No film in the history of cinema carries such a perverse and legendary stigma as Heaven's Gate. The Western epic, filmed mostly in the Flathead Valley and released in 1980, features a star-studded cast including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston and John Hurt, and a visionary writer/director, Michael Cimino, coming off the success of The Deer Hunter. On paper, it couldn't miss. In reality, the film became the biggest bomb in Hollywood history, sinking an entire studio and inspiring both a book and documentary about its failure.
What went wrong with Heaven's Gate is usually far more discussed than the film itself, and with good reason: The best action occurred off-camera. Cimino spared no expense and his quest for perfection approached certifiable. Originally budgeted at $7.5 million, the project ended up costing more than $40 million, an unheard-of sum at the time. In order to authentically tell the story of European settlers in the late 19th century actors attended "Camp Cimino," where they learned everything from Yugoslavian dialect and the nuances of cock fighting to how to dance and roller skate. This preparation lasted six weeks before shooting commenced.
Things got even more painstaking once the cameras started to roll. Cimino personally "interviewed" more than 300 horses before approving them for filming, ignored shooting schedules and union rules in favor of specific lighting and demanded dozens of takes for each scene; he famously asked Kristofferson to snap a bullwhip in a particular way 52 different times.
The first cut of the film shown to studio executives came in more than five hours long. The final version still stretched nearly four. (A third version, released after Cimino pulled and re-edited the film after its disastrous premiere, clocked in at 149 minutes.) All told, Heaven's Gate earned just $3 million at the box office. United Artists, started by actors like Charlie Chaplin and respected for its tradition of groundbreaking work, was sold and rebranded. Cimino's career tanked; his only other noteworthy credit was directing Year of the Dragon. The whole fiasco became a cautionary tale, an absurd example of what happens when ego and the bottom line (and, allegedly, on-set cocaine use) are left unchecked. Failure has long been its only legacy.
Hollywood, however, loves a second chance, and Heaven's Gate is getting one. Much like the work of Samuel Fuller, David Lynch and perhaps David Hasselhoff, Cimino's lavish Western has found an audience in Europe. It took center stage at the recent Venice Film Festival, during which the director attended a screening of a digitally restored, newly edited—but mostly the same—version set for release by the Criterion Collection. The film received a standing ovation.
"Time has been kind to Heaven's Gate," wrote Dennis Lim for The New York Times following the Venice screening. Lim went on to call it "a grand, eccentric yet elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West (and the western), with an uncommonly blunt take on class in America." Lim's re-review stands as a stunning turn after Vincent Canby, writing for the same newspaper in 1980, referred to it as "a four-hour walking tour of one's own living room" and "an unqualified disaster."
The film's merits, in fact, haven't changed much over the years. Watching an old copy again last week, trying to revel in its recent revival, there seemed little need for revisionism. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography still contains jaw-dropping wide shots of Montana's landscape, epic battle sequences and fully recreated Old West cities. The precision and grandeur of certain scenes also remains mesmerizing, such as one in a roller skating rink built specifically for the film on the outskirts of Kalispell. But to say "time has been kind" to the film—to mention time at all—is cruel, since it still takes an eternity for Cimino to tell such a thin story. It's wonderful and flawed, audacious and tedious.
If you've seen Heaven's Gate once, there's little need to see it again. But for the uninitiated, consider this re-release an opportune occasion. After all, Hollywood has rendered audiences numb to bloated productions that fall short of expectations—it happens nearly every week. And compared to more current examples, Heaven's Gate is not a disaster, and the living room, so to speak, contains some stunning cinematic history.
The Criterion Collection's restored version of Heaven's Gate will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in November for $31.96.