Heaven’s Gate is a film that originally had a profoundly negative response – critically panned for its excess, both in terms of the troubled shoot and the film’s length, it was considered everything wrong with “New Hollywood”, even before we get into the reports that horses were killed and maimed in the making of this film to enough of a degree above and beyond earlier westerns that this movie lead to the start of the American Humane Society sending monitors to film shoots to make sure this didn’t happen in the future. Since its initial release, the film built up something of a cult following, which ultimately lead to the film getting a re-edit and re-master to fit the director’s vision for its final release a few years ago from the Criterion Collection.
Heaven’s Gate is a… loose adaptation of the Johnson County War – a real conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders in Wyoming. The film follows James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a man from a position of wealth and privilege who, out of idealism, is appointed Marshall of Johnson County in Wyoming. His old school friend, William C. Irvine (John Hurt), is part of the local Cattlemen’s Association, lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). It’s also almost 4 hours long, so there’s a lot of plot to go through.
The Cattlemen’s Association has been contending with what they consider to be a boom of the rustling of cattle by local homesteaders – generally immigrants from Europe. The cattle in question (and this is actually important and not explained well in the film) are Mavericks – unbranded cattle born in the wild from cattle that are (at present) not part of anyone herd – in other words feral cattle. In the eyes of the Cattlemen’s Association, any cattle in the area belong to them, and anyone who possesses, receives, or kills any cattle that isn’t part of their group is rustling and should be killed. This ultimately leads to the Association assembling an initial “death list” of figures in the county that they want to be murdered. They do not have a warrant (they are pressed on this repeatedly) – they’re just committing extrajudicial murder. Irvine has becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Cattlemen’s Association but also feels like he can’t leave, so is descending further and further into an alcoholic stupor.
Initially, they’re doing this through bounty hunters, such as Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Champion is a friend of Averill, but Champion working for the Cattlemen’s association puts him at odds with his friend. Well, that, and they’re both in love with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a Québécois bordello madam who has also been receiving payments in unbranded cattle, putting her on the list.
Ultimately, this comes to a head when Canton feels that Champion isn’t receiving fast enough results, and expands his scope – hiring a small army of mercenaries to go into Johnson County to engage in de-facto genocide, wiping out effectively all of the settlers. Averill catches wind of this and goes to the army, but because of rampant cronyism within the Harrison administration, the government will not intervene. The homesteaders themselves don’t take this lying down and prepare to load up to fight them. Averill and Watson consider leaving the area, but after Champion is ambushed at his cabin, they decide to join the homesteaders.
In a massive climactic battle, with great losses at both sides, the settlers nearly wipe out the mercenaries – and in the process, most of the settlers we’ve met are killed, and also Irvine. Canton bails early in order to call in the army for help – they do show up and rescue the few surviving mercenaries. Averill, Watson, and local businessman Frank Bridges (Jeff Bridges) decide to leave the area, but are ambushed by Canton and the handful of remaining hired guns – Bridges and Watson are killed, but Averill manages to kill Canton and the remaining handful of gunmen, leaving him alone and heartbroken, still materially wealthy from his background, but psychologically destitute.
As the synopsis, hopefully, makes clear, this is a film that has, in a way, become almost more topical in the Trump era, than it did in the start of the “Greed is Good” era of the 1980s. That said, there are a lot of factors that really work against this film. The first is the runtime, especially in the context of the era. This is a film that wants widescreen, epic scope and visuals, but needs the runtime of a miniseries. This film has a lot of characters, even more than the ones I name here, but it doesn’t get the depth to allow us to know them well enough to know their names, so when they die, the response is “Oh, it’s that guy”.
A great example is in the final battle of the film, after the makeshift fortifications of the mercenaries are breached, and everything descends into chaos, one of the recurring images of the battle is of a woman from among the settlers, with a sort of numb look on her face like her mind had broken – a step beyond the Thousand Yard Stare sitting against the wheel of a wagon, aiming and firing at mercenaries with great accuracy. After the battle is over, and the mercs have been rescued, in a scene that plays with no dialog, just the score, Bridges makes a move towards her, but is unable to stop her from killing herself with her pistol, causing him to react with shock and heartbreak. I can’t tell you the name of that character, because I don’t recall anyone saying it, and she doesn’t get enough screen time for her identity to truly sink in. The visual is bleak and memorable, but it lacks the emotional punch that clearly director Michael Cimino was going for.
Similarly, related to this, the death of Irvine practically happens off screen. For a character who is introduced with Averill at the beginning of the film, and who serves as the voice of the audience in scenes with the Cattlemen’s Association, it seems odd for his death to feel like an afterthought.
That said, the new release of the film is gorgeous. The original theatrical release had something of a sepia coloration to it, making the film look like historical photographs. The new release lets the natural scenery of Montana, where the film was shot, stand out, making for a more visually stunning film, and also letting the costuming and set design stand on their own merits.
In short, Heaven’s Gate is a film that is tremendously narratively ambitious and is presented incredibly well, but its presentation is very much ahead of its time. It’s shot for the large screen, but with a story that was better suited for a miniseries.
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