I've never seen ... Heaven's Gate

Forty years after its release the largest critical and commercial flop of its era has undergone a remarkable critical reappraisal. Is it really worth sitting through three-and-a-half hours?

Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert in Heaven’s Gate.
Tense love … Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill and Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson in Heaven’s Gate. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists
Tense love … Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill and Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson in Heaven’s Gate. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists

Last modified on Wed 10 Jun 2020 02.02 EDT

To this day, the notoriety that precedes Heaven’s Gate is as outsized as the film’s 216-minute runtime: as the largest critical and commercial flop of its era, its disastrous reception was a major factor in the shuttering of its studio, United Artists, as well as a convenient scapegoat for the death of the New Hollywood revolution that preceded it. 

Yet, 40 years after its initial release, Michael Cimino’s magnum opus has undergone a remarkable critical reappraisal. Once the posterchild for auteurist hubris, it slowly built a cult following before eventually being welcomed into the arthouse canon proper. While some continue to hold it up as one of the worst movies ever made (a preposterous claim even when accounting for all its collateral damage), it is now generally regarded an unjustly maligned – if flawed – classic.

This heady mix of infamy and acclaim, of which I’ve been cognisant since my teens thanks to the film’s prominence in the cinema docs A Decade Under the Influence, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, combined with the aforementioned lengthy runtime, always made the prospect of actually watching the film rather intimidating. For years, I’ve put it off by using the convenient excuse that I was waiting for a theatrical screening in order to “see it the way it was meant to be seen”. Since that’s not on the cards at the moment, I figured it was finally time.

Christopher Walken in Heaven’s Gate.
Christopher Walken as conscience stricken gun-thug Nate Champion in Heaven’s Gate. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Intimidated though I was, I was also excited, since I have a deep and abiding love of all things New Hollywood, as well as westerns and Lean/Leone-sized epics. I might have popped my Cimino cherry with The Deer Hunter and still scratched two out of three of those itches, but I believe the best entrance to a formidable artist’s body of work is through their most challenging efforts: my first Fellini was , my first Tarkovsky was Stalker, my first Lynch was Lost Highway. Therefore, I reasoned, my first Cimino should be Heaven’s Gate.

My theory proved correct.

Heaven’s Gate opens with a long graduation ceremony at Harvard University in the year 1869. We’re introduced to Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a rakish young upstart who clearly comes from wealth (his spirited optimism and lust for life make it very obvious that, despite being of fighting age, he managed to avoid the recently concluded civil war). There’s also his loquacious boozehound buddy, Billy Irvine (John Hurt), and angelic girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, a silent and nameless cipher whose haunting presence bookends the film while bringing its grand theme – that we’re each of us victims of the our class – into sharp and troubling relief. 

Heaven’s Gate.
Wild Wyoming … Heaven’s Gate. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Following this prologue, we are shuttled 20 years into the future and deposited in Wyoming. There we find a much-changed Averill serving as sheriff of Johnson County, a fertile farmland where a bloody range war is being waged between poor and starving immigrant farmers – most of them newly arrived from Europe – and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a cooperative made up of the state’s richest cattle barons (including a reluctant, but concessive Billy). On his return to Johnson County, Averill learns that the association has drawn up a death list of 125 names (almost every immigrant in the county) and arranged to bring in an army of mercenaries to carry out executions. 

Despite his own privileged background, Averill – who has found himself entangled in a tense love triangle with the beautiful French-Canadian madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and his former friend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), a local farm boy turned conscience stricken gun-thug – vows to protect his adopted community against the association’s murderous machinations. Given that this is a typically cynical and despairing 70s movie (one based on a real-life atrocity), it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal his efforts are all for naught, the ratcheting violence of this war of attrition eventually leading to a full-scale massacre – one of many on which this nation was built. Suffice to say, Heaven’s Gate made for appropriate, if untraditional, Memorial Day viewing.

For all that I expected Heaven’s Gate to be a sprawling epic in the vein of One-Eyed Jack and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it proved remarkably straightforward in its plot and focus. While the most memorable scenes are drawn-out set pieces – the opening graduation ceremony, a rollicking wheel-skate dance derby, the climactic battle – its sense of sprawl comes mostly through prolonged moments of quiet intimacy between a handful of characters. These scenes go a long way towards imbuing the film with its funereal feel, although they also come at the expense of some dearly needed character backstory and narrative connective tissue. 

The Ayatollah … aka Michael Cimino in 1979.
The Ayatollah … AKA Michael Cimino in 1979. Photograph: Edwin Reichert/AP

Say what you will about Cimino’s storied megalomaniacal obsessiveness and authoritarian tendencies (his on-set nickname was The Ayatollah), he truly left it all up there on screen. Aesthetically speaking, Heaven’s Gate is unimpeachable, from the lived-in period detail of the costumes and set design, to the stunning cinematography – by turns ethereal and earthen – courtesy of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, to the soulful work of its leads (particularly Kristofferson, who never gets the credit he deserves as one of his era’s greatest movie stars). There is also a ridiculously stacked supporting cast (including Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Terry O’Quinn, Geoffrey Lewis, Tom Noonan, Robin Bartlett, Joseph Cotten and an uncredited, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Willem Dafoe).

The film maintains a clear moral vision without seeming reductive – a charge that was levelled at Cimino’s Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter. Particularly effective is the way in which Heaven’s Gate unequivocally sides with its immigrant underclass without reducing them to paragons of noble victimhood. All that said, the film lacks the full cathartic power and thematic complexity of successive works that it seemingly inspired, such as John Sayles’ sterling coal war drama Matewan and HBO’s radical revisionist western Deadwood

That my biggest criticism of the film is that it’s not quite as good as those two utter masterpieces should make it clear that I am now a full-on pro-Heaven’s Gate partisan. 

As such, I was tempted to argue that Heaven’s Gate should now be considered purely on its merits as a film, rather than its cultural baggage. But the more I think about it, the more I realise said baggage adds to its overall power. It’s entirely fitting – poetic even – that the cinematic revolution of the 1970s should kick off with a handful of small films about scrappy rebels traversing a rugged landscape in search of the American dream, only for it to buckle and collapse under the weight of this towering ode to defeat and the destructive folly of manifest destiny and westward expansion.