Heaven’s Gate (from The Globe and Mail)

(Note: this originally appeared in The Globe and Mail in December, 2012.)

The things one loves in life are the things that fade. – The poster tagline for Heaven’s Gate

By the time my friends and I took our seats in the University theatre in Toronto for the Canadian premiere of Heaven’s Gate back in November, 1980, we were at the extreme right end of the very first row. Which was close enough to get a good look at director Michael Cimino and stars Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert during the introduction, but way too close to comfortably watch a nearly four-hour 70 mm western epic about the Johnson County War of 1892.

By the time it was over, our heads were throbbing and necks were sore, and it wasn’t until the following morning we realized we’d been present at one of Hollywood history’s defining disasters. The next day, all openings of the highly-anticipated movie – one of the most expensive made to that date – were cancelled, and Heaven’s Gate became instant shorthand for the mother of all bombs.
It was years before I was able to see what I hadn’t really been able to see properly that night, which was an uncut version of the movie that sank the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter writer-director Michael Cimino’s career almost as fast as it had started, and permanently ejected Kristofferson from the A-list; that rang the corporate death knell for United Artists; and that came to signify everything that was excessive, indulgent, pretentious and – worst of all – uncommercial about the auteur-driven “New Hollywood” of the seventies. From that moment forward, Tinseltown belonged to Lucas and Spielberg, and no one but Clint Eastwood dared be caught on camera on horseback.

Buffed to pristine perfection for its Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, Heaven’s Gate looks nothing short of ravishing (it was shot on location in Wyoming by master lenser Vilmos Szigmond), and with that clarity comes a sharper sense of not only what Cimino had intended, but why that vision brought the combined wrath of industry and media down on his head.

And what wrath. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby set the tone by famously dubbing Heaven’s Gate “an unqualified disaster,” an impression in no way tempered five years later when former United Artists executive Steven Bach wrote his best-selling account of the fiasco called Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate. The title itself became a punchline, still echoing 15 years later when the Kevin Costner mega-flop Waterworld was ubiquitously nicknamed “Kevin’s Gate.”

Heaven’s Gate isn’t a terrible movie – far from it – but it is a terribly challenging one on just about every level. First of all, it’s closer in structure to the operatic European epics of Luchino Visconti or Bernardo Bertolucci than anything John Ford or even Sergio Leone ever made, which is to say it’s a western that refuses to gallop and loves to graze. Secondly, it’s a movie about how business will literally kill anything that stands in the way of profit, which in this case are the 125 European immigrants the state-backed Cattlemen’s Association has put on a “death list.” Thirdly, the good guys (as represented by Kristofferson’s nobly intentioned but fundamentally impotent lawman James Averill) don’t win.

Is North America ready to forgive Cimino and Heaven’s Gate? Europe already has, and the current appearance of the completely restored version of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray is clearly nudged by years of passionately positive counter-criticism from countries like France, England, Italy and Germany. In her appreciation of the film, included in the Criterion package, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan recalls what the movie meant to many people who saw it far from the shadows of the Hollywood Hills: “What The New York Times’s Vincent Canby (the most vicious of a vicious pack) had described as an ‘unqualified disaster’ was, to us, one of the great American westerns.”

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Heaven’s Gate was seen as something rather different – as an unconventionally paced revisionist western with blatant anti-corporate politics. No wonder Cimino took the full brunt of the industry’s long-simmering resentment of the coffer-draining power wielded by such uncontrollable hotshots as Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now ), Robert Altman (Popeye), Martin Scorsese (New York, New York) and William Friedkin (Sorcerer). Not only had he made a movie that was never going to make its $40-million U.S. investment back, he’d used the money to make a movie about murderous, unrelenting, all-American corporate greed.

Seen from that perspective, Heaven’s Gate’s legendarily disastrous reception was not only inevitable, it was downright provoked.