As a portrayal of violent rejection of immigrants, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) is way too relevant now

Hold Fast Your Crown drove me to watch the nearly 26-minute Criterion Collection “Haven’s Gate.” I remain convinced that it is a bad movie. I can see why some think it is “great cinema. I don’t, though I think that Vilmos Zsigimond provided great (if very smoky!) cinematography. I’ll still take Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” with more great Zsigmond cinematography eight days a week. or that matter, I prefer “Hell on Wheels” to “Heaven’s Gate.”


Kris Kristofferson played a Harvard-graduate federal marshal, who was a very natty dresser: he’s frequently seen buttoning up the vest to three-piece suits and trimming below his beard (with a straight razor, while Isabelle Huppert is hanging on his back). Not a lot of affect. Indeed, Christopher Walken and Sam Waterston are also low on affect. I can’t think of any other time I’ve seen Waterston play a villain, btw. I don’t know why the casting of Huppert was criticized in the general condemnation of the release when it arrived with a critical and commercial thud in 1980. I thought she was just fine, though I saw no joy in her relationships with Walken and, with Kristofferson, only when he gave her a buggy. Nor did I understand why John Hurt was out doing battle on the side of the cattlemen’s association. (Jeff Bridges was even more wasted by Cimino.)


Many scenes, especially in the multiple set pieces, run on and on. It’s impossible to figure out what is going on in the climactic battle, with the tactics on both side opaque (and not just from the obstacles of movie’s ubiquitous dust and smoke). In a Criterion monolog running half an hour 2012 Cimino says that watching “Heaven’s Gate” the viewer does not realize how long the battle runs onscreen. This viewer certainly did. And, whereas many bonus features increase my regard for the film, this one, which is not without interest, does not. Cimino provides not the slightest acknowledgment of the sever criticism leveled against “Heaven’s Gate” or any indication that anyone found the prolog (running 20 minutes at an 1870 Harvard graduation) or epilog (a briefer 1903 picture of Krstofferson returned east, on a huge yacht that looks armored) unnecessary (or the prolog way too long).

The mostly Montana backdrops (including a town built within Glacier National Park) are spectacular. Surprisingly, Roger Ebert wrote: “This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.” Soft focus, yes, but are the colors completely washed out? Not the mountains and lakes!

There is a lot of graphic violence and extended full-frontal nudity of the young and beautiful Isabelle Huppert.

The bonus features reveal that it took 65 takes to get the scene in which Kristofferson i awakened an cracks a bullwhip (that was behind his head), one of many scenes in which there was real danger for the actors.

A movie about hatred and attempted extirpation of immigrants is certainly timely. The unwelcome in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 were mostly Slavic, but also German (like, say, Drumpfes?).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


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