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Revisiting, Reappraising Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate'

Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges, Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson and Kris Kristofferson as James Averill in the 1980 Western <em>Heaven's Gate,</em> a director's cut of which was released in November.
Criterion Collection
Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges, Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson and Kris Kristofferson as James Averill in the 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, a director's cut of which was released in November.

The director Francois Truffaut once remarked that it takes as much time and energy to make a bad movie as to make a good one. He was right, but I would add one thing: It takes extraordinary effort to make a truly memorable flop.

The best example is Heaven's Gate, the hugely expensive 1980 movie by Michael Cimino that is the most famous cinematic disaster of my lifetime. It's part of that film's legend that it not only took down a studio, United Artists, but was the nail in the coffin of Hollywood's auteur filmmaking of the 1970s.

Yet Cimino's movie has had its champions over the years, especially in Europe, where many reckon it an unappreciated masterwork. So when Criterion released its ravishing new DVD and Blu-ray of the restored director's cut, which runs 3 1/2 hours, I was curious to see how Heaven's Gate looked 30 years on.

The movie is a revisionist Western that offers a bleak reading of American history. Raspy-voiced Kris Kristofferson — whose movie stardom now seems utterly baffling — stars as James Averill, a son of the ruling class whom we first see at his Harvard graduation in 1870.

An idealist, Averill heads out West to help civilize the country, becoming a lawman in Johnson County, Wyo. But by the 1890s, things are spinning out of control. Livestock barons have declared war on the county's Eastern European immigrants, whom they think of as thieves and rabble. Led by a well-heeled archvillain played by the normally noble Sam Waterston, they've put out a death list of 150 people, including the woman Averill loves, a brothel-running prostitute played by the fleshy young Isabelle Huppert.

With that conflict established, the movie slowly, slowly, slowly builds to the actual historical event known as the Johnson County War between mercenary killers and immigrants. And it must be said that this showdown actually feels more timely now — in this era of Occupy Wall Street and fierce battles over immigration — than it did at the very beginning of the Reagan era, when the film's gutbucket Marxism ran against the prevailing cultural mood.

Now, Heaven's Gate's failure isn't surprising, for it truly was a vainglorious folly in love with its own beauty and supposed profundity. Shots linger forever; the characters' behavior is often inexplicably silly. Yet at the same time, the movie's not nothing. Cimino has a great sense of space, a marvelous eye for landscape and a taste for epic storytelling. He was trying to make a masterpiece, and though he wound up with a critical and box-office drubbing, the failure to pull off a masterpiece is hardly the worst crime an artist can commit.

But it was treated as such. The reviling of Heaven's Gate became a key moment of the post-'70s cultural reversion in which film became less about personal expression and more about corporate entertainment. Cimino's film came out just as it was becoming routine for ordinary people to learn the weekend's box-office grosses and, often, the budgets of what they were watching. You began hearing filmgoers discuss whether Francis Ford Coppola spent too much money — his own money, mind you — on Apocalypse Now.

In such a context, Cimino's excesses on Heaven's Gate fed a simple, moralistic narrative about hubristic, out-of-control filmmakers who cared more about their "personal visions" than about entertaining the audience the way blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark did. Naturally, Hollywood executives loved this storyline, which let them feel like the victims of villainous artists.

What was wrong with this idea is that the problem in Hollywood — now, then and always — is not artistic hubris but dollar-driven hackery. It's not ambitious failures like Cloud Atlas, but games turned into movies like Battleship. While Cimino's film is one of the top 10 all-time money-losers, it's behind such dreck as Cutthroat Island, Sahara, Mars Needs Moms and The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

If we forget about all these other flops, it's because at the deepest level they were made to be forgotten. Not so Heaven's Gate. Say what you will against it, you can tell that it's the work of one man — and that he wanted you to remember it forever.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.