scene from ‘Heaven’s Gate’
© MGM/Park Circus

It has been a long wait: something like waiting to get into Heaven itself. We’d have to die first, we thought, we early crusaders for Michael Cimino’s notorious, studio-toppling 1980 film. But here it is, put before the world in close to perfect form. Digitally restored; returned to director’s-cut length; an authorised version ready to be called a masterwork, even by the philistines and revisionists-in-waiting who decried it three decades ago.

Heaven’s Gate was my mission as a young critic back then. The filmgoing world, either not going to see the film or abusing it if they had, paid heed to the media voices badmouthing about Cimino’s “egotism” and “extravagance”. He had made a Western epic – in my view and some other writers’ views a great one – that was beggaring United Artists and might bankrupt it.

Moguls whose job was to manage the alleged monomaniac had spent the production months complaining that the monomaniac was unmanageable. Wiser sages – a small chorus in the wilderness – counter-argued that Cimino’s only obligation, empowered by his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter (1978), was to make a great film. On his terms.

Greatness took time to arrive: it has taken, you could say, 32 years. The public in April 1981 saw a movie shredded into virtual edited highlights, the two-and-a-half-hour version scissored into shape by the studio and a browbeaten Cimino after his three-and-three-quarter-hour fresco of a warring West had been released briefly and disastrously in 1980. Not long afterwards Jeff Bridges, one of the film’s stars, described to me “the terrible sound of the applause, a few little pops of handclapping, at the New York premiere …The reviews were horrible, horrible, and personally abusive. One critic said, if they shaved Cimino’s head they’d find three sixes.”

Why such hatred? Why such hostile bafflement? Perhaps because the enigmas, nuances, paradoxes and poetic vastness of a great novel had somehow got into a multimillion-dollar Hollywood action movie, to the perplexity of studio executives, and that perplexity had communicated itself to early viewers.

Cimino’s complex, broad-brushed story of cattle barons declaring war on land-claiming immigrants in 1890s Wyoming – not so much the opening of the West, more a momentous late attempt to close it down (with rumoured presidential approval) – overlaid the questing liberties of a novel on fact and history. “What are the facts of the Johnson County war?” Cimino pondered aloud to me back then. “There are a thousand ‘facts’ and they all disagree. Truth and fact aren’t always the same thing.”

Playing fast and loose with history was a rich charge, coming from commentators who simultaneously castigated Cimino for a von Stroheim-worthy obsession with correct and costly detail. Cimino didn’t deny – why should he? – the diligence he had lavished on period accuracy, including virtually recreating the historic town centre of Casper, Wyoming.

“There is little in Heaven’s Gate that is not based on real images of the period,” he said. “That period coincided with the real explosion of still photography in America. I don’t think there’s a single structure or costume – even the shape of the logs in the log cabin – that isn’t based on original photographs.”

Even the speech by John Hurt, playing a Harvard University graduand in the prelude, was “based directly on a real valedictory speech”. And the many folk songs and folk tunes used in the film were, Cimino says, “Polish, Ukrainian and Czech melodies – in the process of becoming American”.

In ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Kris Kristofferson plays hero James Averill
In ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Kris Kristofferson plays hero James Averill © MGM/Park Circus

On this foundation of “fact” Cimino built his imaginative superstructure: the character-building, the theme-building, the dramatic speculation. The marshal hero of Heaven’s Gate (Kris Kristofferson) is another commanding but enigmatic Cimino loner, just like Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter. He is the perfect central figure: detached, engaged, tragic, hopeful – in a way timeless. Cimino once quoted to me a description of Tolstoy by Nabokov: “A man searching for a monastery he never reaches.” In Heaven’s Gate, Kristofferson is always late, or close to late, for the vital trysts, meetings, battles he brings to issue.

Puzzled by this self-questioning hero, Heaven’s Gate detractors also couldn’t make sense – their brand of sense – of the triangular relationship between Kristofferson, the young brothel madam (Isabelle Huppert) and the cattle company’s hitman, played by Christopher Walken, who later switches sides. The mesh of romances is introduced slowly, inexplicitly.

“I purposely held back information,” declared Cimino, “so that you didn’t tag it immediately as ‘oh, an eternal triangle’, so that the audience would ask questions about the characters and think about them.”

Nothing stopped the critical knives coming out, since the knives had already spent months being honed. During filming, scandal-hunters prowled the Montana locations as schedule and budget both swelled seemingly beyond control. In those days, Cimino’s perfectionism even tested the patience of some of the cast, including Hurt, in the role of Kristofferson’s Harvard pal turned outrider for the enemy. “I’d ride a horse and hang around day after day,” Hurt drawled to me despairingly at a later interview. “In 10 weeks I completed half a day’s work. The production was run like an army, a bad army.”

Hurt also had sporadic doubts about the script itself. “I had conversations with Cimino. My main argument was that the story didn’t have an emotional centre. Whom do we care for among the characters? But I thought: ‘Well, this man directed The Deer Hunter …’”

Centreless? Or multicentred? Does War and Peace have a centre? This is an epic and a Western. Perhaps the centre is America: a nation here lacerating itself, dividing itself, beginning tragically to pave with bad intentions its road to a putative Heaven.

Director Michael Cimino on set of 'Heaven's Gate' with Jeff Bridges and Isabelle Huppert
Director Michael Cimino on set with Jeff Bridges and Isabelle Huppert © MGM/Park Circus

Isabelle Huppert, who plays Ella, the main female character, still cheerleads for Heaven’s Gate: “I love the film. I love it still. It’s so poetic.”

Why did so much of the world hate it then?

“I think it is deeply and violently against a certain belief Americans have in themselves for their own country. It’s so ‘anti-American’ …And also the form of the movie is so unclassical. Cimino talked very well about it. He said it’s like a dream. The narrative is unconventional, but it’s as if it comes out of the main character’s imagination. It’s not like a Hollywood film at all.”

It isn’t. Someone called Heaven’s Gate a $40m art movie. That’s what makes it extraordinary. For what kind of audience was Cimino ordering 50 takes of the same shot, or spending (one witness said) an entire day setting up camera positions for one scene? It wasn’t for Mr and Mrs Multiplex.

“In America I get the feeling it’s OK to spend $40m for the concept of entertainment,” Cimino told me. “But if you spend such an amount for a personal film, one that forces you to think, then people get suspicious.”

Suspicion turned to conviction, then to savagery. The cinematographer on Heaven’s Gate, Vilmos Zsigmond, came to Cimino’s off-the-leash artistry and working methods after the manageable auteurship of Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). He thought the studio should have let Cimino remain off the leash, especially during the editing stage.

“The shortened version that was released was a total failure and deserved to be,” he asserted.

Christopher Walken in 'Heaven's Gate'
Christopher Walken © MGM/Park Circus

Zsigmond was the crafting genius, with Cimino, behind the film’s “poetic” look. “Why did the shooting take so long? Because Cimino was a master painter,” Zsigmond says. “He was in the mood to make a gorgeous movie. He built these huge sets that he wanted to have the texture and patina of time. And he wanted every character to look as if he belonged in them. He would spend hours and hours just picking faces …”

And, Hollywood might riposte, the film industry spent months and months picking up the bill. Here, though, is surely the answer. Heaven’s Gate is back. It won’t be going away again in the same kind of hurry. Ars longa, vita brevis. Entertainment is for Christmas; great cinema is for all seasons. Cimino was a villain then, and is now – or surely will be in time – a hero. Of the heroism of his endeavour there is no doubt.

Cimino described it as “trying hard and risking everything, with the possibility of failure. In Heaven’s Gate we laid it all on the line, all of us, as much of ourselves as we could …”


The restored director’s cut is in UK cinemas now

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