The reception of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate provides a classic instance of the press making a mountain out of an admittedly very large molehill. It is neither an especially terrible nor good movie. Removed from the bad publicity surrounding its production and release, it doesn’t qualify as much more than an interesting failure. A lot of ink was certainly spilled over it, however.
The controversy centered on Cimino’s profligacy and the resulting collapse of United Artists as an independent studio.* The film’s disastrous reception is also sometimes cited as tolling the death knell of auteurism in American cinema. The investment studios were willing to make in personal projects by acclaimed directors in the 1970s came to a screeching halt because the cost of projects like Gate spiralled out of control. The businessmen, with their profound understanding of audience desires, stepped in to save the studios from irresponsible artists, selflessly freeing viewers from the shackles of art to enjoy themselves mindlessly.
There was certainly plenty of arrogance to go around, but blaming Hollywood’s failures on irresponsible artists is more than a touch disingenuous. Yes, Heaven’s Gate preposterously blows up a minor incident in the Old West into a rehearsal for universal class warfare. Sure, Cimino’s excesses (such as using a locomotive that couldn’t fit through a tunnel, thereby requiring it be air-lifted to the location by helicopter) demonstrated an egotism bordering on the pathological. But who signed the checks? Who gave the project the green light? It couldn’t possibly be studio executives overly impressed with Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, could it? (Current Hollywood budgets are even more out of control, while artists have been reduced to functionaries. Where’s all that money going now?)
There are some wonderful moments in Heaven’s Gate. My personal favorite occurs fairly early, when the inhabitants of Johnson County, Wyoming share some good times in a roller skating rink. The scale of the scene is huge, really too big for the story, but the sheer size of the presentation is part of the shared high spirits. Only the movies can provide moments like it, but unfortunately, the context is so pretentious and remote that the scene feels like a happy accident. The film is beautifully made at a purely technical level, but the rapturous, often violent imagery lacks any real sense of justification.
Which is hardly surprising, because it is difficult to justify piling a gargantuan budget on a rickety foundation, no matter how bravura the treatment. Like another overwrought, politically ambitious failure, Bertolucci’s 1900, aspiration exceeds achievement (and intelligence) in Heaven’s Gate. There just isn’t enough to the movie other than Cimino’s conceit for it to be famous for anything more than sinking United Artists. At best you can say that with it, artistic arrogance combined with business incompetence to produce an occasionally moving, but deeply flawed film.
*For a detailed, though certainly partisan view of these events, see Final Cut: Dreams and Diaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach.