Film director Michael Cimino passed away yesterday at the age of 77, but as is well known for all intents and purposes we lost him 36 years ago. That was when he (fresh off the career high of 1978’s The Deer Hunter) released Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the most maligned (and most unjustly maligned) film in history.
There ought to be a law against reviewing films on the basis of their balance sheets. After years of knowing only its reputation (even Cimino’s obituaries are tainted by the words “financial disaster” — who cares?), when you finally watch this film, to me it seems a near-masterpiece. I’ll concede that the there are many shots and even scenes that might not be injured by (might even benefit from) the discipline of the scissors. On the other hand, it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Practically every shot is breathtaking. When confronted with the task, I could see the difficulty of cutting it. Anyway, dismissing this movie as a “bomb” because of how it did at the box office without weighing its actual merits as a movie is shallow and stupid in the extreme. It’s a great movie. If you don’t have patience for movies like this, go back to kindergarten.
In addition to being gorgeously photographed, it’s thought-provoking. It concern a little-known U.S. atrocity, the Johnson County War, in which (according to this film) the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, with the full sign-off of the Wyoming Governor and the President of the United States, hired a small army of thugs (backed up by the National Guard) to summarily execute a list of 125 supposed “cattle thieves and anarchists”, essentially wiping out a whole town of immigrant farmers. The farmers fight back, in a bloody horrific shooting battle in which dozens of men and women are slaughtered. (The film differs widely from the history of what actually happened but it is a more compelling story for doing so).
The film begins with an elaborate prologue depicting the Harvard graduation ceremony of 1870, where we meet Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as young men, and Joseph Cotten (in one of hi last performances) gives a graduation speech. I love this way of getting us into it; too few westerns show where those who went west initially CAME FROM, and so they lack a certain context. Here, we have it.
Both Kristofferson and Hurt head west, and meet up 20 years later in Wyoming. Kristofferson actually becomes a sheriff, protecting people against the thugs of the Cattlemen’s Association. Hurt is in the Cattlemen’s Association, and though he is initially appalled at the “List of 125” (the Association’s hit list), he drinks his reservations away. He is weak, and a bit of a philosophical buffoon. In the end, he even winds up accompanying the thugs as they shoot the farmers, watching fascinatedly. How many like him enabled the Nazis?
That would be enough for any film, tracing the divergent paths of these two men. But Hurt’s story actually gets lost and somewhat swallowed up. The bulk of the film is a love triangle. Kristofferson vs. Christopher Walken as one of the Association’s thugs vie for the affections of a Swedish madam (Isabelle Huppert). Her choices are admirably ambiguous in that 1970s way. In the old Hollywood, Kristofferson would be the good guy, Walken the bad guy. Here those edges are softened and blurred. The former never says much to her, never opens up, never gives her any assurances of a future together, and a typical compliment is “I like you because you don’t think too much.”
Walken is a local. He is an “Enforcer” because he needs the job. People consider him a traitor for persecuting his own people for money. But as he reminds us, Kristofferson inherited his own money; he has the luxury of being moral. It is Walken who asks the girl to marry him, who makes touching gestures of trying to “domesticate”, and in the end turns against the Association, a move that proves suicidal, thus heroic. And it is Kristofferson who sits on the List of 125, quits being a sheriff, and waits entirely too long to help the people defend themselves, thus enabling a massacre. In an epilogue he is on his yacht, looking disaffected and full of ennui. Is he/ was he a hero?
Lots of other great people in the cast: Jeff Bridges as a bartender, Brad Dourif as a class agitator of some sort, Mickey Rourke as one of Walken’s men, and lots of other familiar character actors. Michael Christensen of Big Apple Circus is even in it!
What especially galls me about the Heaven’s Gate debacle is what MIGHT have been. Go to his Wiki biography and look at the section called “Unrealized Projects”. How much better would the world have been in these films had gotten made instead of the half a dozen schlocky pieces of junk which were all he was entrusted with post-1980? Why on earth does it work that way? He had been responsible for hits before — don’t producers want hits instead of guaranteed failures?