Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate (1980), written and directed by Michael Cimino.

A Harvard grad of 1870, young and full of hopes and dreams, is told his duty is to uplift the lower classes by "contact of the cultivated mind with the uncultivated". How does that work out? Twenty years later he's a marshal in Wyoming, burned out and fed up, often drunk and wanting out, just in time for the Johnson County War.

The results of his idealism: it's a split decision. He does the right thing in defending the weak against the strong, but after saving his girl from murdering rapists, she chooses the man who works for the bad guys.

It's a rare Eastern-European Western where most of the immigrants are Germans and Slavs. The Old World look makes it seem set in the Old Country, not in America at all: think Sergio Leone and parts of the Godfather films. It's all class warfare and "which side are you on" -- the long overwrought town meeting looks like something from deep in Russia when the bolshis were agitating revolution.

It's at the unromantic, gritty and brutal end of the Western spectrum, maybe less shocking now since the Deadwood series was so popular. A personal aside: when we saw this in the theater a man-hating feminist (I'm being dispassionately accurate here) of my acquaintance flayed me for a particularly ugly rape and murder scene. As if I had made the film, or invited her to it.

In memory it was drab and humorless, but that seems less true now with this cut. We have many striking landscape scenes, Kris Kristofferson's joy in his prostitute girlfriend (lovely Isabelle Huppert) and the boisterous roller-skating dance. The sight of Jeff Bridges fiddling and skating backwards is worth the price of admission.

Kristofferson seems built for his role. The villains are barely one-dimensional and the American "peasants" an unlovely lot.

The Criterion Blu-ray is a director's cut at 3h27m. I would not say it drags at any spot because there is always something to marvel at, but it has it's own pacing. Where is this going and when are we going to get there? Christopher Walken is introduced then vanishes for an hour, but it is only towards the end that the editing really starts to fall apart. After a long build up the actual fighting is not very engaging. It's a dusty and chaotic battle, which is reasonable, but the little atrocity incidents seem like a filmmaker's weak attempt at the horror and senselessness of war. A wagon rolls over a man's legs so his wife shoots him in the head and stares mournfully. What? The final spasm of violence after the battle seems dramatically unnecessary.

Much nudity and bloodshed, sometimes together.

This was a famously troubled, career-ending production, a terrible box office disaster, often called one of the worst films of all time. That's ridiculous. The critical dog-pile was absurd, a vivid example of herd mentality. It may not be a great film but it deserves to be considered on it's merits, not on the production backstory or as an old industry punchline.

Some claim it was the bad theatrical edit that was to blame. Now that we see a director's cut it is a "modern masterpiece". I say: how about we refrain from rushing to one side of the boat or the other?

The Humane Association had problems with the treatment of animals; read about that and other production details in the wikipedia article.

Criterion Blu-ray, very grainy. The soft focus accentuates the antique, Old World tone.

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