Thursday, 20 March 2014
Heaven's Gate (1980)
When director Michael Cimino showed his first cut of this film to the studio bosses at United Artists, it clocked in at a mammoth 325 minutes. Unsurprisingly, they were not reassured by his promise that the final cut would be about 15 minutes shorter, and refused to release a five hour film. Camino then spent about six months cutting it to a 'mere' three and a half hours.
Even at this length - the length I watched it at - the film is glacially slow. I literally looked at the time counter at one point, saw that 43 minutes had gone by, and wondered how a movie could get that far advanced without anything actually happening. You could cut a further hour easily, and Cimino eventually did just that after the initial release leapt into the record books for the size of its box office failure. Even the 2.5 hour 'streamlined' version tanked, with Roger Ebert calling it 'the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen'. Fair criticism of a movie that assembles so much on screen talent (Kris Kristofferson at a time when he was one of film's biggest stars, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif, to name just five) and turns in such a boring, flaccid film.
The fallout from Heaven's Gate was immense: Cimino, who had been riding high after two massive successes before this, would direct only a handful of other films, all of which flopped. United Artists was bankrupted and ended up being acquired by MGM. Hollywood's existing drift away from directorial authority in favour of studio oversight was massively reinforced, and the western as a genre was pretty much dead for a decade afterward.
Because this is indeed a western. Specifically a very fictionalised account of the Johnson County War. Why you would play so fast and lose with the actual events without, you know, injecting anything remotely entertaining into the story, I do not know. Instead we're treated to a whole lot of talk about how bad things are going to happen real soon now. Then they finally do happen, and you'd think the movie would get more exciting once it moves into gunfights and battles, but not on Michael Cimino's watch it won't. Swirling clouds of dust and all but nameless characters shooting at each other might be a reasonably authentic depiction of real fighting, but it's lousy movie-making.
The film deserves the financial failure and critical savaging it received on release. I can only assume that a more recent body of critical praise is a cruel joke being played by the critics who penned it.
So does this film have anything to recommend it? Well, the cast is great, even if the material is rubbish. And the photography is gorgeous. Oh, and the film led to the contractual requirement that the American Humane Association be allowed on the set of all filmed media in the US, to ensure that animals were not harmed. So you know, if you consider 'being so egregiously cruel to animals that the film industry had to change its ways for good' a recommendation, then I guess it has three.