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DVD review: 'Heaven's Gate'

'Heaven's Gate'


There is usually a clear distinction between good movies and bad movies. It gets fuzzy when a film is a devastating financial failure, is plagued by production problems, has a tyrannical director, is severely edited by the studio (United Artists, which imploded after this film), yet has some good points. How can one ultimately reflect upon the legacy of a film like this?

'Heaven's Gate'
'Heaven's Gate'

Let's proceed with a look at 'Heaven's Gate.'

Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is a marshal in Johnson County, Wyoming. As he passes through Casper, he becomes embroiled in a crisis. Casper is home to an increasing number of immigrants, some who steal cattle to survive. This upsets the wealthy cattle barons, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson) who write up a list of 125 allegedly offending immigrants to be killed for their crimes. The most effective enforcer of this law is Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).

Since these poor souls can't fend for themselves, it's up to Jim to stand up for those without a voice. Well, along with helping the immigrants, he is also in love with Ella (Isabelle Huppert) a bordello madam.

So....yeah. Love triangle, inevitable conflict, stuff happens.

This film's reputation is well-documented as it is considered to be one of the biggest Hollywood disasters of all time. It effectively ended the career of director Michael Cimino (before this, he had made 'The Deer Hunter'), it prevented Kristofferson's star from rising, and signaled the end of westerns being a viable film genre in America. The last point has been somewhat disproven on a few occasions over the last few decades, but the genre is still a matter of quality over quantity.

For all of the fuss about the film being butchered by the studio and this being the 'definitive' edition that Cimino wanted, the film could have used a good edit. The prologue and epilogue are entirely useless. Showing a young Jim as he graduates college contributes next to nothing to the story and the five to ten minutes we see after the events of the film are equally unneeded. At least in this version, there are many extended, wordless scenes of people riding horses, dancing, working and/or marching. Only a few seconds of each are really needed to establish what is needed for the particular scene, though some of these larger sequences are technically impressive. Speaking of excess, how many extras are needed in a film?! This isn't 'Ben-Hur.' You don't need fifty people milling around in almost every scene.

The acting is fine across the board, but the script is deeply flawed when it comes to dealing with the characters. One such example is that we are not told of certain characters' long-standing relationships to each other until an hour and a half into the story. This turns into one of the film's central conflicts and explains a lot of motivation throughout the story. At least you can keep an eye out for a load of future stars in early roles.

It is also necessary to take the pacing to task as this story moves at a glacial speed. There is a lot of talk about violence against the 125 names on the list, but outside of one or two instances early on, it is mostly just talk until the end. The last third of the story attempts to play catch up in terms of telling the story and does produce some nice gunfight sequences.

Special features include: an audio interview with Cimino, interviews with Kristofferson, and a few of the technical people involved in the film, a demonstration of the restoration and a trailer.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that 'Heaven's Gate' doesn't quite live down to its reputation. If you do a lot of fast-forwarding, there are some solid elements here.

The flabby narrative and style over substance approach relegate this work to the lower tier of American westerns.

Add an extra half star to this review.

Rated R 219 minutes 1980