Omega 13: Episode 03- Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Omega-03-Heavens-Gate
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Omega 13 “In defence of…”- A weekly treatise in which we analyze publicly derided Box Office Failures using granular convection to piece out the good that might lie beneath.

With the internet taking great pleasure casting an askance view on even the minute of failures in all manner of creative endeavour I thought it might be nice to look at those famously bad films of the past and revealing all the moments where they made the right choice. All movies have them, and they are even easier to see in a bad movie than in a good movie (since good movies are brimming with goodness). Kind of a Devil’s Advocate, but with a Pollyanna attitude; This is Omega 13…

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Episode 03- Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Distributer: United Artists
Release Date: November 19, 1980
Budget: 44 Million
1st Weekend Total: 3.4 Million (Domestic)

Probably the most famous box office bomb before Waterworld came out. Michael Cimino’s world famous epic loosely depicting the Johnson County War that was a battle between wealthy land barons of Wyoming and the European immigrants of the area. The dark history of the American west that no one likes to talk about, Wyoming was only 2 years included in the Union and hardly the tamed society that the East Coast was. A country populated by immigrants escaping the European ways and politics was subsequently built on alienating, and oppressing any immigrant that was not allowing them to do their business.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association had learned to work the system from within and bought up all the land that the newly arrived, and sometimes long settled, European immigrants had set upon to eke out their meagre living. Nonplussed by their ignorance and stubbornness to leave, this association set a list of names that they believed were to be removed. They legally hired men, under a loophole in the law, to hunt and kill these 125 people. Leaving the big money men all the land to work their cattle on without having to share.

Heaven's Gate embroiled

Heaven’s Gate embroiled

Take this dark blot in American history, sprinkle in a love triangle between a Marshall, a prostitute, and an enforcer for the Association, and you have what Roger Ebert called the original theatrical release, “[t]he most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen…” and perhaps he was right about the theatrical cut, but the version Ebert saw and most people in 1980 who were lucky (or unlucky) to see Heaven’s Gate in its first run, was not the version that best represented Cimino’s vision.

For the purpose of this week’s Omega 13 I chose to watch the Director’s Cut of the film in hopes to find the good film that director Michael Cimino had hoped to create. Much like Waterworld and Ishtar (which I analyzed in episodes 01 & 02, respectively) Heaven’s Gate was doomed from the start. Budget issues, overrun on shoot dates, countless retakes, and finally a studio cutting the 216 minute film down to 148 minutes (That’s over and hour of narrative slashed from the story for you Math nerds!) the famous flop that was proved to be an epic masterpiece when it was finally released again in 2012.

Yet, after watching Heaven’s Gate with the plans to watch the assumed wreck of a film and try to pull out some bits that worked turned out to be even harder than I had estimated. Not because the film was bad, but because the film is so good that it almost felt like a lost Sergio Leone movie. Fitting right beside Duck, you Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America, of his oeuvre. Honestly, I was in a fit of glee through the entire film at the sheer brilliance of the thing; the gorgeous cinematography, the list of first rate actors giving some of their best ever performances, and a story so epic in every sense of the word that it demands you to see it in 70mm as it was filmed.

So, in the end, I admit I thought to remove this from the list as it is so far from a bad movie that I felt it might be disrespectful to even pretend it was Omega 13 worthy. But, since either the film has been forgotten because of its checkered past, or else still considered one of the worst movies, I felt it best to try to remind and encourage any would-be viewers to hunt down the film and give it a watch. To use this column as a soap box. To hopefully help spread the word that Heaven’s Gate needs a second look… or for a lot of you, a first look. Whatever you read in your snarky online film review lists, or some ignorant film school rube said at a wine and cheese party to make themselves look smart is all wrong. Heaven’s Gate is a great movie.

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is the time. It is just that others are behind the time.” 
― Martha Graham

Michael Cimino had been shopping around the finished script for Heaven’s Gate in 1971, but with not big names attached he had to shelve it leaving him time to write and direct two critical and box office successes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and a little movie called The Deer Hunter. After these two giant films Hollywood was more than happy to give the solid gold genius whatever he needed to give them another hit. And they did, nearly tripling his budget on The Deer Hunter he set out to film in the wilds of Montana with a dream cast that included, Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Richard Masur, Mickey Rourke, and on and on.

And again with the references to Waterworld, the stories of going over budget began to make their way through the daily papers and weekly rags. Stories like Cimino insisting the already completed town be torn down to have the streets be six feet wider, to being five days behind schedule by the sixth day of shooting, the film was already being assumed a bomb. According to the ever correct and always true Wikipedia, Cimino took 15 takes of one character dropping their pants. Everyone was waiting for the movie to die a quick death in theatres before they saw one frame.

Heaven's Gate in need of a tall dark man

Heaven’s Gate in need of a tall dark man

With a strong script as Cimino’s it is easy to understand how he was able to find such remarkable performances out of everyone. Kris Kristofferson who is no slouch having worked with Peckinpah on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, delivers a nuanced performance of a Harvard grad living amongst the working class. You feel that this is a choice of his to distance himself from the usual Post Grad Harvard white collar gigs, but you never learn why- just that it is there. His passion for saving the immigrants is all encompassing for him, that is almost breaks him as he takes to alcoholism when they choose to stay on the land they now don’t legally own instead of leave. The conflict in his every action as he clearly loves Ella, the woman who runs the brothel, and knowing that he can’t have a proper life with someone below his station is a wonder to watch Kristofferson convey.

Ella
You buy me things and he asked me to marry him.
Jim
Maybe it was always in my mind to.
Ella
That’s not good enough.

Walken who plays the Stockman’s Enforcer, is also in love with Ella. Walken is wonderful here, most of the famous mannerisms and speech patterns we come to watch for and almost non-existent. His portrayal of Nate, who is being paid good money from the Stockman, as someone who so desperately wants to believe that he has risen above his lower class roots, struts through town with his clean, expensive duster on and fancy clothes, almost like he saw someone he wanted to mimic like people do with movie stars. And you find out in a scene in the middle of the film, when he tries on Jim Averill’s hat, looks in the mirror, and says, “You got style, Jim. I’ll give you that.” that you realize he wants to be Jim. Complete with his need to marry the one woman that Jim truly loves.

Ella
Wallpaper?
Nate
Yeah, well it civilizes the wilderness.

Not only is Heaven’s Gate a political tale but it is one of class struggles. As one character says, “It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country” Of Jim fighting his born and raised upper class responsibilities where he can’t completely commit to a prostitute even though in the final scenes of the film you see him on his yacht, in his fancy clothes, with his upper class wife that he would give it all up to be with Ella. You see Jim not understanding that wallpaper and a few extra dollars in his pocket does not make the man. You have the cattle ranchers using connections in their fancy men’s clubs to eliminate the hard working middle class immigrants. And you have the working class resorting to apparent illegal means to just get by because the lawmakers have the money to push them off their own land. And with all this Occupy Wall Street business it is still a powerful, poignant film today.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Nominated for one Academy Award that year and it was for Best Art & Set Direction, and deservedly so. This is a lived in, dirty world these people are occupying. Exposed wood, and mud. Take for instance the upstairs room of John Bridges’ saloon that serves as a dorm of sorts for all the Immigrants, wooden bed on top of wooden bed, three or four beds high and what seems to be ten or fifteen deep. Then we move through the men to Jim Averill’s room, picture of him and his school girlfriend (or is she his wife and that is why he never married Ella), old papers on a high shelf, more pictures, a copy of Dante on the night table.

The little things are what makes this world alive. Like in the final battle between the immigrants and the hired guns, an accountant sits under the weak protection of a sapling counting the deaths so he can hand out the Fifty dollars a name that was promised. Or the poor immigrant woman who is fighting alongside her husband and witnesses him die only to turn her gun on herself, because what else does he have to live for. Or the delightful interlude in the town hall where the band plays while everyone roller skates and dance as if there is no trouble at all with the world, just human beings happy to be alive; a light reprieve from the toils of life.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

The movie that nearly broke United Artists, and very soon after it came out and bombed, UA was bought by MGM. For the amount over budget the film went, it is doubtful that had Cimino been allowed to release his preferred cut the movie would not have made its money back but, and this is a big but, perhaps the legacy of the film would not have been so dark.

Rest assured, the cut to watch is the Director’s cut Criterion version. A superb film, by a director whose career was cut short well before his time was up. A film of epic beauty, and emotional strength. A film that pulls together so many memorable scenes, and effortlessly ties multiple story lines together with such ease by a director who may have been considered a tyrant, but proves the end was worth the means.

James C.

End Episode 03

Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Omega 13 where we dig through mire to find the appreciable inside 2000’s Battlefield Earth.

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About the Author

James C
James lives close enough to Vancouver, BC that he can say he is from there, but far enough that his property taxes are not as high. He's worked in film for 9 years. Worked as a VFX Coordinator by day and writes by night. He did go to film school but does not encourage anyone else to (Just make your own films- you will learn more)
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