Sunday, 27 April 2014

The big sky… Heaven's Gate (1980)

Some people still get cross about this movie as if it’s a personal affront but, come on, did Michael Cimino really let you down? He pursued his dream at ruinous cost to himself and United Artists much in the way of an over-ambitious modern soccer club – even allowing for inflation, his $44 million budget would barely cover the annual salaries for PSG, Chelsea or Manchester City.

What he produced was a commercial failure but one that has had a growing amount of critical respect. Watching the restored director’s cut – supervised by Cimino – it felt like watching a really good HBO mini-series but with extra sky and impossibly huge mountains. Whatever else its failings, Heaven’s Gate is an extraordinary good looking film. 

Having not seen it for almost twenty years, this “new” version makes more sense in narrative as well as stylistic terms. Its pacing and granularity is now explicable as part of the greater whole and Cimino’s eye for detail creates an immersive experience unlike few others before or since.

I feel a tenuous personal connection to Heaven’s Gate as it was partly filmed in Oxford when I was an impressionable student, I knew some of the extras and I remember seeing the cameras and crew at Mansfield College, one of the newer colleges. Oxford’s a puzzling choice to double for Harvard with some of the buildings pre-dating Columbus by a full two decades... but that’s showbiz.

Kris in line at the Sheldonian Theatre and dancing around Mansfield College
This section and the one that closes the film, act as bookends depicting the main character’s class and position. James Averill (Kris Kristofferson who was a Rhodes Scholar at my college, Merton, many years before me…), is an educated man of East-cost culture who somehow gets embroiled in the base conflicts of the West.  The director’s time in establishing this is worth it for the contrast it shows once James and his friend, class wit, William "Billy" Irvine (John Hurt), get involved in the shooting.

The film is based on the Johnson County War of the 1890s although Cimino is going for representational and not historical accuracy, introducing new themes as he presents the conflict of rich cattle owners versus immigrants. The immigrants gather to enjoy life at a tented hall called Heaven’s Gate run by John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges). Here they roller skate dance and enjoy the little freedom they have from struggle: a slither of Heaven.

Christopher Walken
One of James’ friends, Nathan D. "Nate" Champion (Christopher Walken) is an enforcer for the Stock Growers Association and we see him shoot dead one desperate cattle rustler, leaving his distraught wife as he heads off into the prairie framed by the rip in their sheet left by his shot gun blast.

This man was caught red-handed – literally – as he butchered a stolen cow but the stockmen are about to elevate justice to a whole new level of brutality. They meet and are persuaded by leader Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) to support the despatch of 125 hired guns to execute a list of 125 locals labelled as rustlers. All a far cry from university legal studies and, shockingly, based on an actual death list of 25 small-holders.

Billy witnesses the decision in a drunken stupor barely able to stand, he meets James who responds by laying out Canton… but can he stop the slaughter?

He didn't even bother to wrap it!
James heads back to base presenting a gift of a smart new trap to his lover Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the local bordello. The casting of the very French Huppert was apparently one of the first signs of trouble on the film as the producers didn’t feel she could cope with the English dialogue. Cimino put his foot down and carried on doing so as the production ran many times over budget. A sit turned out and as one of the producers now admits, Isabelle was superb – when is she ever not?

Ella also loves Nate but, in a neat testament to the ground rules of the time, always made him pay as a customer. We’re confused to see what we thought was a cold-blooded mercenary so awkward with his feelings.

Isabelle Huppert
James obtains the unlucky list and at Heaven’s Gate reads it out the terrified immigrants. Ella’s on it for the crime of accepting stolen cattle in exchange for favours but, in spite of James’ prompting she refuses to leave.

As tension runs high violence descends as the men ride in and Johnson County descends in stylised late-seventies havoc. Can James really stand aside to let his Eastern friend enforce the rule of law in such a callous and unjust way or will he make a stand with the immigrants? Can he forgive Ella for also loving Nate and the latter for loving the former… will this love triangle doom them all?

The climactic battle
For a film with such perfectionist tendencies you could say that the human motivations seem less than well-defined but then with actors possessing the skill of Hurt, Huppert, Bridges and Walken this can be a positive strength. Life is messy and human behaviour often bafflingly obtuse: they revel in the space Cimino allows.

Kristofferson doesn’t have their range but he more than makes up for this in presence: his face is a mask of masculine resolution deliberately obscuring his thoughts even when he’s angry.

Roller skating was genuinely a craze in the 1890's
It all feels very real and the earnestness you occasionally sense would nowadays be smothered by the hyper-violence enabled by CGI and other digital processing.

And then there’s that big, blue sky and those huge mountains, the dust filled rooms and the huge sets showing mankind in mass transit one their way to who knows where, who knows when. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is exceptional throughout and the film feels whole again.

Huppert and Kristofferson outside a cabin now in Jeff Bridges garden - fact fans!
I watched the 219 minute restored cut which is readily available from MovieMail and other online retailers.  It’s on MGM who obtained the rights from the wreckage of UA… don’t blame Michael Cimino it takes more than one auteur to break the bank and many weak executives to let them: where was the risk management?

The business may have died but the creative lives on.

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