Today, if you type ‘Heaven’s Gate’ into Google your first result will be for a Wikipedia entry regarding the San Diego ‘UFO based Doomsday cult’ of the same name. Sadly, similarly to many 1970’s cults, things went south in the form of a mass-suicide as opposed to the interstellar direction its members were hoping for. Upon its original release Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was also heralded as reaper of sorts; the film only recouping an estimated $3 million domestically of its $44 million budget – a factor which many believe irreversibly changed the American film industry forever.
The level of notoriety may have diminished somewhat since its original 1980 release date but Heaven’s Gate still carries with it a reputation which is far from glowing. To this day it holds several dubious accolades in the eyes of many cinephiles, critics, and historians. The picture is particularly infamous for its role as the main offender in killing off the western genre for two decades, and the reason why Hollywood wrestled creative control away from ‘New Hollywood’ directors such as Coppola, Cimino, and Spielberg and into the arms of the overbearing studio system which still dominates today. Heaven’s Gate also remains upon the American Humane Association’s list of unacceptable films (they blew up a horse with dynamite… amongst other acts of animal cruelty) and earned several Razzie nominations, including a ‘worst director’ win for Cimino.
Fortunately, thanks to a cinematic re-release last year, and this latest two disc DVD/Blu-ray restored edition, Heaven’s Gate has undergone a renaissance. Cimino is no longer ridiculed for his epic western but rather sympathised with (whether such sympathies are deserved on the basis of anecdotal set stories is another matter) and celebrated for his unwavering directorial scope. The director’s previous film, the Oscar baiting The Deer Hunter (1978) was always going to prove a hard act to follow, and Heaven’s Gate is by no means on par with the Vietnam War epic (not many films are) but nevertheless it is often a startlingly beautiful and grandiose work which is more than deserving of a revisionist history. Its portrayal of The Johnson County War, a battle between Wyoming’s falsely demonised immigrant community and several bounty killers hired on behalf of a group of cattle barons, is a powerful and decidedly epic endeavour which explores several incredibly moving insular stories throughout its expansive narrative.
Unfortunately minor issues such as a lack of subtitles hinder the glorious aesthetics of this re-release, as muddied audio – especially during scenes in which the noise of the impressively realised environments such as steam trains, migrant crowds, and galloping horses are present – makes dialogue between key characters difficult to discern – a regrettable factor when those key characters are portrayed by individuals such a Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and John Hurt. Despite these minor issues those performances are consistently strong and endearing; knowing Kristofferson once received such widespread criticism for his role as Harvard graduate and marshal Jim Averill proves particularly hard to stomach, as he is only guilty of providing a captivating and forceful hero of the piece.
Heaven’s Gate may well have a torrid past, and the reasons behind its swathes of condemnation aren’t difficult to recognise, but thankfully this final cut has rescued Cimino’s hellish journey from limbo and will hopefully place the director and his labour of love, well and truly back in many a viewer’s good graces. The contextual extras such as interviews with cast and crew offered on disc two, only further reinforce this deserved re-emergence of a lost landmark on the landscape of cinematic history – exhibiting the vast amount of work which went into constructing and reconstructing the picture. It is a truly unique film both on and offscreen, responsible for shaping the past and present of cinema, make sure you experience first-hand this epic history lesson and decide for yourself whether Heaven’s gate is cinema’s greatest sinner or a fallen saint.