More noise than signal

Heaven’s Gate

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The very title itself provokes a wealth of associations in the mind, almost entirely about the pre and post production fallout rather than the film itself. We will get to that, but let’s look at what was put on the screen itself before getting into the weeds on this.

1870 sees Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill and John Hurt’s Bill Irvine graduating from Harvard in lavish scenes whose length and expense are in no way commensurate with their importance to the rest of the plot. We abruptly jump twenty odd years forward to find Averill as a Marshall in Wyoming, with Irvine part of a coalition of cattle owners headed by Sam Waterston’s Frank Canton that are setting up a posse to execute over a hundred immigrant farmers who they accuse of cattle rustling (“thieves and anarchists”), against Irvine’s protestations.

Returning to the remote communities threatened, he tries to convince bordello owner and love interest Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) to leave before the hammer drops, but she’s not into it. This also rather annoys Averill’s friend and local enforcer for the cattle owners, Christopher Walken’s Nathan D. Champion, who has his own designs on Watson, creating a love triangle that doesn’t create any particular drama and ultimately inconsequential to the film.

Anyway, when the death squad does get into town, Averill winds up reluctantly leading the ragged forces of the immigrants in a desperate effort against the slickly suited capitalist mercenaries, in a much more blatant and somewhat insultingly obvious requiem for the American Dream.

Now, I’ve abbreviated a little of this narrative for the sake of all our sanity, but not much, which is worrying for a three and a half hour film that had a first cut of five and a half hours. There seems to be entire reels of material here that, while absolutely beautiful, do not serve any purpose, either narratively or character-wise.

This gives us some outright weird character moments, and I’m thinking here in particular about Walken’s last stand, where he’s doing his Butch Cassidy tribute act. Just before heading out of the burning shack he’s in to get properly Bolivian Army’d, he takes a moment to write a brief note to the effect of “Dear Ella, I am in a burning shack and about to be shot to bits. Whoopsie Daisy. Love, Nathan”. He then exits the shack to meet a sustained volley of gunfire that’s self-parodic in nature. He’s getting shot for almost as long as that poor Omnicorp schlub in the botched ED209 demo in Robocop.

As a film looking to demystify and unromance the Wild West, it makes no bones about how rough a life it was, being a non-stop parade of fights, murder, death, abuse and intolerance, and there’s a nice contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of the battles. However, the closest Heaven’s Gate come to the literal truth of the Wild West is that there is some documentary evidence of the country called “America” existing in this timeframe, and on the balance of probability there was a place called “Wyoming”. Everything else is a complete work of fiction. Fiction, perhaps, in service of a greater truth, but on its own terms, a whopping fib.

This was universally critically reviled on its release, although there’s been a few pushes now and then to re-appraise this, the BBC even going so far as to put it on a list of the 100 best American films. The truth, or my truth at least, lies between the extremes, but probably closer to the naysayers than the revisionists. The odd thing is the further I get from watching it, the lower my opinion of it gets – just after watching I remember thinking that the incredible cinematography can forgive it the bulk of its narrative sins, but the scenery is fading while the story is decomposing abnormally swiftly.

There’s an entire podcast to be had in the fallout from this film, most obviously the commercial failure of film. Running massively over schedule and budget, due in no small to Cimino’s exacting standards having things like a street set moved six feet apart – by dismantling both sides and moving them three feet rather than just moving one side six feet, because Cimino is certifiable. Possibly related rumours abound of a good chunk of that $40 million odd budget being “craft services” of the inhalable kind. The snowballing budget combined with a critical reception that’s not so much frosty as it is approaching zero degrees Kelvin meant that this wasn’t ever going to make its money back, particularly after being pulled after a couple of weeks.

Its failure is commonly held as the reason United Artists failed, although the reality is a little more complex. At the time UA was owed by the Transamerica conglomerate and $40 million was barely a blip on their overall radar, but the huge amount of negative publicity was enough to encourage Transamerica to sell it on, which actually saved the brand name, as before this Transamerica had plans to effectively change the studio name to Transamerica Films or something similar. Selling the brand to MGM actually preserved the name, so if you’re feeling particularly perverse you could argue that Heaven’s Gate‘s failure saved the studio, rather than dooming it.

It’s also seen as the beginning of the end of the American New Wave, or New Hollywood, as combined with a couple of other flops the studios started to wind these maverick directors back in and put them on a leash, but I think one that still afforded a bit more play than before. Realistically, the studios were unlikely to allow directors sole oversight on spending so much of their money for so long, so this may have accelerated this though process on the studio’s part but I’m pretty sure it didn’t originate it.

It’s also blamed for putting a bit of a brake on production of Westerns, but that’s more of a timing issue, as far as I can see. Look at the lists of Westerns released around this time and you’ll see a good number of “comedy” Westerns and a few terrible traditional westerns, and a few very early revisionist Westerns, like as this film, none of which did much business. The genre was over-fished, and needed some time off to replenish its stocks. I wonder how this would have played if released a decade or so later, where you’d start to see a renewed appetite for at least the occasional revisionist Western.

Heaven’s Gate appears to also be the reason you see the “no animals harmed as part of this production”, as this film seems to have gone out of its way to harm animals, including what appears to be a legit cockfight on film, and reports of arguably worse happening behind the scenes, like draining blood from a live horse to bloody up some extras. Even as someone not exactly onboard the PETA train, this is reprehensible, unethical behaviour.

So then, it’s one of the most interesting films to talk about we’ve covered, although almost none of that is because of what’s shown up on screen. Still, for a film buff of the type who listens to, say, podcasts about films, it’s certainly worth watching, even if it’s not recommendable in the traditional sense.