There have always been movies people hate because of sex or violence or ignorance. But what is it about films that inspire such loathing that they kill entire careers? Heaven's Gate came to represent everything negative anyone happened to be feeling toward the motion picture industry at its time. Think Ishtar, Gigli, Showgirls — movies you don't even have to have seen to know exactly what someone means when bringing them up in conversation.
For almost 30 years, that was the fate of Michael Cimino's grandly ambitious Western. Yanked after a catastrophic week in one theater in 1980, it was chopped by 79 minutes and given a brief, widely derided release several months later. A few admirers tried to save it from obscurity: Los Angeles' legendary early pay-cable Z Channel programmed the film's full version in 1982, keeping the word alive. But the channel's own tragic story (covered in Xan Cassavetes' entertaining documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession) clipped its rehabilitation in the bud.
And so it was until 2000, when MGM released Heaven's Gate as a letterboxed, proper-length DVD. Awareness began to build about writer-director Cimino's maimed masterwork, which shows the journey of a disillusioned sheriff — played by Kris Kristofferson, that one-man incarnation of the many quirks and possibilities of what it is to be an American — from idealistic graduate to stabilizing authority to social crusader to helpless cog. In this new light, the movie looked less like an epic failure than an epic about failure.
After three decades of wearing the film like a millstone around his neck, Cimino and producer Joann Carelli were coaxed back into the editing room, and they emerged last year with what Cimino says is a definitive 216-minute version. Thanks to the Criterion Collection and ongoing critical reappraisal, this slightly recut Heaven's Gate is finally traveling in a new digital restoration. And the film as it stands — as it stood even in its mangled version — is a ravishingly beautiful thing.
Cimino had just scored a critical and financial hit with 1978's The Deer Hunter, which made him not just a multiple Oscar winner but briefly a public intellectual. That can inflate an auteur's sense of self-worth, and the director was not immune. But having tended to the psychic wounds the Vietnam era inflicted on small-town America, Cimino admirably used his new clout to delve even deeper into domestic horrors.
His real-life inspiration was the 1892 Johnson County War, a shocking instance of business-sanctioned murder in which Wyoming cattle barons hired assassins to kill smaller competitors and the local lawman. When townspeople fought back, the killers were rescued — by U.S. government troops. It's a story with enough drama, action and horror to power several different films. Cimino arguably tried to make them all.
But he skewed a little abstract, which can be problematic when dealing with big money. Worse, he allowed himself to go full Kubrick, shooting countless takes and retakes, demolishing sets and having them rebuilt to infinitesimal specifications, disassembling and shipping an entire train across the country. This is to say nothing of the many horses and roosters that died under what could charitably be called sketchy circumstances. (The best and most honorable of Heaven's Gate's many repercussions is scrupulous on-set oversight by the American Humane Association.)
Yet the mad specificity that drove studio executives and production staff to the brink of insanity is all right there on the screen, and the new restoration does a tremendous job of finding the balance between multicolored splendor and the original, muted dusky color palette. Thanks to unparalleled cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Heaven's Gate is a film that breathes with life. If these weren't the faces of performers we know from their esteemed bodies of work — Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston — this could be some astonishing window into the 1890s. Dust, smoke, snow, breath, blood: Heaven's Gate flows like no other film, which makes its digital-only restoration somewhat ironic and ultimately alchemical. It upholds the photochemical process it could never hope to exactly replicate.
How something so gorgeous and boldly intentioned could inspire such contempt seems today a matter of timing. The movie was released on the cusp of the Age of Reagan, when talk of trickle-down economics would trump any national discussion of class conflict. There was no place for such a brazen polemic, not with the Gipper slapping down unions to great public approval.
And there certainly was no place for such profligate spending on "art," not when there was a defense budget to supercharge. Francis Ford Coppola's excess on Apocalypse Now morphed into a selling point — filmmaking as conquest is easier to justify than filmmaking as exploration — leaving Cimino to reap the growing resentment toward studio-backed runaway auteurs. To be sure, a lot of money went into this film: an estimated $122 million in adjusted 2012 dollars, enough that the conversation shifted from the work to the budget.
But impersonal films regularly flush such sums down the toilet but never really get any guff for it — think Wrath of the Titans, Sahara, Stealth or Red Planet. They're brushed off as bad but understandable investments, because that's all they ever were: investments.
No, it's the deeply personal pictures that really raise hackles. It's only when an artist with something provocative to say takes $100 million plus to say it — as when Oliver Stone makes a movie as directly from his heart and head as Alexander — that the spending is called foolhardy. Artistic risk and nerve are not to be encouraged: Witness Vanity Fair tut-tutting that Megan Ellison gave Paul Thomas Anderson the money to make The Master. After all, the result might not turn out to be easily marketable, immediately profitable pabulum. You might get a rough-edged work that lodges in the craw and pisses some people off — and lasts.
That is Heaven's Gate's blessing and curse. There's a remarkable, resigned melancholy to this version's final image — it certainly suits the main character, but you can also see in it the industry whipping boy that Cimino became. More than that, it symbolizes the space every American who believes in decency and altruism must pass through. You can be a person of principle and make an unpopular stand against injustice and tragedy, the movie says — but you'll stand alone, on uncertain ground. Money is a cushion and a weapon, and some lessons, whether in the 1890s, 1980s or now, don't really change. But few movies better embody the idea that in those instances, there is honor in failure.