The story behind Heaven’s Gate tends to precede the story contained within the film because the production of the hugely bloated epic, the interfering execs and the downfall of a major Hollywood studio are actually far more interesting than the film itself, which is a bit of a bore. The strange thing is that critics upon its original release tore it apart, calling it one of the worst films ever, while in 2013 film journos are falling over themselves to lavish hyperbolic praise on the film, hailing it as a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back from such false dichotomies and see that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Visually, the film is an unmitigated triumph and on Blu-Ray this has to rank as one of the most visually impressive films ever made. This is partly down to some stunning cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, somehow always managing to find days that are lit like paintings and framing them with his camera like an artist would use a brush. He captures the grandeur and the grit of the American frontier with the same spirit that Willa Cather and Walt Whitman wrote about it.
The visual splendour of Heaven’s Gate is also thanks to the wildly ostentatious budget that could afford to fill each shot with hundreds of extras dressed in immaculately detailed period outfits. Michael Cimino‘s recreation of 19th century Johnson County is almost unparalleled in how immersive it is; unlike many period dramas, this is a world that feels lived in by real people. It doesn’t just depict the places, it drags you in there and as a depiction of life in a difficult place at a difficult time, Heaven’s Gate is a beautiful, fascinating and credible success.
The problem is that such immersion grows rather wearying over the course of 219 minutes, especially as there is little else to hold your interest in that time. Cimino’s decision to have lengthy, almost eventless scenes makes sense given how good the production design is – it seems a shame to cut away from something that so much money was poured into – but structurally, cinematically and narratively it doesn’t work. Cimino doesn’t know when to cut away from a village dance or a romantic gaze, leaving each scene lingering for several minutes too long. The film, at times, becomes an endurance test and several scenes feel staggeringly pointless. Even the climactic battle scene feels repetitive and interminable. The film was famously cut for theatrical release against the director’s wishes but it is difficult to imagine how this film could not benefit from a comprehensive, brutal edit.
Heaven’s Gate, therefore, is not the disaster that it was labelled in 1980 but the cries of ‘masterpiece’ deserve to be taken with a pinch of salt as well.