Review by Gordon Justesen
Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif,
Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotton, Jeff Bridges
Director: Michael Cimino
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Features: See Review
Length: 216 Minutes
Release Date: November 20, 2012
ďItís getting dangerous to be poor in this country.Ē
Certain films are simply too difficult to talk about without discussing the notorious baggage it brought with it behind the scenes. Ranking number one on that list is, and perhaps will always be, Heavenís Gate. The monumental catastrophe this production caused was of such legendary proportions and was so overly publicized to the point that nobody seemed to care what the actual movie was even about.
Here you had Michel Cimino, whose brilliant film The Deer Hunter had just won five Oscars (including one for him as Best Director). It was only his second film, and yet its effect had every studio in town wanting to not only work with him, but allow him to do any project he wanted to do. Cimino, as it turned out, was all too eager to go to work on a project that was unheard of in terms of ambition and artistic vision.
Enter United Artists, who at this point had just separated itself from its longtime partnered company, Transamerica. The studio was now being run by two rookies who were all too willing to have a fresh Oscar winner like Cimino direct an epic film for them. For them, this idea alone would mean instant Oscar victory the following year.
What they didnít count on was Ciminoís consistent demand for absolute perfectionism regarding every single detail about the film, and after a much delayed production, costing a then record budget of $40 million, and the negative buzz about the film growing massive, Cimino presented a 5 hour cut of the film to the studio. After a disastrous reaction from the executives, Cimino immediately cut the film down to a more acceptable length of two and a half hours. But by the time that version was ready for release it was pretty much too little too late as the filmís financial troubles resulted in the bankrupting of United Artists, which would eventually get sold to MGM.
So we all know about the behind the scenes catastropheÖthe big question is how is the actual movie itself? While not the mega-disaster so many have seem to label it based simply on the behind the scenes drama, itís definitely a truly flawed film. And what makes it so disappointing in this case is the mere fact that there are several instances where Ciminoís film showcases flashes of brilliance.
The first thing that should be mentioned right off the bat, as far as positives go, is the cinematography. Not only is this one of the best looking western epics Iíve ever seen, but this could possibly score high on the list of one of the most gorgeous looking films to ever exist. Vilmos Zsigmond (who also shot The Deer Hunter) captures the beauty of the west with such a remarkable wide eye to the point that Terrence Malick himself might be envious.
And although Ciminoís perfectionism may have gotten the better of him in the end, you simply canít deny how remarkable the sets look in this film. Wyoming in the late 18th century looks about as spot on as anyone could hope for. All the sets were built from scratch, so that blended with the filmís look does offer something of a treat for the eyes.
What hurts the film in the end is the lack of both a gripping story and fully developed/sympathetic characters in a lethargically paced three hour and forty minute film (Ciminoís definitive directorís cut). The meat of the story is one that could easily be told in a simple two hour film, but Cimino has so many unnecessary moments go on forever.
Take the opening, for example, which is a grand scale graduation ceremony at Harvard in 1870. We are introduced to the hero of the story, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a member of the graduating class. His dearest friend, Billy Irvine (John Hurt), delivers a most lengthy speech in which he ends up challenging the ideas of those very souls who have taught him.
This is followed by an extended dance number on the campus ground set to the Blue Danube. This entire opening takes up nearly forty minutes of screen time, only to cut to twenty years later as Averill, now a sheriff, arrives in Casper, Wyoming and thus allowing the main crust of the story to get underway. The entire prologue (which has Oxford doubling for Harvard), like the rest of the movie, looks beautifulÖbut it ends up adding nothing to what follows in the story.
Itís as if Cimino felt he could elaborate on the lengthy wedding ceremony scene at the beginning of The Deer Hunter, perhaps thinking lightening would strike twice. The main distinction between the two is that the wedding in Deer Hunter serves a purpose in that it chronicles an extremely happy moment in the life of three male friends. It is there so it can eventually be juxtaposed with the horror they will endure in the Vietnam War.
The opening of Heavenís Gate, on the other hand, seems to exist to simply point out that James and Billy were great friends during their time at Harvard. And because they barely have anything to say to one another when reunited in Wyoming, we are left to wonder what the purpose of the prologue was in the first place. A film this long in length shouldnít be executing such almost non-existent character development.
The centerpiece of the story involves a flood of European immigrants who have come to Wyoming in search of land and fortune. Such a flood doesnít sit quite well with a band of wealthy cattle barons, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). They, in turn, put together a ďdeath listĒ containing the names of 125 handpicked immigrants, and hire a band of killers to do the nasty work.
Averill, a man of wealth with a great deal of human compassion, wonít stand for this one bit and is willing to stand in Cantonís way no matter what the cost. As it turns out, Averill has fallen in love with a French immigrant named Ella (Isabelle Huppert), who runs a tiny brothel in town. Despite her trade, she has never asked him to pay for her love.
But another man is in love with Ella, as well. He is Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), himself an immigrant who happens to be working on behalf of the cattle barons as an assassin. Nateís intention is to use all the blood money to hopefully start a married life with Ella.
Having waited this long to finally see this film, and having heard every detail of the backlash against it, I can honestly say that I really wanted to like it, and againÖthere are elements of the film I truly do admire. Other examples include the heavenly (no pun intended) music score by musician David Mansfield (who can be seen in the film as the band-leading violinist) which perfectly matches the visual beauty of the film. And being someone who loves a grand-scale action climatic standoff, I was left jaw-dropped by the brutal and bloody gun battle between the immigrants and the cattle barons (known in history as The Johnson County War of 1892 and a sequence that was rumored to be the length of a feature film in Ciminoís initial five hour cut).
But in the end, I simply have issues with the pacing, character development and story maneuvers which manage to outweigh the stuff I so admire. Another crucial story flaw is when Averill, whoís siding with the immigrants and has long known about the death list issued on them, decides to not inform them of this until midway through the film. Somehow, such extended moments like a roller skating festivity and numerous scenes involving the poorly developed love triangle between the three lead characters seemed more important.
In all honesty, I do very much admire the idea of a Heavenís Gate, and it was rather heartbreaking to see that its failure brought something of an end to the era of auteur filmmaking that dominated the 70s. I respect someone like Cimino for going all out to make what was fully intended to be the Gone With the Wind/Lawrence of Arabia of westerns, even if the end result didnít quite meet what was planned. And I donít blame the financial debacle caused by the film for its flaws, just as I wouldnít towards any other similarly hellish production. In the end, the problem is that we have is one too many unnecessary moments in a nearly four hour film with a story that could have been told more tightly in half the time.
And the film has also been regarded as destroying Ciminoís career, but he actually did go on to make several other films. No one ever mentions his most superb 1985 cop thriller, Year of the Dragon.
All I can say is that Iím most glad that I waited this long to finally see this film, because I donít think I couldíve been supplied a more majestically beautiful visual presentation than the one given to me from the hands of the folks at Criterion. This had to have been one of the most painstaking restoration jobs ever committed to any single film. The color scheme of the original cut was said to have been of the best quality, but Cimino himself personally supervised this restoration, and all I can say is that itís one of the most amazing visual presentations Iíve ever experienced from any single Blu-ray release. Even though itís a flawed film, I consider the video quality a good enough reason to purchase the disc. The Montana locations combined with Vilmos Zsigmondís gorgeous cinematography will leave you awestruck throughout the film, and the colors are nothing short of a knockout. Criterion has had quite the remarkable year as far as restoring aged releases, and this may truly be the greatest example yet!
Itís not everyday that you come across a 32 year old film armed with a DTS HD mix, and just as a lot of hard work went into restoring the look of this film, the same amount was applied in the sound department as well. Dynamic range is at a mesmerizing level, as you can hear pretty much every possible detail of sound associated in the bringing to life of late 18th century Wyoming (locomotives, horses, etc). And two of my appreciated spots in the film; David Mansfieldís music score and the massive climatic gun battle, are heard in a form nothing short of remarkable. Dialogue delivery is thoroughly crisp and clean, in addition!
Criterion issues a terrific 2-disc Blu-ray release, with all of the supplements contained on the second disc: Included is a half hour audio interview with Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli. Next up are brand new video interviews with Kris Kristofferson, soundtrack arranger and performer David Mansfield and second assistant director Michael Stevenson, as well as a neat little Restoration Demonstration, a Theatrical Teaser and TV Spot.
And, like every great Criterion release, thereís a booklet featuring an essay by critic and programmer Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan and a 1980 interview with Cimino.
If we were grading on cinematic visual landscape, Heavenís Gate would pretty be considered for a lifetime achievement award. While it does feel like the anti-western it was intended to be, the pacing issues along with the flawed story and character development are the critical factors that keep it from being the piece of lost greatness I really wanted it to be. But the Blu-ray release from Criterion is a must have for anyone curious to see this film (as I was), because itís one of the most breathtaking HD presentations you will ever experience!