed Cimino’s dream similar to how he crushed Averill’s. In many ways they are the same man; both risked it all for what they felt was the greater good and both were left with nothing. A testament to the film’s brilliance, Cimino’s brilliance and the cruel nature of the world I suppose. Cimino never did get to make the worthy follow up to Heaven’s Gate that he deserved (although Year of the Dragon is highly respected among filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino), but he did at least live long enough to see the film’s reputation improve after Criterion Collection released a final definitive cut of the film in 2012. It wasn’t enough, and it’ll never be enough for a flawed but brilliant filmmaking mind who went quietly instead of loud. At least now in the wake of his death more and more people will get to see Heaven’s Gate for what it truly is; not the film with the difficult production, but the flawed, breathtaking, brilliant, unforgettable piece of film that it is. I can safely say that in many ways Heaven’s Gate was and is a mirror image of America. But best of all, Heaven’s Gate was Cimino. And not even Vincent Canby can take that away from him.

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