Space is the great American theme, Michael Cimino likes to say, paraphrasing the poet Charles Olson from Call Me Ishmael, his study of Moby-Dick (a book Cimino loves). And indeed, starting from the beautiful Montana backdrops of his sharp, Clint Eastwood–produced-and-starring road-movie debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and arriving at the Arizona plateau that witnesses the tragic catharsis of his last feature, The Sunchaser (1996), the fundamental underlying theme in all Cimino’s films is the great American landscape—geographical and emotional as well as historical. Nowhere does he deal with this theme as lovingly and obsessively as in his most audacious and controversial work, Heaven’s Gate, a film whose sheer beauty, emotional power, and unconventional politics have been obfuscated for way too long by the story of its own making and catastrophic American opening.
The vitriolic reviews that greeted the U.S. release of Heaven’s Gate in November 1980 seemed inexplicable to an Italian film student working at the time on a dissertation about Francis Ford Coppola (another Hollywood filmmaker accused of being too grandiose and financially irresponsible). And I could never share the moral indignation exuded by Final Cut, Steven Bach’s pruriently gripping account of the making of Cimino’s film, and the consequent unmaking of United Artists, the studio that produced it, almost simultaneously with Coppola’s similarly “untamable” Apocalypse Now.
After its European premiere at Cannes in May 1981, Heaven’s Gate opened in Italy in a truncated, 149-minute version (released that spring in the U.S., after the original, 219-minute cut was pulled from theaters following its disastrous one-week run in New York). It was love at first sight for a generation of young cinephiles more attuned to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh than to the revisionist tales of Soldier Blue or Little Big Man. Cimino’s enormous yet critical and somber celebration of the frontier spoke to us of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s writings and of classic Hollywood. What the New York Times’s Vincent Canby (the most vicious of a vicious pack) had described as an “unqualified disaster” was, to us, clearly one of the great American westerns. Cimino shared Ford’s passion for mountains, running horses, and dances, as well as his flawless instinct for scale and composition; the political complexities of his last films; and the overwhelming sadness that envelops them.
Already in production when Cimino’s The Deer Hunter made its triumphant turn at the 1979 Academy Awards (it won five Oscars, including best picture and best director, with John Wayne handing Cimino the golden statuette), Heaven’s Gate was a script the director had been working on since the early seventies. Initially titled The Johnson County War, it was inspired by that bloody episode in American history, from 1892, when the wealthy cattle owners of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, with the not- so-tacit support of local and federal government, hired a militia of gunmen, ferried to Casper from Texas on a special private train,to hunt and kill a group of ranchers/settlers suspected of rustling cows from among the cattle barons’ densely populated herds. In interviews, Cimino has occasionally referred to the Johnson County events as a “white genocide,” leaving little doubt about his take on the war, and thereby siding with several historians and at least one popular eyewitness account of the time, A. S. Mercer’s captivatingly vivid The Banditti of the Plains, published in 1894.
Cimino’s new title, bringing to mind both the Gospel of Matthew and a Shakespeare sonnet, was better suited to the script, apoetic blend of history and fiction. Real-life protagonists of the Johnson County War, like James Averill, Ella Watson, and Nate Champion, are key characters, although their identities and story lines have been vastly rewritten. (Accused of stealing cows, Averill and Watson were actually hanged before the Association’s posse invaded the county.) But in sketching his protagonists, Cimino carefully honors some well-documented details, such as Watson’s dexterity with horses and guns and Champion’s stoic account of his own imminent death, written while trapped alone in his cabin, under fire from fifty militiamen.
What Cimino wanted to take no chances with was visual accuracy. He painstakingly constructed his film according to photographs from the time. “There is no building and no interior that has not been inspired in one way or another by a picture. Every single costume, from leads’ to extras’, has been designed based on specific photographs,” he told Cahiers du cinéma’s Bill Krohn in 1982. Working again with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who had shot The Deer Hunter), Cimino devised dark, often smoky interiors pierced by outside light, alternating with huge sets of bustling streets and beautiful, wide vistas. In his mind was the colossal portrait of a frontier animated with people, activity, contrasting interests, social classes, ethnic groups, languages—the picture of an extraordinary country caught in the struggle of becoming itself. Seen today, in its grand realism, the film anticipates the taste for a more historically accurate, geographically and socially diverse view of the West, reflected, for example, in the successful cable series Deadwood or in Walter Hill’s Broken Trail and enormously underrated Wild Bill.
With The Deer Hunter, Cimino had deftly handled on-screen the still recent historical quagmire of the Vietnam War. Although some critics found its politics too conservative, the film—set between Southeast Asia and a small industrial Pennsylvania town—spoke to established Hollywood much more than the counterculture- fueled antiwar films of Cimino’s contemporaries, like Coppola. For Heaven’s Gate, United Artists gave Cimino virtually free rein.
Faithful to his passion for space and place, he searched tirelessly through Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington State, Idaho, and even Canada. What he wanted was a landscape that no one had ever laid eyes on before—to capture what it would have been like to “see” the West for the first time. He eventually settled on shuttling between Wallace, Idaho, and Kalispell, Montana, and built from scratch his Sweetwater, theater of the Johnson County War, in the heart of Glacier National Park—a beautiful glimpse of paradise among snow-peaked mountains, the American West as a heartbreaking promise. In Cimino’s vision, it would come with a muddy street, a church, and a roller-skating rink. A paradise elevated on a three-foot-high platform, so as not to damage the park’s wide expanse of grass.
The film actually opens over two thousand miles east of that. A smiling young man runs madly through a sequence of stone courtyards, archways, and alleys while a marching band plays “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It is Harvard in 1870. The Civil War is just behind, and James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a child of New England wealth, is graduating together with a crowd of enthusiastic peers. In his valedictory address, the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) speaks of “a mandate of imperative duty” and encourages his students to promote the contact of (their) “cultivated minds with the uncultivated.” “John Brown’s Body” turns into “The Blue Danube,” and the celebration of the day is swept away in a beautiful waltz pirouetting around a gigantic tree.
A few years later, Cimino would refer to The Leopard as a direct inspiration for The Sicilian, his 1987 biopic of the charismatic bandit/hero Salvatore Giuliano. But Luchino Visconti’s grand fresco, set against the backdrop of Italy’s own North versus South war, seems very much in Cimino’s mind here, and not just because of the immediate association one can make between his long, lush opening waltz and the famous grand ball in Visconti’s film. Like Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, Averill soon turns out to be a tragic figure somehow detached from his time—witnessing changes that will gravely affect history but without the power to really do anything about them. From its exuberant early scenes, Heaven’s Gate is an intensely melancholic movie. Loss looms over all of it.
Fulfilling the reverend’s call, Averill heads to the “uncultivated” West (as the well-educated New Yorker Cimino did quite young). We find him twenty years later, with a hardened face and a grayish beard. He is a federal marshal in Johnson County, about to be invaded by the Association’s mercenaries, armed with a 150-name death list. Averill is in love with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a local madam, who loves him back but also has feelings for one of the Association’s enforcers, Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Their triangle plays against the bloody events, concentrated in just a few days’ time.
Despite the freedom he was given on the project, Cimino had to fight hard to convince United Artists to let him cast Huppert, and was given great grief for having done it, in particular because of her strong French accent. Huppert, though, is wonderfully luminous in the part, and instead of the stillness she so often communicates in some of her best roles at home, here she is perpetual motion. Her free-spirited whore, stubbornly convinced that she can love two men at the same time, may be a somewhat romantic notion on Cimino’s part, but Ella’s restless roaming around—naked in the house, on horseback or in a carriage on those barely existing roads—seems a natural part of the unpredictability and the promise of the place itself.
It is not always an easy promise to inhabit. Cimino’s large canvas depicts hundreds of poor settlers (mostly Eastern Europeans, who even among themselves speak different languages) piled up in narrow quarters, swarming out into the street from overcrowded trains, women struggling alone to farm the land, hunger, poverty, hard labor . . . Even when they all convene in joyful celebration at the skating rink (a peasant dance scene that mirrors the upscale eastern waltz), their lives seem hard. When these scenes are juxtaposed with the comfort of the cattle barons, sipping brandy in their luxurious club, Cimino’s Johnson County War becomes very much a war of class. Strangely enough, when the film came out, few critics commented on its take on the historical facts. Some accused Cimino of foggy Marxism, but most preferred to forget the film’s subject, concentrating their attacks instead on its cost (roughly $40 million) and its dramatic structure, or lack thereof.
Among the few North American critics who liked Heaven’s Gate from the beginning was Robin Wood. It was Wood who first compared it to another wildly ambitious and very controversial epic film, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is a comparison that still stands. The two films may be ideological opposites, but like Griffith, Cimino is not afraid to revisit America’s dark past and admit that it is an intrinsic part of this country’s DNA. But make no mistake, it is a country that Cimino loves. Even in the worst moments of the final battle of Heaven’s Gate, amid the beautiful, bloodied landscapes, the American flag is filmed with (somber) devotion.
Where U.S. critics railed against Heaven’s Gate because of its unconventional dramatic structure, their European counterparts thought it a deliberate subversion of traditional American film narrative. No matter which side you are on, the film’s symmetries and metaphors are very clear and precise (Cimino was, after all, a student of painting and architecture)—the East and the West, Strauss and the rural melodies of the settlers, Harvard’s stone alleys and Wyoming’s pristine mountains, Ella’s ceaseless motion and the stillness of Averill’s eastern wife, framed by a window at the end of the graduation ceremony, lying on a chaise in the film’s epilogue, like an attractive, costly object. Cimino brings the film back East for its ending, which is set in 1903, on a yacht off Newport’s Gold Coast. James Averill’s story closes in a luxurious floating jail, as far as possible from the freedom and openness he sought and hoped for.
Just a few months before Heaven’s Gate opened in New York, 1980 saw the release of Star Wars’s sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Raiders of the Lost Ark came in 1981, the first year of the Reagan presidency. E.T. would land in theaters shortly after. Seen today, in its stark contrast to the Manichaean spirit of those two space sagas and Indy’s anti-Nazi comic-book adventure, Cimino’s dark, very untriumphant epic looks like a beautiful anachronism. And there is no doubt that the film paid dearly for its disconnect from the contemporary zeitgeist.
Over three decades later, one hopes that Heaven’s Gate can be watched without the burden of prejudice that weighed on its original release. After all, when it first came out, people hated Moby-Dick too.
Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan is a New York–based film writer and curator, and U.S. programmer and selection committee member of the Venice Film Festival. From 2003 to 2006, she was the codirector of the Torino Film Festival. Among her books are monographs on Clint Eastwood, John Carpenter, George Romero, Walter Hill, John Milius, Robert Aldrich, and William Friedkin. Her most recent book is the 2008 John Landis. She is currently working on a book about Robert Altman. She wishes to thank Dave Kehr, Bill Krohn, and Roberto Turigliatto.