Lost Horizons

Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate, 1980, 35 mm, color, 216 minutes.

THE UNCUT HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) moves like a valedictory processional into the movie past—a funereal journey that waltzes across an Eastern prologue steeped in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), then heads due West into the then-recent anti-Establishment territory of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), rumbling on through the classical heroic landscape of Shane (1953) and a hundred other rugged, slightly less Arthurian oaters. Destination: a winsome, full-bore naïveté straight out of D.W. Griffith, part lingering Victorian idyll, part horse-opera Intolerance, part Birth of a Nation in reverse—the miscarriage of America’s ideals as capitalist cattle barons trample the hopes and rights of immigrants, women, and anyone stubborn or foolhardy enough to stand in their way.

“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country,” Jeff Bridges’s character (an unfortunately recessive sidekick role) muses, but Heaven’s Gate became legendary first as an ecstatically out-of-control production that went so far over budget it bankrupted United Artists. Ordered drastically cut by the panicky studio after a disastrous premiere, it was received by unsympathetic critics as a monument to directorial hubris and folly—a sturdy, medium-scale drama ostensibly about the 1890 Johnson County War in Wyoming that had managed to balloon into a four-hour, prairie schooner Cleopatra. But as the decades have gone by and the controversies faded, Heaven’s Gate has become the beneficiary of some revisionist hindsight, a burnished testament to crazed ambition, with cinephiles regarding it as a misunderstood masterpiece restored to its rightful length and place in history.

The new Criterion Blu-Ray will certainly continue that trend: Shot for shot, vista for sky-blue vista, this may be the most pictorially beautiful film to fixate on this side of Lawrence of Arabia. (Even a bloody cow carcass dragged over a muddy enclosure leaves a painterly stain.) And like Lawrence, it has a noticeably cavalier attitude toward history, an even sketchier approach to character psychology, and a gleeful willingness to sacrifice narrative coherence for stunning set pieces. The irony is that it was the so-called traditionalist David Lean who layered on the absurdity, rampant abstraction, and Englishman-who-fell-to-earth perversity: Couched in the rousing adventure-throwback spectacle were quivering premonitions of Sergio Leone’s nihilist spaghetti westerns and David Bowie’s tortured brow. Heaven’s Gate tried instead to will its way back into the nineteenth century, creating a stereoscopic portrait of a closing frontier which superimposed an insanely meticulous verisimilitude on top of comely stock figures (a triangle of stalwart lawman, romantic killer, and the whore with a heart of gold they both love) and a tangle of movie mythologies. Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert are deployed like sharp-dressed paradigms (“You’ve got style, Jim. I’ll give you that.”) in a living diorama where they turn into frieze-frame daguerreotypes right before your eyes.

Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate, 1980, 35 mm, color, 216 minutes.

If director Michael Cimino could have shot it in 3-D, I’m positive he would have: It’s not so much that he wanted to put the viewers in the action as transport them to a moment in lost time when an American Eden was on the cusp of being forever wiped out by rapacious business interests. If Sam Waterston’s satanic head of the Stock Grower’s Association were any more villainous he’d have to go looking for orphans to tie to the railroad tracks—he’s a double-whammy figurehead who talks like an aristocratic Eastern fop and looks rather like a young, sniveling Joe Stalin. The tension in the film is between the intensely detailed, expressive, but defiantly static mise-en-scène and a familiar Old Hollywood–informed script that Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks would have shaped up into a taut, one-hundred-minute hell-for-leather ride with Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, and Jimmy Cagney. Cimino’s only true concession to the New Hollywood zeitgeist is duration and the overarching sense of doomed endeavor—here the cavalry charges in to save the hired killers from the proletarian resistance—along with vaguely more explicit politics that aren’t so different from your typical sentimental Capra little-people-vs.-the-big-bullies broadside.

The frustration many feel with Heaven’s Gate has to do with the way it seems to drag its feet over the breathtaking scenery, trying to postpone the foreordained narrative rendezvous with disaster. There isn’t the kind of steady drive toward resolution that people expect from a big picture; instead Cimino wants to extend the beautiful “moments” into little self-contained refuges from the inevitable ruthless disillusion to come. A kind of perfect innocence hangs over the scenes of Huppert frolicking naked or the square dance at the wooden roller rink or wagon train of stoic immigrants; even Richard Masur’s death scene, the harbinger of so many assassinations and tragedies to come, is staged on a high ridge of Paradise, where a gang of serpents materialize and gun the poor Irishman down.

Was there waste, folly, and delusion built into the movie? Of course. But Heaven’s Gate had its own unwavering, half-mad lyrical integrity, a sense of imaginary place that is unsurpassed in American cinema, and some fine actors doing nothing in particular with a flinty panache that is hard to beat. Think of the scenes where Huppert is suddenly transformed into a six-shooter-wielding Annie Oakley horsewoman, riding into the teeth of battle like some ten-year-old’s fantasy of Joan of Arc. Preposterous on one level, but on another there’s a cockeyed nobility that really touches the spirit of Griffith and the Gish sisters. There’s an awful lot of that floating around inside the giant unnatural history museum that is Heaven’s Gate.

Heaven’s Gate is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.