Friday, April 12, 2013

Heaven Should Wait: "Heaven's Gate" (1980)

Over thirty years after its release, "Heaven's Gate" has become synonymous with the term "big budget disaster." Up until recently, when an expensive film bombed, this film was used as the watermark example of Hollywood spending gone mad ("Waterworld," "Cutthroat Island"). Watching it now, with the hoopla and criticism in the past, I can honestly say that while it was a financial disaster, its flaws were not just monetary.

Writer/director Michael Cimino, riding high on the success of the awesome "The Deer Hunter," decided to dramatize the 1870 Johnson County War, where mostly immigrant homesteaders settling in Wyoming were subject to harassment and eventually state-sponsored murder at the hands of the rich conglomerate cattle stockmen's association. It was farmers vs. cattlemen, poor vs. rich, immigrants vs. citizens, them vs. us. Caught in the middle of the conflict is a love triangle- sheriff James Averill (the always good Kris Kristofferson) and mercenary Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) are both in love with cathouse madam Ella (Isabelle Huppert).

I watched the original 220 minute premiere version, which was later edited by almost an hour and released as the studio tried to recoup their losses. For such a long film, the plot is simple and straightforward, but populated by a giant cast of unnecessary characters. Averill's college best friend, Billy (John Hurt), is introduced in the now infamous opening scenes set at Harvard (filmed at Oxford), and is then relegated to the background, as if the film makers didn't have the heart to tell Hurt he was no longer needed. The same can be said for some of the talented names (is that Brad Dourif?) in small roles. The cast is stunning, though. In addition to Kristofferson, Walken, Huppert (who spends more screen time naked than clothed), Hurt, and Dourif, you can see Jeff Bridges in what must have been a cameo awkwardly expanded to a supporting part, Joseph Cotten, Sam Waterston, Terry O'Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Masur, T-Bone Burnett, and Willem Dafoe.

The set decoration/art direction (the film's only Oscar nomination, losing to "Raiders of the Lost Ark") is spectacular. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is pure visual art. Many scenes look painted and beautiful, smoky and orange/brown. There is a lot of money on the screen.

Cimino's script needed to be taken in. The story has no focus. Averill is our obvious hero, but his motivations are as cloudy as Zsigmond's train shots. Waterston's Canton is an over-the-top evil villain, complete with a weaselly mustache. The cast of immigrants blend into one giant Yakov Smirnoff look-alike contest. The battle scenes, while appropriately chaotic, are difficult to discern. At one point, I was certain Bridges' character had been shot and killed, only to have him show up alive and well.

The direction is sometimes impressive, the first onscreen murder is an explosion of style and violence. However, for every scene like that, we get pablum like the bizarre and weak running joke about Averill's boots. Many scenes go on forever, like the Harvard scene and the skating rink speeches. The overuse of "The Blue Danube Waltz" only reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The class warfare exhibited here is appropriate in today's political climate, but the irony of this film almost bankrupting a studio and becoming the epitome of financial excess while championing "the little guy" is classic.

Careers were ruined, Cimino never seemed to recover; I found his later "The Sicilian" and "Desperate Hours" unwatchable, worse than "Heaven's Gate." Time supposedly heals all wounds, so you can view this film today for what it is- a bloated, pretty mess. (* *) out of five stars.