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Henry G. Sanders,
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An inside look at the hectic production of Heaven's Gate, the media circus that turned it into a synonym for movie flop and how it added to the tectonic change that occurred in Hollywood film studios after it infamously flopped.
In Michael Cimino's bleak anti-western based on events in 1890s Wyoming, Sheriff James Averill attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests, and also clashes with a hired gun, Nathan Champion, over the woman they both love. Both men find themselves questioning their roles in the furious conflict between wealthy landowners and European immigrants attempting to build new lives on the American frontier, which culminates in a brutal pitched battle. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
Before Michael Cimino showed the work-print version to the executives at United Artists, he said it was very long, and that he could cut 15 minutes. The work-print version was 5 hours and 25 minutes long. See more »
When Canton shoots the immigrant point-blank in the back of the head, there is no blood, bone or hair shown coming off the head. In fact, after the immigrant's head is lifted to show his face then dropped down again, there is no sign on the back of his head that he's been shot at all. See more »
I've been a fan of Heaven's Gate since its first release. I've seen it at least half-a-dozen times and have long thought of it as a masterpiece. So, it was with excitement and a sense of anticipation that I took myself off to see the restored director's cut.
To my surprise, I was disappointed on seeing it again and have since revised my estimation of the film. Heaven's Gate touches upon greatness in parts, but overall, lacks the thematic and narrative consistency and the passionate urgency characteristic of a truly great film.
Firstly, two technical problems: The sound quality is diffuse throughout the film, verging on inaudibility at times. Some of this, perhaps, is intentional - a way to mimic the chaos and confusion of history as it is unfolding. But at key points, one is unable to register what it is the characters are saying.
The cinematography is similarly diffuse. The images lack sharpness and particularity of detail. The result is a certain graininess and lack of pictorial sharpness which succeeds in blurring foreground and background.
Structurally, the narrative is off-key throughout, as if Cimino can't quite make up his mind as to the effect he is after. He wanted an epic, for sure. But a pastoral or dramatic epic? The film sits uneasily and unconvincingly between styles, and perhaps even genres. At times it reminded me of Terrence Malick's 'Days of Heaven' or even 'Elvira Madigan' in its languid pace and elegant scene painting. At other times it threatens to turn into a robust 'western' more akin to 'The Wild Bunch'. In fact the latter film offers an instructive reference point for an assessment of 'Heaven's Gate' as it shares the same period concern and employs a similar tone of ambivalent nostalgia for a darker yet more heroic America.
This structural and thematic uncertainty isn't helped by the poor-quality script which often sounds forced and jarring to the ear. The result is an inauthentic sense of period speech.
The near-greatness of Heaven's Gate resides in its set pieces. The roller skating sequence, in particular, is astoundingly beautiful, one of the most evocative scenes ever put to film.
Another set piece which works very well in terms of unifying theme, mood, and setting occurs when Kristofferson and Huppert go riding in the new rig to the lake and she washes herself while he naps in the shade. The languid pacing, evocative music and monumental scenery combine in this scene to convincingly portray the love story which might just lie at the heart of the film - and which could have been its saving grace if pursued more convincingly.
Some critics have complained about the length of the film. This in itself doesn't bother me. A good film can't be long enough. The restored minutes are critical in restoring the motivation and characterization absent from the cut version, and they are full of pictorial interest.
Perhaps the chief glory of Heaven's Gate lies in the achingly evocative soundtrack. The repeated waltz motif and its different scorings throughout(full band, guitar, solo fiddle etc,)lends a haunting quality to the foreground action and establishes a thematic consistency lacking in the narrative itself.
Despite its obvious flaws, most notably the absence of a compelling narrative, there is a sense of grandeur about the film. One leaves the cinema with a rueful sense of missed greatness and a wish that Cimino could revisit the film -with the wisdom of time and hindsight, to put right what is so badly amiss.
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