‘Exhilarating and Moral’ are the words written at the entrance of the new skating rink that dominates the centre of a small town in Wyoming, and these same words can equally be understood as an ironic comment on the film itself. The exhilaration in Heaven’s Gate comes with director Michael Cimino’s obvious love of scale and movement. There is a spendthrift giddiness to the proceedings, an excess which chimes perfectly with the legends associated with the film’s production.
The opening scene is as high-spirited as the Harvard students who are shown celebrating their graduation. Cimino’s camera whirls around the lawns, first waltzing with the gals and then fighting with a rival fraternity. It is this dizzying movement, more than character or plot, that dominates the film. The exhilarating dancing will be continued, 20 years later when the action moves to Heaven’s Gate, in the roller-skating rink as a violinist plays a reel, and the townsfolk join the dance. But this commotion will give over to a dance of death, as the headlong rush becomes the confused, tragic and circular charge of violence and blood in the final showdown. Cimino creates a portrait of a marginalised community caught in the onrush of history. Individuals will battle to understand and react to changes that are too brutal and uncompromising. Many will be crushed (and several characters are literally crushed) in the headlong calamity of life.
So for the story: a wealthy ex-Harvard man, Marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) returns to Johnson County on learning that new immigrants are being targeted by the cattle barons’ association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson). The association has drawn up a ‘death list’ of more than a hundred names. Averill doesn’t fully belong to either camp: he has been blackballed from the club where the association holds its meetings, and his university chum Billy (John Hurt) is now a gin-sodden baron, who acquiesces in murder even as he fails manically to maintain a cultured pose of insouciance. But Jim’s affections lie with Ella (Isabelle Hupert), a young prostitute who takes stolen cattle and cash from customers, and thus finds herself included on the list. One of Jim’s friends is Nick Champion (Christopher Walken), a murderer for the association, who himself nevertheless comes from the same immigrant stock as his victims.
This is where the ‘moral’ part comes in. The cynicism and anger are heartfelt – but the speed of events and switching loyalties overtake the film and its protagonists. The town meetings held in the skating rink are drowned out in lamentations and shouting, and finally gunfire; no one is clear what they want to do – including Jim – and when a decision is finally made to fight back against the association’s hired killers, many rush off in the wrong direction or are killed in the initial enthusiasm, before the association forces fire a shot.
Michael Cimino’s grand folly has accrued legends about massive waste, with entire towns built and then torn down and built again; the ruination of a major studio; and the definitive death – after a moment of brief supremacy – of the auteur in Hollywood. But now that we have the re-mastered director’s cut, we can judge for ourselves the worth of this bizarre end to the American Western. It certainly has its flaws (principally the wooden post that is Kris Kristofferson, sitting like a lump in the middle of the film) but this cut finally allows us to see the beauty – especially in the glory of the landscape, captured by Vilmos Zsigmond – and the terror of the brutal labor pains that were played out in this birth of a nation.
Watch the trailer: