WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is not a review on Michael Cimino’s 1981 epic drama Heaven’s Gate. It focuses on its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, and what it could mean for the film’s legacy 30+ years after its initial release.
By 1979, Michael Cimino had been riding high in Hollywood. He had just won two Oscars for his Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter – and used that success to push ahead for his next project. His follow-up film was a sweeping true-life tale of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming – along with action-packed and romantic storylines intertwining. Like his previous effort, Cimino had established an all-star cast including Kris Kristofferson, Oscar winners Jeff Bridges & Christopher Walken, and Oscar nominees John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Willem Dafoe & Mickey Rourke. Kristofferson would star as a U.S. Marshal who gets involved in the land cattle war, as it tears apart a friendship with a baron (Walken) and leads to a relationship with a madam (French
star Isabelle Huppert). With its epic nature and ensemble, Cimino seemed to have a good film on his hands.
Then when it was finally finished and released, the Hollywood bottom fell out dramatically.
When Heaven’s Gate was released in November 1980, the film achieved a reputation for going overboard in its epic nature – with costly delays and constant attacks towards Cimino’s drive to complete his grand drama. Aspects of the film ridiculed ranged from the
rumored acts of cruelty to the cattle used in the film to the director’s constant need for exact detail on every piece of set design. Despite notable work from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and composer David Mansfield
(later an original member of Bruce Hornsby’s Grammy-winning band The Range), the film was critically and commercially savaged. It also led to the stunning collapse of the legendary United Artists studio, which had been co-created by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and actors Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks. Even though Cimino would continue directing films for another decade, the stigma of Gate‘s failure would be tough to overcome – and he stopped making full-length films after 1996.
On November 20, 2012 – 32 years and a day after its original theatrical release – Cimino’s ambitious vision will get a new audience to re-assess its past.
The Criterion Collection is releasing Heaven’s Gate on DVD and Blu-ray, with extensive comments from Cimino, Kristofferson, and notable cast & crew members. The version of the film being presented was a restored 3 1/2-hour cut, presented at prestigious film festivals in France, New York and Venice, Italy. The acclaimed label has a reputation for giving quality films some of the best DVD and/or Blu-ray treatment around, and this title may prove to be no exception. Yet it does bring an interesting question: is it possible for a home media release from such a prominent company as Criterion to actually give a positive boost to a film’s once-reviled reputation?
This new release presents the opportunity for Heaven’s Gate to reclaim some of its lost luster after years of being constantly named one of the worst movies ever made. When it comes to being named for a Criterion title, a movie has to have a cinematic legacy to inspire new generations. Fans of this film should take note on Criterion’s reputation for rescuing notorious films from obscurity – titles that were critically and/or commercially scorned upon their original release, only to gain new reputations through the power of home media. Titles to gain such a Criterion redemption included Alex Cox’s ambitious and anachronistic 1987 war epic Walker, Michael Powell’s 1960 sexual thriller Peeping Tom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 human horror drama Salo, and Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent 1971 classic Straw Dogs.
The release may also give an opportunity to have Cimino’s career revisited. He was a hit director on the rise, guiding Clint Eastwood & Jeff Bridges for 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot before hitting it big with The Deer Hunter. Cimino had achieved prominent success in the 1970s, allowing him the opportunity to take a chance with his vision and pushed United Artists to let him make Heaven’s Gate the way he wanted. The controversy and end result of his efforts cast a shadow over his remaining projects, and those films kept audiences away. During his post-Gate career, the chances of Cimino pulling a comeback would fall through the years. Yet now with Criterion’s plans of releasing Heaven’s Gate, the possibility of any redemption may rise again.
For Heaven’s Gate, its addition to the great library of Criterion Collection titles may give the epic drama and its author offers a second chance. The reputation it had built in the 32 years since its release is one of epic failure, of great ego run amok, and of how the making of a motion picture can go horribly wrong once an audience witnesses it in what should be its final form. Yet time has a way of removing some of the trash and anger over a film’s content and backstory, and a new century can enlighten even an epic set at the bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Such opportunities cannot be wasted, and for an Oscar-winning filmmaker’s chance of gaining a new appreciation for his work, Criterion may be a perfect partner to give Cimino that very hope.