Worth seeing for curiosity value - but it's a turkey
- Heaven's Gate review by RP
After directing the highly successful and admired Vietnam war film 'The Deer Hunter' Michael Cimino went on to direct what was at the time the most expensive film ever made, the epic western 'Heaven's Gate'. When it was first shown it was critically panned, then re-edited down to a shorter version, but when released it was a major box office failure. It is credited with causing the bankruptcy of the film company United Artists and is cited as not only one of the most expensive but also one of the worst films ever made.
The major characters are played by well known actors including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt - so surely it can't be all bad, can it?
Intrigued, I sought out a copy to see for myself - and hit the first hurdle. It's quite hard to track down a complete copy: the most complete version has a running time of 219 minutes and I eventually bought a copy from the Amazon Germany site that has a running time of 210 minutes, the PAL DVD equivalent of the film length.
The story is based on the so-called Johnson County War, a range war that took place in Wyoming in 1892 between settlers and larger established ranchers and culminated in a shootout between the small ranchers, gunmen hired by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), and a sheriff's posse, eventually requiring the intervention of the Cavalry on the orders of US President.
It's a drama, so don't expect historical accuracy. The small settlers are portrayed as immigrants, almost entirely from eastern Europe and there is much speaking of Serbo-Croat etc - but this dialogue isn't subtitled, so a thumbs down for that. The film opens at a Harvard graduation celebration which introduces the principal character Jim Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson) and also Billy Irvine (played by John Hurt, who looks very elderly for a new graduate!). The street scenes were filmed in Oxford, and there are plenty of recognisable locations.
The film then moves out West, where Irvine is somehow involved with the WSGA who are recruiting gunmen to hunt down and kill 125 named settlers. Averill is romantically involved with Ella Watson (played by Isabelle Huppert) who runs a brothel. Nate Champion (played by Christopher Walken) is a gunman who works for the WSGA, but is also a friend of Averill and a rival for the affections of Ella Watson. It also turns out that Ella's name is on the list to be eliminated. Confused? You will be...
After assorted long drawn out scenes, the film climaxes in a lengthy and bloody battle sequence as Averill leads the settlers using almost medieval-style siege machines into battle against the hired gunmen. Just about everyone dies - and that's it, apart from an ambiguous ending on rich-man Averill's yacht which shows him with his Harvard sweetheart.
So that's the story - but what's the film really like? Is it a turkey? Is it a stinker? Well, it's certainly over-long and somewhat disjointed, but the bustling western townscape scenes are well realised and it is very prettily photographed. But I never felt any empathy for the characters who all seemed unrealistic, and the battle climax also seemed unrealistic, sort of like an old-fashioned Western where encircled wagons are surrounded by wheeling Red Indians - only here it's the baddies being encircled by the immigrant settler goodies. And the characterisation of a goody goody Jim Averill falling for a goody goody local whore is all very silly stuff. Kris Kristopherson may be a good songwriter, and perhaps even a good country singer, but he is certainly a wooden actor.
Whatever the director's intentions, this lengthy film is over complex, the characters and the story confusing, the acting stilted. So yes, it's a turkey, I can't recommend it - but I have seen worse. It's worth seeing for curiosity value - or am I missing something? Unfortunately life is too short to watch a 3½ hour film again to find out. 2/5 stars.
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