Heaven’s Gate: The Steven Soderbergh Butcher’s Cut Review

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In episode 03 of my continuing series dissecting badly lauded films of all that the good they managed, I analyzed Michael Cimino’s 1980 box office bomb Heaven’s Gate. (Follow the link here) In that article I watch the 212minute director’s cut and found more than enough love for the film. Arguably it might still be too long, but the theatrical cut the studio’s vomited on the audience originally, was unwatchable.

Mr. Steven Soderbergh has applied his editing genius on the film and come up with an experiment he calls, The Butcher’s Cut. 108minutes. Even shorter than the 149minute original abomination. Does he hit all the marks? Does this cut deal with class struggles, and bigotry in the same depth as the longer cut? Will the story of the love triangle between the upper-class James Averill and Ell Watson and Nathan Champion still play out in the same delicate, statement on whether anyone can really rise above your station, and can the scholarly truly live amongst the commoners without needing to run for home? And finally, will all of that still be there during the awful story about how the wealthy cattle-men (read: Rich city folk) use fear, and politics to have the immigrants removed from the immigrants land simply because the Cattle-men want it for themselves.  Let’s take a look.

Right off the bat, he starts the film with an inciting event, that is the crux of the main story- two immigrants have covered their house in sheets to hide the fact that they are gutting a stolen animal. A shadowy figure shoots the man through the sheet and a we meet Christopher Walken’s character. You can’t get a better introduction than that.

Soderbergh has completely removed the nearly 20 minutes of slow, meandering back story for James Averill and Billy Irvine, which was the centre of the other storyline regarding class, and ones place in the ranks. All of this drops us right about where the story actually begins and Soderbergh is certainly following one of the top rules for storytelling. What is interesting about dropping all that preamble is when you final meet James Averill he is sprawled out on the floor of the passenger car of a train, alone, trying to get his boots on. An almost weak beginning to his story arc, and perhaps- knowing where he will end up, a better start for the climb to greatness he will later reach.

And as Averill steps on to the platform we are directly introduced to Cully, who we find out used to be a lot higher up the ladder than the train conductor he is now, and before we hit the 6 minute mark the main story is fully explained to us, ready to start the journey.

When Averill arrives at his hotel a meeting is being had where a bill will be passed allowing the businessmen to kill 125 men. In the original cut Billy Irvine is drunk and makes a speech to the room expressing his displeasure and staggers out. The new new eliminates some of the sloppiness in Irvine drunkeness, as well as the speech, and he simply stands up and walks out of the room. And a bit later when Irvine bumps in to Averill, who is playing pool upstairs, and tells Averill of the “death list” Soderbergh cuts the question Averill poses to Irvine, “…and what are you going to do?” Meaning, are you going to let it happen or just be a shiftless drunk. The removal of this further cements that Soderbergh has made the decision to tone down the history between them, and furthermore have the social statements removed where possible.

What is most interesting in this Butchter’s Cut is the inclusion of the extended dance number where composer David Mansfield roller skates and plays the fiddle. Most viewers tend to lean on this as their example of how the film full of fat to be trimmed, but I have never believed that. This is a scene that shows the immigrants at their happiest, and knowing what will happen to the majority of them in the final act, this only makes their demise more bleak.

Soderbergh also removes the majority of the pockets of scenes showing the injustice put upon the immigrants; a woman whose husband was killed for no reason other than being an immigrant for instance. Which, I suspect what Soderbergh is saying, is that 1) we already know the problems they immigrants have, and showing it over and over again is just pornographic and a waste of film, and 2) by eliminating the majority of them you then will have the audience feel more when they do appear… instead of numb.

The love triangle is still alive and well, and with the removal of some scenes, on one hand moves it more to the forefront, but on another might have the audience wondering if the film is a love story set against a travesty, or a travesty pock marked with a love story.

A small note on colour, Soderbergh has either muted most colour from the film, or removed any bright coloured scenes completely, giving the film a dirty and depressing brown that, one suspects, is to sell how dirty and depressing the world they were living in was. By not giving the viewer anything “consoling” we can’t help but place a subconsciously dismal energy over the proceedings.

On some level, one can call the snips and cuts as cosmetic if one considers what Soderbergh’s story is, and that it is not the story that Director Michael Cimino was hoping to convey with his version. The fragments of those larger stories are still hinted to in Soderbergh’s Butcher’s Cut of Heaven’s Gate, but left in the background to be discovered with the onus placed on the story of, as we already know, how the Businessmen used shady means to remove the competition by way of bigotry, violence, and government corruption.

All in all, if this was the cut that was released in 1980 the levels of hate for it would have been extinguished. It would not be the grand, epic that the 26minute cut is, but in light of the original studio ruined 149minute cut we would have not reviewed the film for Omega 13, and God-forbid, we may not have had fans push to get the Director’s Cut released. A lesson in editing, this version is; cut by a master of the craft who was making no statement on the original film, only plying his trade over a vacation.

It would be interesting for Film Schools to have all three cuts on hand to discuss the finer points on reasons for keeping a cut and removing complete scenes. The class discussion would have a blast. In fact, if there were a way to keep a group of my friends in a room for the combined total of over 5 hours to have that very talk would be a highlight of my year. If only Soderbergh could be involved.

A delight to watch, and learn from, Steven Soderbergh’s Butcher’s Cut of Michael Cimino’s 1980 Epic Heaven’s Gate is worth giving a watch… but only have you watch the original director’s cut. You might need to set aside a weekend.

Watch the Heaven’s Gate: The Steven Soderbergh Butcher’s Cut.

James C.

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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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