DVD+Digital: Epic Westerns, box office bombs and Heaven's Gate | Arts

DVD+Digital: Epic Westerns, box office bombs and Heaven's Gate

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Heaven's Gate is one of the most famous pictures in the history of Hollywood, for all the wrong reasons. Released to theaters in 1980 (kind of; see below), the epic Western stars Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christoper Walken in the true story of Wyoming's Johnson County War.

Alas, director Michael Cimino's follow-up to The Deer Hunter, for which he won five Oscars, didn't fare well. Distributor United Artists initially refused to release the three-and-a-half hour movie and critics savaged the film when it did hit the screen. Heaven's Gate was pulled from theaters after a one-week run. It was later re-released in a 149-minute version, which audiences aggressively ignored. The film remains among the biggest box office disasters of all time, earning about $1 million against costs of around $40 million.

Does Heaven's Gate really deserve its reputation as one of the worst movies ever made? Well, now you can decide for yourself. Cimino's original vision of the film has been restored and reissued to DVD and Blu-ray as Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a two-disc set from the film archivists at the Criterion Collection. Along with the high-definition video and audio transfer, the package features new interviews with Cimino and star Kris Kristofferson plus behind-the-scenes details, a 40-page booklet, and a featurette on the restoration process itself.

The film begins in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, where the new batch of earnest young graduates — including Jim Averill (Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) — are exhorted to go West and civilize the frontier.

Fast forward 20 years: A graying and exhausted Averill, Marshall of Johnson County, Wyoming, prepares to square off against the region's vicious cattle barons. It seems that Johnson County is home to a growing community of Eastern European immigrants, accused by the barons of rustling their cattle. The barons have hired a posse of killers to ride into Johnson County and wipe out the immigrants. Marshall Averill is the only symbol of law in sight, and the immigrants' only line of defense.

Among these settlers is the beautiful bordello madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). Emma is Averill's girl, but she also keeps her bed warm for the cattle baron's chief enforcer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). You can see where this might get complicated.

The first half of Heaven's Gate moves very slowly, but if you adjust your attention span you'll find some gorgeous instances of epic Western filmmaking. Cimino's Wyoming is a land of utter vastness and he goes to great pains to provide sense of scale. All those people. All that space.

The movie's second half is another story, as the opposing forces clash with visceral violence, the kind associated with fellow 1970s roustabouts like Coppola and Scorsese. Cimino is grappling here with many Big Themes as he excavates America's dark past. Watch for the mirrored scenes and juxtaposed imagery: the formal dance at Harvard versus the skating sequence in the barn; the cramped city streets versus the broad Wyoming canyons.

It's indulgent, all right, and terribly long, but Heaven's Gate is certainly not the unqualified disaster it was labeled as upon release. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, and had Cimino's imagery swimming in my head for days.

That said, the making of Heaven's Gate is arguably more interesting than the film itself. According to legend, the film's production was a bloated bacchanal. Cimino built hundreds of sets and paid for thousands of extras. He kept an expensive seven-piece band on the payroll for six months until he finally got around to shooting their (one) scene. Cimino shot more than 200 hours of film all told, and rumor persists that about half the film's budget went to fueling the cast and crew with cocaine.

Many of these details were officially leaked by studio executive Steven Bach in the book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. The film's failure has come to symbolize the end of the 1970s style of director-driven films, and the beginning of the studio blockbuster era ushered in by Star Wars and Jaws.

Through it all, Heaven's Gate has always had its defenders. European critics and audiences, in particular, have long championed the film as a melancholic subversion of the epic American Western. In Cimino's story, the promise of the Great Frontier is fundamentally polluted from the get-go. Inevitably, the haves and the have-nots will reckon. There will be blood.

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