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Heaven's Gate

United Artists/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 210 mins . M15+ . PAL


History is often kind to movies that, at the time of their release, garnered nothing but critical savagings and public indifference. And there is perhaps no movie that’s been quite as lambasted as Michael Cimino’s epic 1980 western Heaven’s Gate. Heading into production on the film even as he won an Oscar for his work on The Deer Hunter, Cimino had a budget of $7.5 million to put his self-penned script onto the screen - but by the time the troubled shoot was wrapped, the cost had blown out to $44 million, and United Artists, the studio that bankrolled the picture, were getting worried. Needless to say, word got out about the ballooning budget and the many difficulties on the set - but no-one could have been prepared for the treatment the film scored at the hands of the movie critics of the day. Heaven’s Gate was pulled from cinemas by United Artists after only three days, and re-edited (reportedly at Cimino’s request) from its original 219 minutes to a more compact 149, then thrown back into release months later. The cuts didn’t help - word was already going around that the film was a turkey, and people stayed away in droves. UA made back less than $2 million on their investment, and that company was essentially destroyed. UA exec Steven Bach wrote an admittedly fascinating book on the whole affair; called Final Cut, it’s a terrific read, though somewhat biased and, ironically, as time-consuming a task as the movie itself. Meanwhile, after Heaven’s Gate, the epic-length movie was for all intents and purposes dead - until 1990, when Kevin Costner struck gold with the 180-minute Dances With Wolves (ironically dubbed by cynical journalists “Kevin’s Gate” when it went over budget and over schedule). Michael Cimino would not make another movie for five years, and his career would never recover.

Heaven’s Gate is often tagged by comedians and marketers alike as the “worst movie ever made” - even though most of those who make that claim have never actually seen it. The full-length cut of the film was, until recently, very hard to find, and with a reputation preceding it that had potential viewers running away in fear the movie in any form is still a rare find at video libraries. Until now, that is. The 219-minute version (which runs 210 minutes on the PAL format) was returned to the public on Laserdisc in the US some time ago, and now makes its debut on DVD - the ideal format for a film of this length.

And long it is. Yes, other epic films have reached similarly epic running times - and indeed, Cimino’s own acclaimed The Deer Hunter runs for 184 - but the problem with long movies is never the actual length. It’s what fills the time that counts. And the first two-hour-odd section of Heaven’s Gate is really, really hard going. The entire first 20-minute reel is taken up by a sequence set in England 20 years before the main story. And while it’s all very “proper” and elegant, nothing actually happens of any consequence. This policy continues for some time - it’s as though Cimino knows the story he’s telling, but is unwilling to let us all in on what it’s about. Or maybe it’s just a desire to replicate the oft-parodied slow-motion-everything Western-movie culture. Regardless, after an hour of beautiful images but only enough actual drama to fill a TV commercial, you too will be thinking about the laundry, tomorrow night’s dinner or what you’re up to next weekend. One thing you won’t be thinking about is the plot, because for the first hour or so, there really isn’t one.

Things do pick up, though, in the latter half of the first section (the film is presented in the old epic style, with an interval at an appropriate break in the story). With a bit of judicious trimming of the first hour, Heaven’s Gate would have stood a greater chance of drawing its audience into the story; the later sections of the first half, while leisurely and occasionally too loose, have a languid atmosphere about them that justifies the slow pace more often than not. The post-interval section provides the payoff for those that were patient enough to get this far with high emotion and not inconsiderable action. The editing of the battle sequence leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of narrative clarity - but then, that’s a problem the entire film struggles with on occasion.

Ironically, the plot of Heaven’s Gate can be summed up in a short paragraph. University buddies James Averill (Kris Kristofferson, in unusually fine form) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) find themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly argumentative fence when they both end up in Johnson County, Wyoming, where rich land and stock owners are determined to wipe out the large (and very, very poor) immigrant population, convinced that they are stealing their cattle and threatening their livelihood. The stockmen’s solution is to draw up a “death list” of 125 suspected thieves - men, women and children - who are to be summarily executed by bounty hunters. Averill, a Sheriff with great sympathy for the immigrants (and in a relationship with one of them, brothel “madam” Ella Watson), is repulsed by the idea and soon finds himself on the wrong side of the “law” by way of his attempts to help them. But the law is the law, especially in the ugly, class-driven America of the late 1800s (“land of the free and home of the brave” indeed!) and the killing begins. While that brings plenty of graphic violence, it’s quite mild compared to current film fare (in fact, the battle sequence strongly recalls the opening half hour of Saving Private Ryan in its chaos and attempt at visceral involvement, but is far less bloody than Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie).

Performances are generally excellent throughout, with Kristofferson a standout - a perfect actor for the character. And what a supporting cast - along with the wonderful John Hurt (who spends most of his screen time slurring drunkenly here, ironically sounding not unlike the Elephant Man he portrayed around the same time) there’s French actor Isabelle Huppert as Ella, Christopher Walken as “law enforcer” and rival for Ella’s affections Nathan Champion, along with Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Sam Waterston, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn and even a pre-fame Mickey Rourke. But there’s one other compelling reason to be here as well - the cinematography. The remarkable, incomparable Vilmos Zsigmond turns in what is possibly his finest work here, with glorious widescreen images constantly appearing on screen looking like oil paintings that move. Movies simply aren’t shot this way in Hollywood - except for this one. The “ooh, ahh” factor is constantly high, whether its big panoramic vistas loaded with ludicrous amounts of extras or just a simple shot of a man on a horse in the mist. Zsigmond is a bona fide genius, and his work here is reason enough to own this disc.

Those concerned about censorship will be pleased to learn that the region 4 DVD of Heaven’s Gate appears to be completely uncut - most tellingly, the cock-fight sequence that’s edited out in UK prints of the film is present on the disc released here.

Oh, and Heaven’s Gate is nowhere close to being the “worst movie ever made” - flawed as it is, it’s a brave attempt at a new approach to the western genre. But then, the “worst movie ever” claim was made by the kind of cancerous Hollywood people who equate profit-and-loss statements with quality - hardly a benchmark for judging artistic merit in any medium. But even playing the profit-and-loss game, there are so many other nominees - Highlander 2, the Police Academy series, countless breast-obsessed teen flicks - that make Heaven’s Gate look like Citizen Kane by comparison. As always, watch the movie first, and then make up your own mind.


One person commenting on the laserdisc release of Heaven’s Gate on the Internet suggested that United Artists execs probably stomped on the negatives of the film after its release in pure frustration. An amusing theory, it’s actually probably quite close to the truth - the preservation of this movie’s negatives probably would have been the last thing on UA’s collective minds after they saw the box office reports and balance sheets.

This transfer of Heaven’s Gate is taken from a theatrical release print, evidenced both by the amount of nicks and scratches on the film (especially around reel changes) and the ubiquitous reel-change marks themselves. While disappointing, it’s unlikely that this full-length version of the film exists in negative form any longer, having been heavily re-edited days after release. And it’s also very, very unlikely that anyone was about to suggest to MGM (who inherited most of UA’s catalogue) that they restore the film. Indeed, it’s a small miracle that we’re seeing it on DVD at all.

Along with the very regular instances of film damage (though the second half of the movie is far less prone to these artefacts) there’s a decided “soft” look to the telecine transfer here, as well as some scenes with very poorly balanced contrast and too-high black level. The print has almost certainly been transferred “straight”, with little or no adjustment of individual scenes for video.

Unlike the region 1 disc, the version released here is 16:9 enhanced; we’d suspect, though, that the enhancement has been applied to what looks for all the world like the very same transfer done some time ago for laserdisc. Overall it has the MGM DVD “look”, which is somewhat below the state of the art even for older movies. Compression artefacts aren’t a problem, but there’s a certain something missing overall here, even taking into account the age and condition of the print.

That said, don’t be fooled by some of the scenes here looking soft or colour-muted and blame the transfer - a lot of this is intentional, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond breaking quite a few Hollywood “rules” to capture some unique images on film.

One major annoyance that could so easily have been avoided by the DVD’s authoring team: the layer change, at the 1.55.22 mark, is bang in the middle of a scene and while relatively brief, is quite startling. Ah well, you think, they have to divide the disc somewhere. And then, just over seven minutes later comes... the intermission! A perfect place for a layer change, it’s just plain silly that it wasn’t used for that purpose.

Note that while the video has been encoded at a remarkably low bitrate, there’s still plenty of spare space on the disc despite the film’s length.


While the video has been transferred from a 35mm release print, the audio has the advantage of having being transferred from magnetic master tapes, most probably those prepared for the 70mm prints of the film. Encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 - but very light on surround activity, as was the style at the time - this audio track shows off the high quality recording of David Mansfield’s music score (with a bit of distortion on individual instruments at times, probably inherent in the masters) and the often murky quality of the location sound. Almost all the dialogue throughout the movie was recorded on location, and that shows very clearly at times, with some sections of dialogue very difficult to understand despite the relative clarity of the track on DVD. Quality problems here can be attributed to the original master sources and the six-track mix master (which is in remarkably good shape, with only a handful of minor analogue dropouts).

Despite the lack of restoration done to both image and sound for this disc, it’s pleasing to note that the DVD’s producers have chosen a 35mm print (for the correct Panavision aspect ratio) and 6-track magnetic audio (for the best possible sound quality).


Extras on a DVD of Heaven’s Gate? Well, while a Cimino commentary would have been nice, the chances of that are close to zero; here, there’s only a minute-long theatrical trailer to entice you.

It would have been wonderful to have the option to view the re-edited 149-minute cut of the film via the seamless branching feature of DVD; however, if you think it should have been here, you can talk MGM into spending the money…!


Far more notorious than it deserves to be, Heaven’s Gate is a potential masterpiece that was spoilt by inexperience, overindulgence and the involvement of too many conflicting creative (and non-creative) minds. Seen 21 years later, though - with lengthy movies once again embraced by the public and critics and the benefit of distance from the heavy criticism that surrounded the film’s opening - Heaven’s Gate is a unique take on the Western genre, one which offers plenty that’s relevant to say, some fine performances and some of the most beautiful cinematography you’ll ever see. Just don’t pick this one up expecting The Magnificent Seven - if it’s gunslinging action you’re here for rather than the meditative, elegiac visual poetry this film offers, then you’re holding the wrong disc.

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      And I quote...
    "Far more notorious than it deserves to be..."
    - Anthony Horan
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