1960 – 1980, Cinema’s Silver Age. Films changed, they grew up. Topics became controversial. Subject matter previously forbidden was right up there on the big screen. Films such as: Psycho, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, MAS*H, Deliverance, Cries and Whispers, Last Tango in Paris, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Eraserhead, Raging Bull. Directors came to prominence: Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, John Schlesinger, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Brain DePalma, John Carpenter.
But like all good things, it came to an end. The 1980’s started the corporate age. If a movie wasn’t a colossal hit, (or thought to be), why bother with it? Profit became the only motive for production. What helped bring about this thinking? “Heaven’s Gate” (1980.)
In 1978, director Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” would win five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. United Artists would bet everything on his next picture.
“Heaven’s Gate” (aka “The Johnson County War”) is a true story, wherein settlers in Wyoming are targeted for slaughter by the “Cattlemen’s Association” and backed by the U.S. Government. Cimino would assemble an impressive cast including: Kris Kristopherson, Chris Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Joseph Cotton, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterson, and newcomer French actress Isabelle Huppert. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s (Oscar winner for “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”) stunning camerawork highlighted this three and a half hour epic.
What went wrong? Cimino’s self-indulgence and profligate spending. Winning an Oscar went to his head. He considered himself infallible. Like D.W. Griffith before him, he rose with “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) , then fell with “Intolerance” (1916.) The flaw is in the screenplay which Cimino also wrote. There’s not enough there to justify it.
It didn’t help that he made enemies on the left who hated “The Deer Hunter’s” depiction of the Vietcong as bloodthirsty fiends. Consequently, their knives were out when “Heaven’s Gate” premiered in December 1980. Critics savaged it. For them, it was the worst thing since AIDS. United Artists withdrew it and Cimino did his best to reduce the bloated Western to a more manageable two and a half hours. Still, they couldn’t be persuaded. Reviewers crapped all over it. United Artists withdrew it again, re-cutting it to ninety minutes and retitling it “The Johnson County War”. Third times a charm? Nope. Like the tagline read: “What one loves about life are the things that fade.” “Heaven’s Gate” faded.
At a forty-four million dollar loss, United Artists was sold off to MGM for 350 million dollars. Michael Cimino directed a few movies after, the best being “The Year of the Dragon” (1985).
Since then, “Heaven’s Gate” has gained a cult following as a “misunderstood masterpiece” and all three versions are available on the Criterion Collection.
Text © 2022 – EricReports