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Heaven's Gate: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Heaven's Gate (1980) movie poster Heaven's Gate

Theatrical Release: November 19, 1980 / Running Time: 217 Minutes (director's cut) / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Michael Cimino

Cast: Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (William C. Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotten (The Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper Fred), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak), Richard Masur (Cully), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Roseanne Vela (Beautiful Girl), Mary C. Wright (Nell), Nicholas Woodeson (Small Man), Stefan Shcherby (Big Man), Waldemar Kalinowski (Photographer), Terry O'Quinn (Captain Minardi), Tom Noonan (Jake), Jarlath Conroy (Mercenary in New Suit), Allen Keller (Dudley), Mickey Rourke (Nick Ray), David Mansfield (John DeCoy)

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Those who follow the movie business are likely to have run into a mention of Heaven's Gate. This 1980 Western is the textbook example of filmmaking fiasco. Fresh off his lauded and lucrative second film as director, 1978's Best Picture Oscar winner The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was given free rein and as much money as he needed to make Heaven's Gate.
So out of control was this 6-month shoot that it nearly bankrupted United Artists and it did irreversibly derail Cimino's promising career. "Heaven's Gate" became shorthand for the need for studio interference and less than complete directorial authority.

The film opens with Harvard College's Class of 1870 graduating. Late for the procession, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) runs through campus, arriving in time to hear the speeches of school president, The Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten, making his last major theatrical credit), and playful red-headed valedictorian Billy Irvine (John Hurt).

After twenty minutes in Cambridge, the film jumps to Wyoming in 1890. Averill holds a position of distinction (apparently Marshal), by which he fraternizes and sympathizes with the area's populace of poor immigrants. Some of Averill's Harvard alums don't share his appreciation for the working class. Crashing a meeting of the Stock Growers Association, an organization from which he has been blackballed, Averill learns of the group's plans to combat what is perceived as a threat to their wealth.

Bemoaning the inefficiency of the legal system, these privileged men draw up a list of 125 "thieves, anarchists and outlaws" whom they intend to have killed at a price of $50 for each immigrant's hanging or fatal shooting. Founded on bigotry, this death list apparently comes with the blessing of the highest of the higher-ups, all the way to the President of the United States. Irvine, a member of the Association, objects to the plan, but his dissent is drowned out by overwhelming support.

Averill returns home leery of what is to come. He is greeted warmly by his girlfriend, the fastidious madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), whom he treats to a new horse-drawn carriage, on which they share a fast, exciting ride through town. Averill has Ella's love; she charges everyone else cash or cattle for the pleasures she doesn't hesitate to provide free of charge to the Marshal. At least one of her clients wants more than sex; Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) forms a love triangle, his proposal of greater interest to Ella than Averill's suggestion that she relocate.

Complicating matters is the fact that both Ella and Nate appear on that death list, the names on which the Stock Growers are eager to cross off. Things come to a head when the Wyoming settlers are forced to determine how best to defend themselves against their well-armed pursuers.

Billy Irvine (John Hurt) treats Harvard College's Class of 1870 to a light-hearted valediction. Wyoming Marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) sympathizes with the poor immigrants that make up his jurisdiction.

Heaven's Gate's admission into The Criterion Collection had to take some by surprise. What was next? Ishtar finally coming to DVD? Waterworld getting another look? Like those films, Heaven's Gate has the stigma of being a notorious high-profile box office flop, in part because it hails from accomplished filmmakers. With The Deer Hunter, Cimino seemed like the simply the latest of the 1970s' prolific new directors. That Vietnam war drama remains a classic, appearing on both the 1998 and 2007 versions of the American Film Institute's 100 greatest American movie lists. Even the young IMDb votership, ever attracted to the hip new thing, acknowledges its greatness with a current ranking of 133.

That kind of success, seemingly out of nowhere, is the perfect set-up to failure. If a nobody makes a bad movie, nobody cares. If a somebody, especially one widely declared to be somebody to watch, misfires, the world will know. Cimino's misstep was quite prescient of the press Francis Ford Coppola would get two years later for One from the Heart, whose similarly ambitious production and disastrous reception Coppola is still trying to live down, having never quite regained the freedom and power he once commanded.

Coppola has far more to show for the past thirty years than Cimino, who basically has not recovered creatively. He wrote and directed the Chinatown action flick Year of the Dragon (1985) and directed a couple of thrillers adapted from novels. The Woody Harrelson drama Sunchaser, which went straight to video in 1996, would be Cimino's last feature film in the helm. It's unclear how Cimino makes his living, but it cannot be from writing or directing new cinema.

Assigning spine number 632 to Heaven's Gate is not Criterion's idea of a joke. This film may be notorious and single-handedly responsible for Cimino's professional downfall, but it certainly has enough artistry and historical significance to justify inclusion in the revered boutique label's line of esteemed world cinema (a class that, you may remember, includes Salς, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Michael Bay's Armageddon).

Head prostitute Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) is pursued by two distinguished, eligible bachelors. John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges) assesses the damage of the Stock Growers Association's actions.

Heaven's Gate is definitely not a great film, but it is an interesting one. Criterion's release presents the film in a newly-restored director's cut running 217 minutes (with slight trims and the removal of an intermission). It is presumably much closer to the 219-minute edit that premiered in New York than the 149-minute edit that was given wide theatrical release but never issued on home video. Extremely long and often quite slow, the film feels like it could use at least two intermissions as is. If you think that The Deer Hunter lags at all, your attention is guaranteed to waver at some point here, as the director remains a little too fond of extended ceremony and dance scenes.

Still, Cimino's films have a compelling, indescribably dreamlike look and feel unlike others. Heaven's Gate delivers an intriguing blend of intimacy and grand scope. The subject matter is fascinating. Don't feel bad if you're unfamiliar with this chapter of American history; though the names correspond with real people, this is a heavily fictionalized version of the Johnson County War. From its period design (Art Direction-Set Decoration was the source of its only Oscar nomination) to camerawork, the film does not run short on ambition.
That makes it easier to wrap your head around the staggering production costs of $44 million, which inflation adjusts to $120 M today, the amount spent on Life of Pi and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2. Heaven's recouped just $3.5 million at the box office, the modern-day equivalent of an extremely modest $10 million (on par with the Nickelodeon Halloween bomb Fun Size).

Though assorted criticisms are easy to lob and opportunities to further trim fat are easy to spot, there is no disputing that Heaven's Gate is the product of a passionate, original, and talented filmmaker. That we would never again see him make anything else on even close to the same scale is unfortunate, if absolutely defensible from a business point of view. Surely, Cimino could have gotten more interesting work from the likes of Deer Hunter Oscar winner Walken, Mickey Rourke (who makes one of his first film appearances here and would twice reteam with Cimino), and Jeff Bridges (who starred alongside Clint Eastwood in Cimino's directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and plays the sympathetic bartender/proprietor of the roller skating rink from which Heaven's Gate gets its title).

Heaven's Gate: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: November 20, 2012
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-50 & BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $49.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as MGM DVD (February 29, 2000)


Criterion is considered the best in the biz when it comes to restorations and they are the only studio that details the efforts at length in liner notes. Heaven's Gate seems a little below their high standards, however. The film shows its age in the 2.40:1 presentation, with artifacts and flaws (like specks and even a hair) turning up. The picture is often grainy and the colors, presumably by design, are undersaturated. Sound is offered exclusively in a 5.1 DTS-HD mix. Some of the dialogue is tough to make out at times, but the music is crisp and lively. In spite of the limitations, I'm sure this is the best the movie has ever looked and sounded. English SDH subtitles are supplied, but only for the English dialogue. The movie features a good amount of Slavic dialogue that goes untranslated.

A warmly-dressed Michael Cimino directs Kris Kristofferson in one of the production photos that illustrates Cimino's newly-recorded audio reflections. Thirty-two years and countless pans later, Kris Kristofferson looks back on "Heaven's Gate" with admiration.


Disc One is devoted entirely to the film, which is unaccompanied by any audio commentary. Though the film's length requires a second disc, which adds ten dollars to Criterion's standard list price, the supplemental slate does not exceed the usual Criterion effort.

The all-HD extras begin with a new audio interview (30:57) of writer-director Michael Cimino
and producer Joann Carelli. Their reflections on the film, most of them Cimino's, and its subject matter are complemented by production photos, film stills, script excerpts, clips, and fitting historical images. It's not surprising that Cimino doesn't appear on-camera, his reclusiveness part of his legend, along with his changing appearance. What is disappointing is that Criterion doesn't get him to touch upon the film's losses and critical thrashing. Still, in many ways this feels like a selected scene commentary, which is cool.

Next, we get a new on-camera interview with Kris Kristofferson (9:23). He discusses his attraction to the project, the production's attention to detail, the challenging shoot, and the film's lousy reputation.

David Mansfield recalls his duties on the film as both composer and roller skating fiddler. A Restoration Demonstration illustrates the drastic color correction Criterion performed on "Heaven's Gate" under Michael Cimino supervision.

Another new interview gathers the recollections of David Mansfield (8:45), the man wrote and arranged the film's music in addition to portraying the fiddling roller skater. He talks about both of those sides, paying more notice to his musical influences and collaborators.

The final new interview connects with second assistant director Michael Stevenson (8:04), who discusses working with Cimino and on such a demanding production full of costumed extras.

A "Restoration Demonstration" (2:30) illustrates the steps taken to restore Heaven's Gate using available elements, correcting colors and removing an assortment of debris. This serves to make the transfer's few shortcomings easily forgiven, though it ought to have elaborated on the new edits.

United Artists made it clear where blame should go for the movie's failings by billing it "Michael Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate.'" Harvard grads waltz to "Blue Danube" on the Disc 1 menu.

The bonus disc draws to a close with a photo-driven teaser trailer (1:30) and TV spot (1:12) for Heaven's Gate, both emphasizing Michael Cimino's involvement.

Conspicuously absent here is "Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate", a feature-length 2004 documentary (adapted from Steven Bach's Cimino-disputed book)
that you suspect ought to have been licensed. At least you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Disc 1's menu sets scratchy slow-motion clips to the old-timey score. Disc 2 takes the same understated approach, only with different clips. Being a Criterion release, both discs resume playback flawlessly and the movie also supports placing bookmarks.

Each given their own hub, the two discs share the right side of one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases. The left side holds a thick 42-page booklet. In between the standard information (chapter stops, cast and crew list, transfer information), we get two substantial articles. The 8-page essay "Western Promises" by New York-based Italian film writer and curator Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan considers the film more on its merits than its mythic reputation. That is followed by "The Film That Took On a Life of Its Own", Herb Lightman's 18-page interview of Michael Cimino first published in the November 1980 issue of American Cinematographer. In it, the director opens up on the production's challenges, shedding light on his obsessive attention to detail and his thoughtful views on filmmaking, weather, and nature. Both are worthwhile reads.

Stationmaster Cully's minutes are numbered after he is spotted by a member of the Stock Growers Association in Michael Cimino's "Heaven Gate."


Colossal fail or misunderstood masterpiece? Most will probably place Heaven's Gate somewhere in between those extremes. Michael Cimino's sprawling epic certainly has a number of intriguing qualities to it, but doesn't add up in a very satisfying fashion. Criterion's Blu-ray undoubtedly stands as the film's definitive release. Still, the feature presentation is not without some concerns and, while solid, the hour of extras hardly tells the full story of this industry-changing work.

All things considered, for middling entertainment that requires a good deal of patience, it's a tough set to recommend at the high list price. At the same time, you won't find many films with such impact and significance, which makes this tough to ignore.

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Reviewed February 8, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1980 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists, Partisan Productions, and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.