Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.
The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western movie. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner intending to shoot it at one point. Michael Cimino, still a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, and began fashioning the project into his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of artist-titan by the Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for perfection—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, ethnic struggle against WASP pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as a vivid, multilingual polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter and their generally easy place in the modern social sprawl, with an eye to comprehending just how jarring and tense the early days of such a blend must have been. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative. Some have questioned whether, as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, and perhaps this contributed to its swift and merciless interment.
Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork near-unique in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s talent for orchestrating both the grand and the intimate, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity on Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and personable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nearly nonfunctional on a story level but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Establishment’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” Oratorical dances segue into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth. Still, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, he has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who also styled himself a poet and perhaps even had hopes of dedicating himself to the art, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of moneyed power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association. They’re going to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino relays this tale via a series of lengthy, unified sequences, realised with painterly vistas and balletic camera movements. The mid-section describes the unfolding of Jim, Nate, and Ella’s romantic triangle, a quiet, almost unspoken crisis for the trio, and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), as Cimino and Leone’s heroes are both defined by a sense of nagging nostalgia in spite of stripped illusions. Just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual are both described in and woven through the fabric of the film. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, running the gamut from would-be bourgeois stalwarts to radical firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, reveals how the rudely compiled ethnicities in Johnson County have already fused into a quintessentially American populace, in their love of novelty and group optimism.
Cimino imbues this sequence with a faintly unreal, particularly dreamy quality, via peculiar scene grammar that contrives to make the crowd suddenly vanish, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. It’s also here Heaven’s Gate that most clearly contemplates the John Ford Western style. In that style, the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as an angry and effective political voice, rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over all the accused people on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for. Inevitably, perhaps, his cabin is well outside the town, situated in a bucolic meadow, distinct from all the communities he cannot join yet. There he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead as a declaration of his new intentions. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival, and so has the army bombard Nate’s cabin with a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and a shared vision for life, rather than to its individuals, no matter heroic and impressive they were. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from a place run by a spiky western European enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
Heaven’s Gate was both an apotheosis and last stand for the gritty, eccentric, deromanticised style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, often called the revisionist or “mud and blood” western. This brand was sustained by the western’s ongoing popularity, but doomed to help kill that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through bloody, anti-mythological takes on the underlying history and milieu. Kristofferson, who gives probably his best performance, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast by that director, who helped to found the movement, as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society. For Cimino, he plays a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level, a struggle that coincides in semi-symmetry with the same struggle of the community he’s chosen as his home and lot. If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressiveness of Heaven’s Gate often looks back to a more classical form of moviemaking. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts, and the diffused lighting and fuzzy-edged interior frames recall rather Robert Altman, the high sheriff of revisionism. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as place where complete abandonment of civilisation’s creeds is possible. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. This sequence portrays Jim in a traditionally heroic role, but Cimino undercuts it by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Jim is drunk and sleeping when Nate’s assassination sparks general insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own here, and in some ways emerges as the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential. Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and the insults and assaults she receives only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and surround the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover. Shop-keepers and plough jockeys turn paladins to pound their persecutors, their enemies shoot back, and the scene devolves into a wild melee filled with bullet holes, broken bones, kicking hooves, shattered wagons, and whistling bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself. Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding white dress.
The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.