Contrary to its reputation, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is not the white elephant of ’70s American cinema, but more its Great White Whale. After its disastrous reception in America, the film’s running time was reduced by almost an hour. Happily, the complete version still exists in 70mm.
Cimino’s previous film was The Deer Hunter and one can sense the same hand at work here in the leisurely evocation of community, the sympathetic observation of male relationships, and a pervasive atmosphere of tension and incipient violence. But the period of Heaven’s Gate is the 1880s not the 1970s and the war this time is not in Vietnam but in Wyoming between cattlemen and immigrants. The film’s main relationships are developed against the background of the Johnson County War. Kris Kristofferson’s Marshall and John Hurt’s alcoholic are friends from Harvard who now find themselves fighting on opposite sides, the former supporting the immigrants, the latter the uneasy ally of the cattlemen.
The characters seem less individuals than abstractions of the American Dream, towards which the film has a profoundly ambivalent attitude. Heaven’s Gate sometimes recalls John Ford in much of its detail, but equally it has the hallmark of the harsher modern Westerns of directors like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn. About the death-throes of the West, Heaven’s Gate is also a comprehensive summation of the ’70s Western, the ultimate demythologising of the form.
U.S.A., 1980.Colour.Panavision anamorphic.70mm print.Dolby stereo.205 mins.