It’s one thing for a movie to bomb so bad it ruins a director’s career. It’s another thing for a movie to bomb so bad, it almost ruins the studio that made it. Heaven’s Gate was director Michael Cimino’s follow up to The Deer Hunter, which had won him a Best Director Oscar. It’s also seen today as one of the movies that killed the American auteur system of the 70s. People like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdonavich and Warren Beatty had all had a great run making personal films that created critical buzz and decent box office returns. Then Cimino crapped all over it with this shit bomb that went way over schedule and way over budget.
Actually, that’s harsh. Before watching it, Heaven’s Gate had a mythical status for me as that shit bomb, so I had some pretty strong preconceived notions. Preconceived notions only made stronger when I saw it came with an almost four hour running time. Seriously, four hours? If you can’t tell your story in two and half, three at the absolute most (and your movie had better be a ball tarer if you’re gonna take three hours of my life), maybe you should look at making a TV series, not one of film.
And that’s the thing, while I was watching, I checked the clock a few times, but not constantly, so the running time wasn’t a huge issue. But when I think back, I can’t recall four hours worth of story. It opens with main character James Averill, played by Kris Kristofferson, graduating from Harvard in 1870, in a sequence that could have been done in ten minutes, but goes for closer to thirty. It then jumps twenty years ahead to the midst of land disputes between American land barons and European immigrants. Kristofferson is on the side of the immigrants because he’s banging an immigrant whore… Oh, that and because he’s a top bloke with principals and stuff. About an hour in (just over a quarter, if you’re doing the maths), we meet Nate Champion, played by Christopher Walken, Kristofferson’s rival for the whore’s golden heart. It’s great to see Walken before he became “Walken”. No weird line deliveries, no creepiness, no “quirk”. Just a solid, subtle performance. That really is the broad strokes of what fills the four hours, it’s not a complicated story, though the characters are.
Watching Heaven’s Gate, it’s easy to see where all the money and time went in its making. It looks absolutely amazing. Shot on location in a Montana national park, every exterior shot has the most amazing, natural backdrop of deep valleys, snow capped peaks and wild frontier. In a modern world of movies full of slapped together CGI, this really is one of the most impressive looking movies I’ve ever seen. And more than just the natural wonders, Cimino adds an almost gold filter to the majority of the film. Some scenes are somehow monochrome, but full of deep, rich colour at the same time.
On one hand, I can understand why it wasn’t a huge success on release, but on the other, I think it is a legitimately awesome piece of film making. And the best part, the title comes from a roller skating rink seen several times throughout the story. Yep, this epic tragedy is named after rolling skating rink. I can only hope if a movie is ever made about some terrible time in my hometown’s past, they have the forethought to call it Skate Haven.