Thursday, July 23, 2009

Heaven's Gate: A Look Beyond the Reputation

Recently I reviewed Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession on these pages. In that documentary F.X. Feeney, the film critic for the defunct Z Channel Magazine and close friend of Jerry Harvey, programmer of the Z Channel, remarks that in the future critics will be bewildered at the fuss and negativity that surrounded the release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The Z Channel had given Heaven's Gate a second premiere, so to speak, showing the director's cut on its airwaves in 1982. Apparently, the second time around it even got good reviews. Because of all of this I was curious to see Heaven's Gate, a film up until now I had never seen. What's more, I wanted to like Heaven's Gate. I did. Hell, I wanted to love it. I wanted to thumb my nose in the face of all those who unfairly lambasted it all those years ago. But I couldn't. It's simply not the great movie I was hoping to see.

However - and let me stress that this is an enormous "however" - it is nowhere even remotely close to as bad as critics said it was, particularly Roger Ebert who perhaps gave it its most famous bad review. In fact, it is so far from being that bad that I can agree with Feeney on one point: While I don't see a re-evaluation of Heaven's Gate in the future that establishes it as a great film I do believe it will cause bewilderment among those seeing with the expectations of it being a cinematic disaster. As such, reviewing it is a complicated endeavor.

Heaven's Gate tells the story of the Johnson County Wars in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1892 between wealthy land-owners and smaller immigrant land-owners accused by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association that represented the wealthy land-owners of thievery and cattle rustling. The lead characters in the film bear the names of the actual figures involved in the wars but gives them quite different outcomes. Jim Averell, played by Kris Kristofferson, is a sheriff in the film while in reality he was a shop owner. Ella Watson, played by Isabelle Huppert, is a Madam of a brothel in the film, a cattle owner and homesteader in reality. In reality both were lynched in before the wars even started. Other characters such as Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) more closely mirror their real life counterparts. In 1892 the Association brought in a small army of hired killers to wipe out the immigrant settlers and the war between them and the sheriff's posse set to fight against them finally ended when the U.S. Army intervened. The build up to this war makes up the first two hours of the film with the last hour and a half devoted to the war itself. It's a slow buildup with a somewhat chaotic payoff.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Heaven's Gate is not the great movie some claim. Many of the criticisms I have read of it are indeed valid. That which is most valid is probably that there is far too much padding for what in the end is a slightly told story. I have heard that the edited shorter version is particularly bad but quite honestly I can only assume it is better for conveying the story in tighter terms although I would concede that doing so would rob the film of much of its visual beauty and to do so to simply make the story clearer seems foolish. Nonetheless, there is nary a scene in the film that doesn't run at least two or three minutes past its expiration date. Some simple editing of scene length, not the excising of entire scenes, just the editing down of the scenes themselves, would easily cut an hour off of the film and tighten up the narrative tremendously. I believe what happened however was that whole scenes were excised and I can see how this would prove to be a fatal error.  And again, the visual beauty of the scenes themselves calls into question the whole idea of editing something down simply for story purposes.

All other criticisms beyond that are uninformed. I say that not because there aren't other things wrong with the film, but because the reviews I have read do not cover anything else. After critiquing the padding they simply plunge headlong into snark. Roger Ebert, a longtime favorite critic, is the most read of all the critics I could find and, as such, I would like to elaborate on this by going through his review of the movie. I do this because the film's reputation weighs so heavily upon it that I feel the best way I can review it is to separate the fiction from the reality when it comes to its critical reaction.

Here is how Ebert begins:

I know, I know: He's trying to demystify the West, and all those other things hotshot directors try to do when they don't really want to make a Western. But this movie is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.

Okay, first off, I see this as an historical picture, one that, as stated earlier, is telling the story of the Johnson County Wars. I don't see this as a Western per se, just because it is set in Wyoming in the 1890's. His "hotshot director" remark is unnecessarily contemptuous. Then there is the criticism about the dust and smoke. I had heard this from other critics. Are there dust filled scenes? Yes. They occur when hundreds of men, women, horses and wagons are moving about the land. One would expect such things to create dust. However, Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer, keeps drawing in the focus on those characters unobscured by dust and using the dust to create an other worldly feel throughout. I found Zsigmond's work to be excellent and understand why he felt heartbroken at the criticisms, as he states in the Z Channel documentary. I found the movie to be quite beautiful to look at despite Ebert's remark and even if the dusty scenes did bother me, and they didn't, they comprise a small percentage of the film's running time so why make it sound as if the entire film suffers from this problem?

Ebert continues:

But Cimino's in deeper trouble still. Heaven's Gate has, of course, become a notorious picture, a boondoggle that cost something like $36 million and was yanked out of its New York opening run after the critics ran gagging from the theater.

Really? Ran gagging? And so what if they did? Is Ebert using the reactions of other critics to bolster an argument he has yet to even make? Then Ebert goes back to the cinematography:

... it is so incompetently photographed and edited that there are times when we are not even sure which character we are looking at. Christopher Walken is in several of the initial Western scenes before he finally gets a close-up and we see who he is.

That is simply untrue. Either Ebert is outright lying, something I doubt, or he has missed some early shots. I never at any point was unsure of who I was looking at. From the first moment I saw Walken I recognized him. Here in fact is his very first scene:

Does anyone have difficulty seeing him? He's center frame, medium shot. It's as clear as day. True, the cloth is flapping in the scene but a couple of times, like the one shown here, Walken's face is seen.

Ebert again:

John Hurt wanders through various scenes to no avail. Kris Kristofferson is the star of the movie, and is never allowed to generate enough character for us to miss him, should he disappear.The opening scenes are set at Harvard (well, they were actually shot in England, but never mind).

John Hurt's character is a commentator on the action, a chorus so to speak. And he is a pointed type: The overly intellectual and thoroughly ineffectual elitist. His actions and comments to "no avail" are the point. The real war must be fought and won by men of action, not men of sarcasm. The fact that Ebert so clearly misses this is somewhat embarrassing. As for the Kristofferson line I'm not sure what he is driving at. He is given as much character as is needed and I liked his character very much. Yes, I would have missed him had he disappeared. Finally, as to the parenthetical aside about the Harvard scenes being shot in England I can only ask, "What the hell?" So what? Why did he even write that? Would he write of his favorite film Casablanca, "The opening scenes on the streets of Casablanca (well, they were actually shot on a soundstage, but never mind)"? No, I didn't think so.

Ebert again:

In a movie where nothing is handled well, the immigrants are handled very badly. Cimino sees them as a mob. They march onscreen, babble excitedly in foreign tongues, and rush off wildly in all directions. By the movie's end, we can identify only one of them for sure. She is the Widow Kovach, whose husband was shot dead near the beginning of the film. That makes her the emblem of the immigrants' suffering. Every time she steps forward out of the mob,somebody respectfully murmurs "Widow Kovach!" in the subtitles.

Sorry, but again, this is untrue. It simply doesn't happen that way. The immigrants, there being hundreds of them, are indeed shown in group gatherings. However, several are also presented as individual characters, at least six that I recall. Any more and the film would have had a dozen or so lead and supporting characters which for any movie, becomes confusing. So, the immigrants are shown in group "town hall" type gatherings, yes, but each time individual characters emerge from the group to personalize them. As for the Widow Kovach I watched for what Ebert was saying having read his review before seeing the film. Yes, I watched for it. It wasn't there. Of all the immigrants the ones the viewer clearly remembers are those portrayed by Brad Dourif and Jeff Bridges, not the Widow Kovach. Why Ebert latched onto her I don't know. I wish I did. His review is downright baffling at times.

While the foreigners are hanging onto Widow Kovach's every insight...

They aren't. Again, why the straw-man?

...the cattlemen are holding meetings in private clubs and offering to pay their mercenaries $5 a day plus expenses and $50 for every other foreigner shot or hung. I am sure of those terms because they are repeated endlessly throughout a movie that cares to make almost nothing else clear.

I counted. The terms are mentioned three times. Yes, three times. Twice by Frank Canton, once to the Association and once to the hired killers (makes perfect sense both times) and once by Averell when warning a saloon owner (Jeff Bridges) about how far the Association will go. And then Ebert says almost nothing else is made clear. At no point did I have any problem whatsoever following this movie. None.

The ridiculous scenes are endless. Samples: Walken, surrounded by gunmen and trapped in a burning cabin, scribbles a farewell note in which he observes that he is trapped in the burning cabin, and then he signs his full name so that there will be no doubt who the note was from.

Walken's character, Nate Champion writes the note and places it in his pocket and then runs out of the cabin knowing he will be killed. The note, however, he knows will be found by Ella as long as he can get clear of the burning cabin. This is embarrassingly obvious. And here's a bit of history, about the real Nate Champion, directly quoted from Wikipedia: "Champion was besieged inside the log cabin... During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin... The last journal entry read: 'Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.'" So not only is it obvious what he is doing in the film, but the film is in fact recreating the actual events themselves which would mean Ebert is saying reality is ridiculous. I think it is more than safe to say at this point that his interpretation of this scene is ridiculous.

Kristofferson, discovering Huppert being gang-raped by several men, leaps in with six-guns in both hands and shoots all the men, including those aboard Huppert, without injuring her.
It's three men. All three are in a position of almost eye-level height with Kristofferson after he jumps in through the window. They get up, Huppert stays down. He shoots two and the third gets away. Nothing - NOTHING - ridiculous about that scene whatsoever. Nothing.

In a big battle scene, men make armored wagons out of logs and push them forward into the line of fire, even though anyone could ride around behind and shoot them.

He must actually be kidding now. Perhaps the review is a parody of a bad review. The armored wagons are being pushed towards the encircled hired killers. Should a hired killer attempt to leave their fortified position and attempt to ride around them he would be shot before leaving the line. Was Ebert even watching the movie? He ends his review thusly:

There is more. There is much more. It all adds up to a great deal less. This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon.

A story about the Johnson County Wars, told a little too slowly, with a little too much padding, excellent cinematography and fine performances all around, is the "most scandalous cinematic waste" Ebert has ever seen. Uh... okay. For a major critic, he hasn't seen much. And then the final swipe against Paint Your Wagon, a film I don't very much like but would hardly consider holding it up as the high water mark for cinematic waste. Why is that even in there? I believe after the initial pan by Vincent Canby that critics walked into it expecting the worst and looked for it. I believe even Roger Ebert is capable of falling into this trap and I believe he did. It was inevitable he would find fault with this film even if he had to make it up because he was looking too hard for it not to. I don't necessarily believe his lies about the action in the film were intentional but most likely the result of a bit of self-delusion built on the expectation that he was going to be seeing the worst film ever made. When he didn't he had to convince himself that terms of hire were repeated endlessly, that Champion writing the note and leaving the cabin was somehow absurd, that the immigrants were a faceless mob with only Widow Kovach as their spokesperson. He had to. The real evidence he needed, desperately wanted, wasn't there.

In the end, I can't whole-heartedly recommend Heaven's Gate but feel the need to defend it against the mean-spirited venom directed at it by critics then and now. As I said, I don't think it's the great movie some want it to be but it is far from awful. It's an ambitious film with many good points and beautifully shot. It's good, sometimes very good but rarely excellent. It is a worthwhile venture that is, in the end, weighed down by its own ambition. A little tighter, a little faster and it would have succeeded grandly. But just because it didn't fully succeed is no reason to mercilessly destroy it. As Alfred Hitchcock used to say to Farley Granger (according to Granger in an interview run on TCM) when Granger would apologize for flubbing a scene, "It's only a movie." Watch it, or don't. Like it or don't. But cut it some slack. It's only a movie. And a lot of people working on it did the best they could. I can't fault them for that.


bill r. said...

I saw this a very long time ago, and the only thing I can remember that I had against it was that it was WAY too long. A sin, but not the greatest sin in the world. Of course, if and when I watch it again, I might outright hate it, but the venom -- particularly Ebert's -- has always seemed a bit odd to me, too.

I can't pin him down for his Heaven's Gate review, it having been too long since I saw the film, but as far as your point about Ebert calling reality ridiculous, he did the same thing in his review of The Ghost and the Darkness. That's certainly not a great movie -- it's not that bad, though -- but he mocked the scene where Val Kilmer is up on this wooden platform, waiting to shoot one of the lions from above, and he gets knocked off his perch by some large African bird of some sort. But from what I've read, in the real story, that actually happened. It's crazy, but if you're writing a script about the lions of Tsavo, and you come across that in your research, wouldn't you consider putting it in the film? And it's obviously not implausible, BECAUSE IT HAPPENED.

More importantly, I loved this piece, Greg. Great idea for a post, and well done. Makes me want to check out Heaven's Gate again, actually.

Moviezzz said...

If you haven't seen it, someone put the excellent documentary of the making of HEAVEN'S GATE on Youtube. Everyone but Cimino is interviewed.

Part one is here:

The other eight parts should be easy to find.

I've always found the story about the making the film, the book as well as the documentary, far more interesting than the film.

Greg said...

Bill, thanks a lot. I took care not to throw any venom at Ebert, for instance, not calling him a liar but making clear that he did lie and it may have been unintentional. I wanted to make sure it did not come off as an "I hate Ebert" post. I don't, but I have no respect for that dishonest and dishonorable review.

As for the reality critiques, I have found that a few times with Ebert. Give me enough time and I could probably dig up some quotes from reviews. It seems odd to me as well. If you're going to make fun of something that's ridiculous in a purely fictional movie, okay. If it's based on history, check your facts first. It may have ACTUALLY HAPPENED! But aside from that, it's really clear in the film that Walken is simply writing a goodbye to Ella, puts it in his pocket and runs out into the gunfire so that he and the note DON'T BURN UP IN THE CABIN! Historical or not, it's abundantly clear what he is doing. Ebert mocking that only has the effect of making Ebert look rather dense.

But I agree, for me at least, it's too long and takes too long establishing its story. I think individual scene trimming would help a lot.

Greg said...

Moviezzz, thanks. I think the doc is on the DVD, if not I'll give it a look on YouTube. Thanks for the link.

Samuel Wilson said...

It's been nearly 20 years since I saw the full-length Heaven's Gate, but my recollection is that Cimino took the wedding sequence from The Deer Hunter to define his narrative style, so that Gate had to have lengthy ritual/festival type scenes even if they weren't as revelatory of character as the model scene from Deer Hunter was. In this respect, the Harvard sequence was inexcusable, though not because of where it was filmed.Nor could I shake the impression that the roller-skating sequence was included out of some misguided calculation about the popularity of roller disco. However, the picture is visually excellent, almost worth looking at for spectacle value alone. But it suffered in my eyes from having Kristofferson in the forefront. I've never cared for him as an actor and this performance didn't change my mind.

I remember seeing Ebert get some more digs at the film when he and Siskel reviewed the cut version on Sneak Previews. They went so far as to complain about subtitles, thinking it awful, somehow, that one woman's cry of distress should have been translated as "Oh George, I'm frightened!" What motivated it all eludes me.

It was reviews like Ebert's that made me curious about the full-length version, since I assumed that it could not be as bad as they all said, and I'm a bit of a mark for the epic mode, anyway. It wasn't very good, but as said here, not nearly the debacle the reviewers claimed.

Jason Bellamy said...

...just because it didn't fully succeed is no reason to mercilessly destroy it.

Greg: That nails it. I'm with you. It's a flawed picture, but it has moments!

I was just a few years old when the film was released, but from everything I've read I conclude that the biggest problem was the out-of-control budget and all those delays. We saw this happen with Waterworld. After all those delays, after all that money, there was no way it could seem "worth" all the hassle that went in to making it.

I think critics walked in saying, "OK, show me $36 million in entertainment ..." (back when that was a lot of money, of course). That's unfair.

Yet the film is certainly flawed, and that it ends in one of the longest and most boring shootouts in cinema history doesn't help any.

Nice job with this. Even though you respond to Ebert -- fairly, with evidence -- this remains a discussion of the film, not a rebuke of Ebert. It's a fine line to walk, but you did it well.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I have always had a desire to see this film, moreso for the historical reasons that surround the infamy of this filmn, but because of your great review I will immediatly be placing this in my Netflix queue...I will look forweard to watching the film with more than just a train-wreck curioosity.

I had the pleasure of meeting Zsigmond at the Salem Film Festival this year, and it's a shame that he didn't want to talk about the get a sense that he still feels badly for that film never getting a fair shake.

As for Ebert...two points I want to make:

1.) I will give him the murky look thing. Perhaps on film, in a theater on a poor projector, the movie was really hard to decipher the details. I looked at the picture of Christopher Walken and thought it was Tom Skerritt...but that's just because a young Walken looks like Skerritt, not because the scene isn't clear enough. So...I don't know, maybe the film really was hard to see upon initial release before a DVD clean up.

2.) I think I agree with you about Ebert perhaps falling into the trap of mob mentality in regards to the film. He and his fellow critics did the same thing that he railed against in his 2003 review for Gigli. A film he gave the benefit of the doubt to because of the reputation of its director Martin Brest and that the acting really wasn't that bad. He talked in the review about how all of the bad press surrounding the films stars was sure to doom the picture. It just seems odd that he would stick up for Gigli and not Heaven's Gate.

I don't know, perhaps he matured, or perhaps he dislikes Cimino and likes Martin Brest -- whatever the reason, I find it odd that the modern day Heaven's Gate -- a film that was dead-to-rights before it was even finished wrapping -- Gigli doesn't get the same treatment.

Anyway...great review and really interesting counterpoints to Ebert's pan of the film.

Greg said...


I remember seeing Ebert get some more digs at the film when he and Siskel reviewed the cut version on Sneak Previews. They went so far as to complain about subtitles, thinking it awful, somehow, that one woman's cry of distress should have been translated as "Oh George, I'm frightened!" What motivated it all eludes me.

I remember that too! I watched Sneak Previews every week and remember that and thinking it seemed like piling on but being too young to disagree publicly (still being in youthful parrot mode).

As for the wedding scene, I didn't like that very much in The Deer Hunter frankly but I agree with you 100 percent that that is what Cimino was going for. And could you blame him? It had been so well received the first time why not try it again.

Greg said...

Yet the film is certainly flawed, and that it ends in one of the longest and most boring shootouts in cinema history doesn't help any.

That's exactly what I'm referring to in the piece when I say "it's a slow build-up with a somewhat chaotic payoff." The gun battle isn't very well established and instead is presented as just endless shooting. I was particularly interested in why he chose to keep showing Jeff Bridges to tell Isabella Huppert to "get down" or "get out of there". I can understand the first time but after that and the gunfight is under way I don't think anyone would be paying much attention.

Nice job with this. Even though you respond to Ebert -- fairly, with evidence -- this remains a discussion of the film, not a rebuke of Ebert. It's a fine line to walk, but you did it well.

Thanks Jason, I appreciate that.

Greg said...

Kevin, I think those are both fair points to make.

I don't know, perhaps he matured, or perhaps he dislikes Cimino and likes Martin Brest...

I think it may just be the time. In 1980 Ebert had not yet become the huge force in film criticism that he is today and probably didn't possess as much confidence even after winning a Pulitzer Prize. I have found that he has re-evaluated reviews he has done in the past and I must say I don't know of many other critics who have done that. I think he could even re-evaluate this review one day. I believe he would still find it lacking because, overall, I think it is lacking and what didn't speak to Ebert then probably won't now. But I would be willing to bet, knowing Ebert from his re-evaluations of his own reviews, that he might not be quite as dismissive as he was here.

In the Walken shot by the way, a breeze is blowing that flap back and forth so his face is seen in only brief snippets. Nevertheless, he is not hidden and even more to the point, keeping this man who shows up onscreen by killing a man a mystery for the first several scenes by not revealing who he is is a good suspense strategy that many films have employed before. Yet, it is singled out here as if it is incompetent storytelling.

Joe Valdez said...

Good call, Greg, on both the Z Channel documentary and giving Heaven's Gate a look. I think all that film buffs knows about the film today is that it bombed and is supposed to be awful.

I think Heaven's Gate is flawed only in comparison to The Wild Bunch or the great westerns. Cimino seems to be going for something much more Merchant/Ivory than that.

The performances, cinematography and music are mesmerizing. For my two cents, I wrote about Heaven's Gate here.

The documentary that Moviezzz mentioned -- The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate -- is definitely worth a look. It is not included on the DVD. I found it on YouTube.

Greg said...

Joe, thanks! It's one of those movies I always meant to see but not until watching Z Channel did I finally make up my mind to do it. At almost 4 hours it's a commitment but I felt it was a worthwhile one.

I think most of the canon, that of the classics, good or bad, needs a constant re-evaluation to keep everyone honest and make sure we're not all just parroting one another. This is definitely a case where everyone has to make up their own mind and will come to very different conclusions because succeeds and fails alternately throughout.

I'll definitely check out your link and the YouTube doc. Thanks.

Tom Sutpen said...

This is admittedly nitpicking, but brutish and wrongheaded as it is, Ebert's review didn't have anything like the impact of Vincent Canby's in the 'New York Times'. It ran, I believe, directly after the first night of the limited-run in New York (when all anybody knew about Heaven's Gate was its zeppelin-like budget and its already legendary standing as a totally out-of-control production). Among other mots, Canby said it was like being taken on a forced four hour tour of your own living room.

The fallout from that review was poisonous, and nowhere more so than among the remaining executives at United Artists, a few of whom had looked into cutting the picture loose (douse it; write it of; anything) a year earlier. To them, Canby's review was as all doom; a realization of the darkest fears they harbored while the film was in production.

From that moment forth . . . and with no one having seen it other than the limited-run handfuls . . . everyone who was in a position to shepherd Heaven's Gate to a less-ignominious end, looked on it as a catastrophic failure. Nobody could be convinced otherwise.

Greg said...

Tom, Ebert even mentions the Canby review which is why I mention it at the end as the start of it all. In 1980 Ebert was not the force he is now and I believe he was following Canby's lead. I can understand, given the pacing of the film, being put off by its 4 hour running time but the effort that went into it deserved more than the bitter snark it received.

I avoid reviewing films I don't like for the very reason that I don't want to throw in a hurtful comment that a filmmaker might read because I know how much time and effort I put into my crappy little shorts and videos and I'd hate to read someone tearing them down.

Once, long ago, I did put in a rather unnecessarily nasty remark about an interview subject in a documentary I reviewed and later discovered he had read it. I was horrified and thoroughly guilt-ridden over it and removed it immediately. I even got his phone number but never worked up the nerve to call because frankly I didn't want to bring it back up again.

Hokahey said...

You argue well here, and you do point out distinct lies made by Ebert. I can't stand it when reviews are not precise about on-screen details - or when they exaggerate in order to fit something to their argument. You're right, Ebert is totally inaccurate about the shootout when Averell saves Ella. That is a mortal sin of film reviewing, and Ebert has committed it.

Days of Heaven is an ungainly film in need of some sharper editing and a little clearer storyline - but I have to say I simply love it and I re-watch it once a year. Its cinematography is exquisite and the film is held together by some stunning scenes: the roller skating scene; Averall and Ella's dance; the shootout at Nate's cabin. And I like its treatment of the late nineteenth century conflict between capitalists and "anarchists." In France, where it was hugely popular, it was considered the first socialist Western.

I love Westerns, and Cimino's film is an admirable effort at creating an epic Western.

Craig said...

The "critics ran gagging from the theater" quip is actually one of my all-time favorite laugh-out-loud images in any piece of film criticism. Unfair? Hilariously so. And Ebert might even admit as much today. Hindsight and all that. The fascinating book Final Cut, by Steven Bach (one of the upper-middle-managers of United Artists, which was destroyed by the film), validates Ebert's description of that initial screening. It was, by all accounts, hideous.

There are so fewer and fewer outright disasters these days (only box-office "disappointments"), with film criticism often co-opted into studio marketing schemes, that when a rare whiff of blood comes around I think a lot of critics let loose of their inhibitions and go for the kill. I sense this may happen with Funny People coming along next week. Which may not, in fact, be a good movie; but a backlash has been steadily building against Judd Apatow (by many of the same people who originally praised him), and it could be fierce.

Greg said...

Hokahey, thank you. I like the roller skating scene too and think watching the fiddler skate around the rink while playing is visually captivating.

As for the Averell saving Ella scene, Ebert's wording there is incredibly and purposely deceptive:

Kristofferson, discovering Huppert being gang-raped by several men, leaps in with six-guns in both hands and shoots all the men, including those aboard Huppert, without injuring her.

He makes it sound as though it is 8 or 10 men raping her. "Several", "including those aboard Huppert", "shoots all the men." All? You mean both, Roger, since he only shot two and the third got away.

Also, the transition from Harvard to Wyoming by showing Kristofferson asleep on the railcar is beautiful. I love that part.

Greg said...

Craig, I think you're right about the way disasters are perceived these days and we may not get them as much as we used to because EVERY movie now cost a fortune. Please see my post with inflation adjustments here for proof. The numbers tell the story.

Unfair? Hilariously so. And Ebert might even admit as much today.

I said it before in the comments here and I'll say it again, in agreement with you: Ebert may still dislike the movie, but judging from his ability to re-assess his past writings I believe he would cut back on the snark in this review and erase the factual errors.

Pat said...

Greg -

Fine piece. Recently, I watched the opening Harvard graduation scenes of "Heaven's Gate" (it was on a cable channel starting at 10 on a work night, and I couldn't stay up to watch much more than that.) Just those first scenes were telling - they're excessive and over-the-top, but also sort of exhilirating, beautifully composed and photographed. Watching them made me want to come back and watch the film in its entirety at some point. Like otheres here, I cannot believe that "Heaven's Gate" is really as bad as it's reputed to be.

Greg said...

Pat, I hope you get to see it at some point. And of course, as I say, it's nowhere near as bad as it's been made out to be. I think it's very flawed but quite beautiful as well.

Hokahey said...

Greg - yes, the transition to Wyoming is masterful - and I also love the part when they drive Ella's new rig down by the river with that wonderful tracking shot of the rig passing in front of the mountain range to the accompaniment of the main theme. For me, there are enough brilliant moments in this film to take me through the awkward parts.

Greg said...

I feel the same way, and the score is quite good.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Ebert reviewing the shorter 140 min version? That could explain some of his comments not jibing with what is seen in the full cut.

Greg said...

He is reviewing the shorter version. However, both versions contain Walken's shot shown here, both versions have three men attacking Ella, both versions have the armored wagons he discusses, etc. Nothing he describes is unique to the shortened version so it would still have the same problems either way.

Anonymous said...

OK, while I agree with the accusation that Ebert's review is slipshod I have watched both a short and VERY long version of Heaven's Gate and the basic flaws he and others try to illustrate are blatantly obvious.

The Walken character is fundamental to the story but gets only the briefest of an introduction that bizarrely avoids showing his face clearly.

Walken today is instantly recognizable but was he in 1980?

He's visible for less than a second through the sheet and for maybe 1 full second in profile while riding a galloping horse.

Why no clear shots of him either before or immediately after? Was it important to the story that his identity be somewhat uncertain?

Greg said...

First, I think I should restate my line from the opening of the review: "It's simply not a very good movie." So we are not in complete disagreement. I'm not defending it as a masterpiece or even a good movie, simply defending against the venom directed against it, I believe, unnecessarily.

Second, I personally do not find the keeping of Walken's character a mystery to be anything but "slow-build" storytelling. A man is shot in cold blood and the audience wonders who dit it, why, what's their motive. I don't see anything wrong with that. As to whether he is shown fully, yes, I agree, it's a quick shot. It's not as if Cimino lingers on his face and Walken is more recognizable now although he was known pretty well after the triumph of The Deer Hunter with his Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

I think Ebert would recognize many of the same flaws today (the editing and pacing for instance) but I would hope his review would be less mean-spirited and that he would use better examples than the ones he gave which don't really play to real reasons the film doesn't work for so many, myself included.

Anonymous said...

I am ultimately conflicted regarding Heaven's Gate due to the tangents it introduces (budgets/reviews/journalism/internal politics, etc).

I watched it truly wanting to discover an unfairly maligned gem or even diamond in the rough.

What I saw was something that annoyed me not because it was different but because it was a waste. Scene after overly orchestrated and ostentatious scene came and went yet I felt no emotion or interest. "Why" was what I kept thinking.

It felt like Cimino was hammering me over the head pointlessly. "I got it! Shut up already!"

I spoke about Walken... had his second scene been his first I would have felt something when he shot the immigrant. As it stands though it's just some inexplicable murder that takes 35 minutes to reconnect.

That having been said I do in fact agree with your anger over Ebert's inaccurate review (and the general feeding frenzy surrounding this film) and agree that people should watch Heaven's Gate for what it is, discarding the baggage attached to it.

Greg said...

Unfortunately, I think it's so legendary that it might be near impossible for someone to watch it without thinking about everything connected to it. Although as you and I both discovered, even then it's not very good. Thanks for your comments about all of this.

Jonathan said...

I have just watched Heaven's Gate for the first time, and I was curious to see if I could find out why it was so critically panned, which lead me here.

I thought the movie was too long, but overall a good film, and I was mystified by all the negative press and reviews I heard it had received.

Overall your assessment is well written and your criticism of Ebert's review is deserved. With regard to his criticism of the movie being "brownish yellow" I immediately noticed this in the first scene at Harvard, but I thought it was intentional because the scene was a flashback and was being represented in sepia tone on purpose. I'm still pretty sure that was probably the intention. The rest of the film was dusty, but that was probably representative of reality.

Another thing mentioned by other commenters was that Ebert once griped about the subtitles. Interestingly, I watched the film on Netflix and for some reason my version did not have subtitles, and I thought that this was done on purpose. I actually think that not knowing what was said in many of the scenes in which the immigrants were speaking in their native tongues helped the movie, especially in the scenes where they are congregated in Heaven's Gate. The reason I thought the lack of subtitles was deliberate was that the immigrants were from different regions themselves and likely couldn't understand each other. Perhaps if the subtitles had been there I wouldn't have noticed that they were collectively speaking 3 or 4 different languages. Without subtitles, the viewer is drawn into their plight, forced to identify with them, as the viewer likely can't understand them either. This also makes the scene when the well-dressed immigrant with the glasses manages to galvanize the assembled mass to fight against the association more brilliant. He struggles to do so in English, a language that none of them speak well, but that represents their commonality, they have little in common ethnically, but what they do have in common is that they are all Americans.

It was probably just a coincidence that the version I saw had no subtitles, or that they didn't work, and you could make the argument that there's plot revealed in the dialogue, but I actually felt that this helped the movie and I thought it was genius to intentionally leave subtitles out. It's interesting to hear that they were perhaps not handled very well and I wonder if they were put in hastily in post-production.

manuel caprari said...

paradoxically, the short version doesn't make the plot more easy to understand; actually, it makes it impossible to understand.
Anyway, I find this is a masterpiece, but even if I am wrong, it surely didn't deserve all that shit.
Pardon my french

Keith said...

I thought Greg's review was accurate and well done. I also agree with Jonathan on the lack of subtitles. My DVD doesn't have the subtitles and I never considered using them. When people are frustrated in not being able to communicate they tend to get louder like they do in these scenes.

The movie is beautiful to watch and to listen to, but there is something lacking that keeps it from exciting me. The problem may be in the script, the editing, or the story itself.

Jim is supposed to represent those of us with good intentions who leave college to help our fellow men. I find myself wondering why he has left his wife, assuming he married the girl from the graduation scene. And given his wealth he is only a marshal after 20 years? Is this the best he could do? Then he only seems to put minimum effort into protecting the citizens. A standard western hero would give us more moments where our testosterone would be overflowing! Maybe his flaws are just to upsetting to me.

The documentary is very good, explaining how Cimino was an artist, painting each scene by individually placing the extras and striving to authentically recreate the time period. I applaud him for this because this is my prime reason for rewatching the movie every so often. I also love David Mansfield's score which simply seems to be variations on Doug Kershaw's Mamou Two Step.

I would recommend the film for it's cinematography, authenticity to time period, and music, but give warning about the storyline. Perhaps, as others have mentioned, shortening scenes and adding missing scenes might improve the movie. Length has never been a problem for me.