- Movie Rating -

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

| April 24, 1981

There are a lot of things that haunt Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but I don’t think there’s anything that gobs at it more than its running time.  After nearly-legendary accounts of problems during production, the film was presented to the New York press in November of 1980 at a running time of 3 hours and 43 minutes and was eviscerated by the critics, the worst of which was Vincent Canby who said that the film was like a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.  After one week in New York, it was yanked from release, edited down to 2 hours and 18 minutes and released to reviews that didn’t help.

I have seen the three hours plus version, and the two hour plus version, and now I understand that there is a work print that runs five hours and twenty-five minutes.  Nothing that I’ve seen so far tells me that there is a better film waiting to be discovered.  I’m sorry, I have other things to do.

At either length, this is the most ungainly, untidy, unfocused mess that I have ever had the displeasure to witness.  The characters are vacant, the action scenes are confusing and there are scenes of activity – a baseball game, a graduation, a roller-skating scene – that are meaningless.  And yet, this is not a film without purpose.  Cimino’s film wants us to understand the murderous brutality put upon the immigrant population by corporate money men in the 1890s, just as America was turning toward the industrial revolution.  But that point is made early and often and probably could have been wrapped up in two hours with a lean story and focused characters, but this film beats that point to death and has us hang around for hours on end with good actors going nowhere in particular

The film begins, for no identifiable reason, at Harvard in the 1870s on graduation day where we meet two men.  One is James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), will become a U.S. Marshall in Wyoming while the other William Irvine (John Hurt) will show up in the film here and there and have little to no purpose to this story at all.

Anyway after that pointless exercise, the film shoots to the early 1890s where Averill has been brought to Wyoming to look into a matter involving a war between the cattle rancher’s association and European immigrant workers that they feel are encroaching on the land.  These wealthy men have become so put out with the immigrants that they have drawn up a death list and then hired assassins to go out and murder these people.

This is a valid story, but the problem is that we never get any sense of the people involved.  We’re always at arm’s length.  Kristofferson has a relationship with a French prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert who is also involved with one of the hired assassins played by Christopher Walken but the movie never develops them as characters and their conflicts are resolved through a lot of shouting.

Plus, this is not an easy film to watch.  Cimino wants us to feel the textures of the time and place of Wyoming in the late 19th century, but he shoots the movie in soft focus and adds a lot of dust and dirt on the screen so that we can’t tell what is happening most of the time.  He wants this to be a grand visual experience much like Gone With the Wind, but the movie is so hapless, so unfocused and so murky that half the time we’re not even sure what is happening.

The third act is a struggle to sit through as the war finally begins with a battle that can’t be seen through all of the dust and dirt being kicked up.  I swear, I couldn’t tell one person from another.  And then the movie ends on a note so arbitrary and so

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized