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An inside look at the hectic production of Heaven's Gate (1980), 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.
Wyoming, 1890. Frank Averill is the Sherriff of Johnson County, a county largely inhabited by foreign immigrants. The wealthy cattle owners view the immigrant farmers as a nuisance and hindrance to them enlarging their own land. The cattlemen's association, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, effectively declares war on the immigrant farmers, and gets the state government's blessing. They assemble an army of guns-for-hire, and, backed by US cavalry, set out to rid the state of the immigrants. Frank Averill's heart is with the immigrants but he is not sure they have a chance of winning the inevitable war. Written by
'Heaven's Gate' is not a masterpiece, which apparently was what it needed to be upon first release to justify its great cost, and, more importantly, the continued uneasy reliance of Hollywood on the Auteur model of film-making. Yet 'Heaven's Gate', seen today at last on DVD in a cut of 229 minutes, is a superb film. It is a touch lethargic in pace. But at least it is paced. Quite apart from the incompetence of construction that marks many films today, there have been many films which, deliberate in form, have been severely damaged by being hacked down with no care for rhythm so the films become shapeless and confusing. Beyond this, the criticisms leveled at the film have become in retrospect quite lame. If the good guys and bad guys are too obviously pronounced for a serious film, and yes Sam Waterston's mustachioed, fur-clad villain is comic-opera (and not in the multi-leveled manner of Bill The Butcher from 'Gangs of New York'), and yes, the townsfolk do seem a touch 'Fiddler On The Roof' on occasions, then a few dozen serious films made since then, including 'Titanic' and the graceless 'Cold Mountain' (which bears certain similarities and is a notable failure in convincing qualities compared to this film) can be castigated for exactly the same reason.
Also despite accusations, the film has a plot, quite a well-essayed plot at that. It simply does not bow to standard-form 'epic' quality, by providing Titan heroes, rafts of sub-plots and confusion. It experiments with telling in a manner more like much smaller, modest films, by carefully-caught moments of character interaction, and well-textured pageant-like explosions of communal action, as with the opening at Harvard and, most specially, the wonderful scene where the Johnson County folk, following the lead of a brilliantly physical fiddler, make celebration on roller-skates.
'The Deer Hunter' was a critical and commercial success but abandoned the first half's inspired, mosaic-like accumulation of detail, and I think in a manner similar to criticism of Robert Penn Warren's novel 'All The King's Men' and its dictionary of Jacobean stunts, if Cimino had not had such a strong grasp of the conventions of Hollywood epics, he might have made a special rare work of art based in honest visualisation of people within their milieu. In contrast, 'Heaven's Gate' succeeds in screwing its narrative momentum and tension upwards in a slowly expanding arc, until the finale explodes, whilst not abandoning the mosaic approach.
The central romantic triangle, for instance, resists standard inflections; a decent, intelligent, but psychically defeated man, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) competes with a hot-shot but identity-challenged young gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) for the hand of a young Madame, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert); there is no self-conscious bed-hopping, no slaps in the face, recriminations, or typical sad-sack moments, but more a sad and distanced decision by Ella to choose the younger man whom she loves less because he is ready to make the commitment. Ella emerges as the film's true hero (Huppert's performance, though initially awkward, is really quite excellent, balancing a dewy emotionalism with a hard-hammered spirit), attempting first to rescue Nate and then mustering the resistance party of immigrants into an enterprising defence. Subsequently, Averill is stung into action as friends die. Indeed, in the process of overcoming so many traps of cliché and style, 'Heaven's Gate' successfully and willfully throws off the defeated outsider-heroes grace note of so many '70s Westerns and portrays an eventual, vigorous, cheer-the-heroes rallying to a compromised but still relished victory.
The social conflict of so many '70s Westerns at last hardens into a fully-fledged war; where capital attempts a crushing final victory over the miscreants who stand in their way, suddenly they find a massed and more-powerful people's army, led by the man who played the thoroughly-destroyed Billy the Kid a decade before. This is what led the film to be described as the first Marxist Western, but really it simply deflowers a theme of the genre extant well before the '60s. Such various and classic old-school works as William Wyler's 'The Westerner', and even 'Shane', tell awfully similar stories. It is simply here that the romantic myth of the gunslinger has been replaced by the romantic myth of the people's revolt. In a spectacular, exiting, but realistic and thus chaotic finale, the marauding Cattlemen's encampment is attacked, ringed by dust clouds punctuated by fallen horses, writhing bodies, and gunfire. Averill puts his classical education to work finally by stealing a Roman trick and bringing the Cattlemen to the brink of annihilation before they are rescued by the Cavalry (another distinctly seditious touch, but surely not so offensive after 'Little Big Man's unrelenting depiction of Native American massacres). Really, it's hard to think of a more heroically American vision of grassroots resistance. The film's only real dead spot stands as an unnecessary coda indicating Averill's eventual relapse, a rather potted piece of tragedy.
Despite then certain failings and a slow mid-section, 'Heaven's Gate' is a supreme piece of work, a genuine attempt to create a contemporary Western and a new kind of epic. If one has to still join the chorus that reckons Cimino was absurd in his behaviour on set and expenditure, it is regretfully. When, today, flops like 'The Adventures of Pluto Nash' and 'K-19 - The Widowmaker' see nearly a hundred million dollars sink down the drain, and yet a tag of infamy still hangs on this film, one ponders what exactly its grim death signified. The attempt at original style, the bawdy sexuality, the very hard-won sense of detail, the breathtaking rigor of the film-making and what is being filmed, all throw into contrast what is sorely lacking in so much contemporary Hollywood product.
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