Heaven’s Gate: The Film That Changed Hollywood And Filmmaking Forever
The Sixties, particularly the latter part of that decade, saw morality and standards change dramatically in regards to film content and film making. After a string of costly musicals such as “Star!”, “Hello Dolly” and “Doctor Doolitle”, all of which flopped horrendously at the box office, one thing became clear. The powers that be in Hollywood were experiencing something of a disconnect with what they thought their audiences wanted to see.
Enter stage left people like Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson, Peter Fonda and Roger Corman. Very much part of the counterculture of the time, the flagship film that ushered in a completely unorthodox and new approach to film making was the 1969 film “Easy Rider”. Made for about $300,000 which in that day and age was considered low budget, it made several times that amount at the box office. This ushered in what the French called the ‘auteur’ theory, where the director was seen as the true artist and the ‘author’ of the film.
The result of this was that the floodgates opened for aspiring film makers to do things their way. Hence the beginning of New Hollywood Cinema, a rich and exciting time for movies. These films were highly character based and had something relevant to say about the world around them, particularly in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the subsequent impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
The political and world change resulted in some astounding, intelligent and thought provoking films over the next decade or so. Some of these included “The Godfather” (1972), “Harold & Maude” (1971), “Network” (1976), “Shampoo” (1975), “Badlands” (1973), “Nashville (1975), “Taxi Driver” (1976) and many, many others. These were films that didn’t treat their respective audiences like a pack of five year olds and gave them food for thought in regards to the movies they watched.
Director Michael Cimino was, along with the likes of Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and others, one of the directors to rise up during this phenomenal period of cinema. Like Icarus, he was also the one that flew too close to the sun and crashed and burned as a result. What was the reason for this spectacular fall from grace? The 1980 film he directed, “Heaven’s Gate”.
Cimino made his directing debut with 1974’s “Thunderbolt And Lightfoot”, a crime comedy/drama starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. A highly enjoyable film, Eastwood served as producer, and his strong hand is evident in the finished product. While an astounding visual stylist, Cimino has, as a director, always had a major issue in regards to knowing when enough is enough, whether it be in regards to visual style or storytelling. With Eastwood’s ‘less is more’ approach, “Thunderbolt And Lightfoot” is probably Cimino’s most consistent and well-rounded film.
His next film was to make his name around the world. 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” was one of the first films to directly address the Vietnam War, and its effect upon America. While a film of great power, it is also a highly bloated and self-indulgent one. Example: half an hour spent on a wedding sequence? A stronger director could have made the same points in five or ten minutes with the use of a good editor. There are many moments like this in “The Deer Hunter” that exceed that point where you think a scene should hit its natural conclusion. There is also a ridiculous amount of unnecessary detail, which doesn’t really add anything of worth.
Finally, the infamous Russian Roulette scenes, while having a raw power to them, drew a rather hostile response from Vietnam war veterans and protestors such as Jane Fonda for the fact that there was no documented incidents of this during the war.
Long story short, “The Deer Hunter” cleaned up at the Oscars, winning five in total, including Best Picture, Best Director for Cimino and Best Supporting Actor (a striking, unforgettable performance from Christopher Walken).
As a result, Cimino was white hot as far as Hollywood was concerned. The studio United Artists was founded in 1919 by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and was one that prided itself on making edgy, thought provoking films such as John Slesinger’s 1969 masterpiece “Midnight Cowboy” and the 1974 Bob Fosse film “Lenny” to name but two.
United Artists, wanting to get on the Michael Cimino bandwagon at any cost, pretty much gave him a blank cheque to make his dream project, “Heaven’s Gate”. This was a production that, quite frankly, was doomed from the get go. A sprawling western, a genre that was considered box office poison until Kevin Costner’s multi-award winning 1990 film “Dances With Wolves”, the first of many insurmountable hurdles that Cimino, his cast and crew were about to hit.
The stories of Cimino’s egomania, possibly fuelled by heavy cocaine use, are legendary. Sets were torn down because he felt they didn’t ‘look right’. Extras were dressed head to to in ridiculously expensive attire. Some extremely misguided and suspect casting decisions were made, such as severely talented French actress Isabelle Huppert, with her borderline impenetrable accent and less than strong grasp on the English language, playing an American bordello madam. More disturbingly, there were constant allegations of animal abuse against the horses used in the film, such as the use of tripwires to make the animals fall.
“Heaven’s Gate” is seen as a symbol of the ‘auteur’ theory gone made. Left to his own devices in Wyoming to film, the film escalated spectacularly from its original budget of $7.5 Million to a whopping $44 Million-probably in the ballpark of $300 Million in today’s figure after adjustment for inflation.
If he had created a masterpiece, all would have been forgiven. Instead, Cimino created a work that was nearly four hours long with basically no story to it. Apparently, the original cut went five and a half hours! Needless to say, the executives at United Artists were besides themselves with worry as to what they had let themselves into and contemplating what their chances were of making their money back at the box office.
Sure, there’s physical beauty to the film, beautifully shot by master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. However, it feels like something of a hollow and empty vessel. For an ‘epic’ to truly work, an audience has to be able to engage with the characters. In other words, there has to be heart as well as beauty. Director David Lean truly understood this, creating such benchmark works as “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962) and “Doctor Zhivago” (1964). In the case of “Heaven’s Gate”, Cimino was so obsessed with creating physical beauty at any cost that he completely forgot the heart.
Even at nearly four hours, it appears more like a series of unconnected and disjointed sequences strung together rather than a coherent film with a strong story. What many people forget is that Cimino had had previous form with blowing out budgets. “The Deer Hunter” ran twice its allotted budget, but everyone forgot that come Oscar time.
The fallout of all this was swift and incredibly brutal. “Heaven’s Gate” died an utterly spectacular death at the box office. United Artists, going into damage control, released a two and a half hour version of the film, but to no avail.
Cimino immediately became a pariah in the world that once celebrated his talents. He was made the whipping boy for all that was wrong with New Hollywood. This ushered in a cinema industry where the studios were in significantly more control than what they had been. Although he has made a few films since this debacle, such as 1985’s “Year Of The Dragon” and 1990’s “Desperate Hours”, Cimino’s name is still mud as far as Hollywood is concerned. His last feature film “The Sunchaser”, was made in 1996.
“Heaven’s Gate” well and truly put an end to the high profile of the ‘auteur’ theory in Hollywood at large. This film is also most infamous for bankrupting the company that made it, United Artists. They were soon bought up by MGM, forming a conglomerate, MGM/UA, of the two companies. It is perhaps this single reason alone why Cimino has been singled out in particular for the death of New Hollywood cinema.
“Heaven’s Gate” and the ramifications for filmmaking in general has proved one thing. If there’s one thing that the film world will crucify you for, it’s failure.
Now that we are some years on from when this all took place, the film has received something of a reassessment. It has been recently released on the Criterion Collection DVD label, the Rolls Royce of boutique DVD companies.
Many critics and audiences are also beginning to reappraise the film, without the cultural baggage it had upon release. While a deeply, deeply flawed film, it does have some interesting aspects to it. However, there are infinitely worse films out there and this one, unfortunately, happened to be made in the wrong time and definitely in the wrong place.
It also ushered in, along with a new American government, a period of time when films questioned the world around them less and less. The Eighties were all about ‘escapism’ and entertainment, with some ridiculously jingoistic and xenophobic American film being produced-“Top Gun’, anyone?!? The death of “Heaven’s Gate” proved to be something of a double edged sword, a blessing and a curse for where film making was to head over the subsequent decade following its crucifixion.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.