Once reviled, Michael Cimino’s controversial “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) may remain — despite the Criterion Collection’s effort to resuscitate it — a cautionary tale of directorial hubris, Hollywood excess, and wayward ambition. The real moral of the film, however, is far simpler: “Heaven’s Gate” is an object lesson in the intangibility of greatness.
That’s because Cimino’s capacious vision reaches, self-consciously and with no small amount of pride, for the mantle of Great American Movie. Presented here as a “director’s cut,” more than an hour longer than the 149-minute theatrical release, it’s a deep-dive into frontier history and genre filmmaking, sweeping in scope and almost punishingly serious in manner. If you plotted “greatness” on a chart, it would resemble a CAT scan of “Heaven’s Gate.” The vitality of the best films, however, is anything but schematic — the glory of “Vertigo,” for instance, is that it explodes the ghost story from within. “Heaven’s Gate,” practically an encyclopedia of Western iconography, comes across as such: it has all the right details, but in the end it remains dry, brittle, and inanimate. If I can say anything about “Heaven’s Gate” with certainty, it’s that the film is no neglected masterwork.
Nor is it, as Criticwire’s Matt Singer points out in an excellent piece on the film’s critical reception, the “unqualified disaster” the New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it upon its theatrical release. Cimino, though far from the Griffith-esque visionary conjured up by Robin Wood and the author of Criterion’s liner notes, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, has been pilloried to excess — an Icarus of the cinema, the auteur who flew too close to the Sun and burned up the Hollywood Renaissance in the process. One look at the director’s filmography since “Heaven’s Gate” is proof enough that the United Artists executives who took the fall for the flop were not its only victims.
But Cimino was never in the vanguard of directors whose names have become shorthand for the American cinema’s charged brilliance of the 1970s — he is no Altman, no Allen, no Coppola, no Scorsese. The film for which Cimino is rightly known, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) stands alongside Coppola’s feverish “Apocalypse Now” (1979) as the finest examination of the Vietnam War, in part because it is the only one of the bunch (more than Ashby’s “Coming Home”  or Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” ) to link home front and front lines successfully.
But already Cimino had exhibited a dangerous tendency toward grandiosity. “The Deer Hunter,” its subject matter terribly immediate, its second act — including the iconic Russian Roulette sequence — tense and claustrophobic, manages to retain its driving force, but it is no less epic or unwieldy than “Heaven’s Gate.” Indeed, I can’t quite figure out how so many people were surprised when the latter turned out to be a heavy-handed behemoth. If Cimino ever had a personal “style” with which to mark his movies, this was it all along.
My qualms with “Heaven’s Gate” are not about length as such. Singer, for instance, focuses too much on the volume of celluloid than on the film’s real problem — the volume of ideas. From its opening moments, set amid a Harvard commencement procession in 1870 — the graduates march in to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — the film sets up a surplus of conflicts, so many, in fact, that they end up crushing every flicker of narrative momentum. In its retelling of Wyoming’s 1892 Johnson County War, in which Texan mercenaries hired by wealthy cattle men massacred immigrant farmers accused of stealing steers for food, “Heaven’s Gate” pits urbane East against frontier West, native-born against immigrant, rich against poor, labor against capital, industry against agriculture, past against present. “Heaven’s Gate” is paralyzed with portents.
And yet, with the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino (who trained as a painter at Yale) heaps beautiful composition upon beautiful composition, finding symmetry in the chaos. It’s an immersive aesthetic experience. Three men in top hats lead the graduates into the ceremony, the camera gliding before them; a train engine’s coughs of black smoke laze over the frame; a horse-drawn carriage bustles through a crowd, jostling and forceful. In the film’s most potent image, the lens swirls, dizzied by a fiddler skating in circles around the local dance hall, clapped on by the crowd. This litany is by no means exhaustive: the visual wonderment of “Heaven’s Gate” stands apart from the narrative and thematic uproar, enough to make you wonder what Cimino might have been with a little more control of the instrument.
As a local army officer tells Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) about the impending war, however, “You can’t force salvation on people, Jim. It doesn’t work.” Though not a message movie in the strict sense, Cimino’s unwavering commitment to his own imagination (editing be damned!) sinks the movie as surely as a front stoop sermonizer undercuts his argument. Preaching is not, in the end, the same thing as persuasion. That’s why “Heaven’s Gate” is neither a major catastrophe nor an underappreciated classic, but that more slippery, shimmering, and ultimately frustrating thing — a noble failure.
The director’s cut of “Heaven’s Gate” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.