Heaven's Gate (1981)

on April 23, 1981 by BOXOFFICE Staff
Director Michael Cimino's long-awaited Western comes to the screen a full hour shorter than its original three-and-a-half hour running time, and an apparent tough sell at the boxoffice.
   Long on beautiful scenery but short on narrative focus, "Heaven's Gate" contains three major themes, none of which is developed to the satisfaction of the viewer. Perhaps the missing hour provided more clues to understanding this tale, set during the Johnson County War between cattlemen and European immigrants in Wyoming circa 1890.
   The film presents a central character, federal marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson); an intriguing love triangle between Averill, brothel proprietor Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and immigrant-turned-hired-killer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken); and the conflict between the powerful Stock Growers Association and the starving immigrants who poached cattle to feed their families.
   However, Cimino fails to present a whole view of any of these themes, choosing instead to wrap them together and smooth out the narrative wrinkles with superb photography and attention to period detail.
   Cimino stays closest to telling James Averill's story. A Harvard graduate and the scion of a wealthy Eastern banking family, Averill chooses to explore the Western frontier rather than the business world after graduation.
   We next see him 20 years later, when he has become a federal marshal in Wyoming's Johnson County, where scores of Eastern European immigrants arrive each week in search of farmland. Averill is fond of Ella, a madam who accepts cattle as well as cash from the immigrant men who frequent her brothel. While it appears Ella is in love with Averill, she is also drawn to Champion, who has been hired by the cattlemen to protect their herds from the immigrants.
   Through a college chum, William Irvine (John Hurt), Averill learns that the Stock Growers Association has drawn up a plan for the assassination of 125 immigrants to quell the cattle poaching and clear the land for ranching. Shocked by the coldblooded edict, Averill decides to warn the settlers.
   Aided by local judge/bartender John Bridges (Jeff Bridges), Averill advises those marked for death (a group which includes Ella) to flee the county. They decide to stay and do battle for their right to settle the land.
   A group of 50 hired gunmen clash with the immigrants, who valiantly fight them off before the U.S. Cavalry intercedes on behalf of the cattlemen. Virtually every major character save Averill is killed in the skirmish, and it is learned through an abbreviated epilogue that Averill later returned to the East and his family's affluence.
   Although the cast boasts several fine supporting players including Bridges, Sam Waterston and Brad Dourif, they are not allowed to develop strong characters to offset the weak romantic triangle of Kristofferson, Huppert and Walken. The audience is asked to overlook the underdevelopment of these characters to concentrate on the film's devotion to realistic costuming, sets and imagery.
   Although Cimino's muddled direction is the prime thief of story continuity, it is hurt by several passages of unintelligible dialogue and the confusing use of subtitles throughout the film. Audiences will have enough trouble deciphering what happens without these annoying devices.
   Despite the narrative confusion, there are several reasons to see this film. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography recalls the brilliant images of "Days of Heaven," contrasting stunning Rocky Mountain vistas with the filth and poverty encountered by the immigrants. Costuming, casting and makeup chores have been performed admirably and contribute substantially to recreating the frontier. David Mansfield's score is also outstanding, using instruments like the mandolin and fiddle to recall the music of the late 19th Century West.
   Such attention to detail cannot overcome the impatience audiences will feel with this overlong film, so exhibitors must hope that the publicity surrounding its aborted November release and the reported $35 million budget will draw a strong initial crowd.
   Though his vision is incomplete in its scope and overambitious in its final rendering, Michael Cimino remains an important filmmaker who deserves many more chances to flex his creative muscles. Perhaps his experience with "Heaven's Gate" will narrow his sights and concentrate his abilities.
David Linck United Artists 153 mins
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