Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate, an extravagantly beautiful mega-Western about a little-known range war in 19th-century Wyoming, has gone down in history not for its beauty but for its extravagance. The director who set out to create a new American myth instead wound up being best known for a mythic flop whose $44 million budget—among the largest in history at the time—bankrupted United Artists and, as the studio’s former head of production details in his superb book Final Cut, changed forever the relationship of business to art in Hollywood.
There’s a tragic grandeur to the production history of Heaven’s Gate, with its figure of the mighty brought low (one week before beginning principal photography on the film, Cimino had won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Deer Hunter) and its tales of locked-horn battles between the forces of directorial creativity and studio control. Now, 33 years after it was released (and subsequently pulled from theaters after a one-week run so that Cimino could release a shorter cut five months later, to even less acclaim), Heaven’s Gate has returned, in a digitally remastered 3-hour-and- 36-minute final final cut that’s now playing at New York’s Film Forum (the same version is now available on a two-disc DVD set from Criterion). This isn’t your average old-movie restoration and re-release, timed to coincide with an anniversary, stoke nostalgia, and sell a few DVDs. It’s Heaven’s Gate’s shot at a happy ending, a chance for audiences to finally see the movie that Cimino and a cast and crew of thousands spent so much time, money, and studio goodwill trying to make all those years ago.
Well, almost that movie. Treating Heaven’s Gate more like a work in progress than a historic artifact, Cimino has substantially changed the original look of the film, using a digital color process to scrub the original of its yellowish-brown sepia tones. Frame for frame, the restored Heaven’s Gate rivals any motion picture ever made for sheer pictorial beauty. Or rather, cinematic beauty: Though virtually every frame could stand alone as a painting, Cimino’s camera is in perpetual motion, twirling around dancers and (in the film’s most magical scene) roller skaters, craning up and over the edges of buildings, barreling through battlegrounds. (It was in part the director’s love of complex moving shots, along with his obsessive perfectionism about planning and setting them up with the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, that led to the film’s gargantuan delays and cost overruns.)
On a purely sensory level, Heaven’s Gate is overpowering. Everything it gives you, it gives you in excess, beginning with the pageantry of the nearly 20-minute prologue, which imagines the lavish graduation ceremonies of the Harvard Class of 1870 (though the scenes were filmed on the even posher grounds of Oxford University). This extended sequence accomplishes virtually nothing to further the movie’s story—all we really learn is that two of the young graduates, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), are friends who like to get drunk and dance with pretty girls. But the unhurried, magisterial opening scenes show us everything we need to know about the world of complacent privilege Billy and Averill are set to inherit. The outdoor dance scene that ends this chapter, with waltzing couples circling around a grassy lawn to the music of Strauss as the camera loops and swirls around them, is a masterpiece of camerawork and choreography, a Renoir painting come to exuberant life. It’s one of the scenes that was cut from the second, shortened version of the film—and reason enough in itself to see the new one.
From Harvard in 1870, we shift to Wyoming 20 years later, where Averill has become the marshal of a county troubled by land disputes between wealthy ranchers and immigrant settlers from Germany and Eastern Europe. The head of the cattle barons’ organization (Sam Waterston) proposes a grim solution: a “death list” of names, to be picked off by hired mercenaries—among them a very young and spectral-looking Christopher Walken. Walken’s character, Nate Champion, is in love with the local madam, Ella (Isabelle Huppert.) But Ella—an independent spirit with a taste for fast horses and free love—can’t seem to choose between the devoted Nate and the standoffish Averill. Meanwhile, the situation in Johnson County disintegrates from civil unrest to outright war, culminating in a staggering two-part battle sequence, Tolstoyan in its sweep, whose relentlessly unheroic vision is clearly in part intended as a commentary on the Vietnam War.
Above all, watching Heaven’s Gate in what may be presumed to be its final form (unless the inveterate tinkerer Cimino has more tricks up his sleeve), I was struck by how inseparable the film’s beauty now seems from what we know of its disaster. Swooning over a wide shot of an old-time train steaming through a Wyoming valley, you can’t help but remember the story of how Cimino insisted on having an authentic steam engine shipped across the country on a flatbed truck. Delighting in Huppert’s quicksilver performance—the moment when, naked but for a quilt around her waist, she lets out a shout of pure animal joy—you also immediately understand why the studio executives thought she was so wrong for the part, and why audiences of the time were confused by this wispy, heavily accented French actress in the role of a steely frontier whorehouse-runner. And even as you marvel at the film’s breadth of vision and exquisite attention to historical detail, a part of you identifies with the studio heads slapping their foreheads at Cimino’s perfectionism and grandiosity—this is not the work of an artist who knows what it is to kill his darlings. Seen through the scrim of three decades, the movie’s excess of visual and sensory pleasure can’t help but recall the excesses of its production. And our knowledge that no movie like Heaven’s Gate will ever be made again—in part because of shifts in the industry wrought by Cimino’s own folly, in part simply because of changes in technology and taste—adds an extra pang of melancholy to the film’s final image: a man standing on the deck of a boat that’s gradually receding out of sight.