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Heaven's Gate
Heaven's Gate
Actors: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif
Director: Michael Cimino
Genres: Westerns, Drama
R     2000     3hr 39min

"Richly textured and visually compelling" (The Hollywood Reporter), this lavish, epic Western retells the true story of Wyoming's infamous Johnson County Wara brutal conflict during which wealthy cattlemen, backed by the U...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif
Director: Michael Cimino
Creators: Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Cimino, Gerald B. Greenberg, Charles Okun, Denis O'Dell, Joann Carelli, William Reynolds
Genres: Westerns, Drama
Sub-Genres: Westerns, Drama
Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 02/29/2000
Original Release Date: 11/19/1980
Theatrical Release Date: 11/19/1980
Release Year: 2000
Run Time: 3hr 39min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 23
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English
Subtitles: Spanish, French
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Movie Reviews

A Loss Of Innocence
MICHAEL ACUNA | Southern California United States | 05/15/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"There is just no beating around the bush when people mention Michael Cimino's 1980 film, "Heaven's Gate." You either love it or hate it...there is only black and white when discussing this film. Having just seen the reconstructed director's cut, I will follow that trend and state: "Heaven's Gate" is a superior film.
I first saw the butchered, approximately 2+ hours version in the theaters several years ago and had to agree that it was pretty bad: incoherent, of course... badly both sight and sound. At the time it reminded me of those badly made European productions in which every actor is speaking a different language and after the fact, the film is dubbed into Italian or French. The film was literally a mess.
In its glorious 3-½-hours+ state, though, "HG" is a pleasure to behold. It is a grand saga dealing with greed, the loss of innocence and how money name a few issues it tackles. It's scope is on the grand scale of such films as Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard," Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900." What makes these films special, thoughtful and important though is that they all tell their stories from the personal perspective of individuals: and "Heaven's Gate" does this as the person of Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson).
The film is gorgeous to behold (Vilmos Zsigmond was the photographer) but one big scene bears mentioning: the scene shot in the huge dance hall (actually called Heaven's Gate) in which the entire town is in attendance, everyone roller-skating to fiddle music, several cameras swirling around with the involving, so dynamic as to take your breath away. On the other side of the coin the scene with Ella (a young, fresh-faced Isabelle Huppert) and Nate Champion (a rouged and mascara'd, Christopher Walken) in Nate's digs couldn't be sweeter: innocent and personal...Nate brushing off bread crumbs and straightening Ella's place setting on the table, Ella, nervous and unforgettable.
All of the acting is first-rate but Walken, I think steals the movie with his quirky portrayal of a somewhat fey, yet obnoxiously macho, Nate. In one particular scene, Nate senses that Jim is back in town and tells Ella: "I can feel when he is around." In another scene, Nate sneaks into Jim's room and watches a sleeping Jim with, for want of a better word, Desire in his eyes. Nate also picks up and rubs Jim's boot lovingly: interesting, distinctive stuff especially in the context of this great big, masculine film.
Isabelle Huppert is also a standout as a Madam, torn between her love for both Jim and Nate and as such is the catalyst for the jealousy and fire in the scenes between Walken and Kristofferson.
At the very least, this version of "Heaven's Gate" will stand the test of time as a personal and loving statement to a period in America when we began to lose our way and our innocence to boot. At the very most, this version will survive as a testament to how wrong a lot of people can be about a film's worth and importance. If you are a fan of American Films, you owe it to yourself to check out this beautiful, resonant, complex and resoundingly heartfelt movie.

Happy 25th Birthday, HEAVEN'S GATE!
Stephen H. Wood | South San Francisco, CA | 08/30/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

1980 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the strangest media events ever. There was an eagerly-awaited invitational preview on a Thursday for a four hour Michael Cimino western called HEAVEN'S GATE. The whole industry came out in force to see Cimino's first movie since his Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and, at a budget of $40 million, a movie that had bankrupt United Artists. The result was apparently an unholy disaster-so awful that Friday opening day regular engagements were abruptly cancelled. Reviews were venomous, focusing much more on the hefty budget and how an arrogant auteur filmmaker had brought down a studio with his excesses. Roger Ebert was particularly hostile. The 219 minute movie was sent back to the editing room with Cimino and several original editors. In mid-1981, an all-new HEAVEN'S GATE was brought out at only 149 minutes. The same hostile reviewers, except for Kevin Thomas in THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, still hated the movie for being too long and not having a coherent story. I saw that shortned print, adored the movie, and sent a rave review to Mr. Cimino. I got a very positive thank you letter from the filmmaker himself saying it was a hit in France. In America, I think the 149 minute print played for only two weeks in deserted theaters. Just for good luck, animal rights groups who had not seen the movie in any form were protesting the mistreatment of horses in the film.

Thank God for home video! While heavily censored TV prints of HEAVEN'S GATE still run 149 minutes, the uncut 219 minute roadshow version (which importantly never got a theatrical run for the general public) is available on letterboxed videocassette and DVD. Let us wish it a Happy 25th Birthday, forget all budget problems, and just evaluate what is up on the screen for 219 minutes.

According to writer/director Cimino, the Johnson County War took place in 1892 Casper, Wyoming. It was a battle waged between Eastern European immigrants and American cattlemen. The cattlemen, led by a despicable villain named Canton (Sam Waterston at his nastiest), claimed that the immigrants were stealing cattle and land in exchange for sexual favors in a local whorehouse run by Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). Acting under authority of the President and Federal Government, Canton and his Cattlemen's Association came up with a death list with 125 immigrant names on it, including Ella. The movie's central protagonist is marshall Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson in the performance of his career), who is in love with Ella. So is a bounty hunter named Nate Campion (Christopher Walken). How can the critics say there is no story here?! There is a passionate and romantic love triangle wrapped inside a powerful western conflict. As God is my witness, the uncut HEAVEN'S GATE is my favorite western of the last 25 years-yes, including Best Picture Oscar winners UNFORGIVEN (1992) and DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), which are admittedly very good adult westerns also.

I have no idea what HEAVEN'S alleged $40 million budget would be in 2005 dollars. Probably $80 million, which is hefty, but not unreasonable for a four hour period western meticulously shot on location on magnificent Idaho and Montana locations. An entire frontier town (Casper?) was built in Kalispell, Montana. A working antique train was brought to the location. Nothing was too good for the genius who had won Oscars for THE DEER HUNTER only two years before. The movie's art direction got a 1981 Oscar nomination. The dusty sepia Panavision photography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, captures the look of antique photos. There were horse wranglers for dozens of horses, dance and skating instructors (for an exquisite extended "Blue Danube Waltz" at Harvard at the beginning and a memorable roller skating scene in the film's middle). David Mansfield's fiddle and mandolin score is unforgettably beautiful and haunting throughout, especially when "The Blue Danube Waltz" becomes a slow motion dirge during the latter battle scenes. The climactic battle is violent and seems to go on as long as the real 1892 cattlemen/immigrants battle. It is a horrible and beautiful sustained sequence--maybe lasting an hour of screen time--that is severely shortened in the cut TV print. This is one gorgeous piece of filmmaking by a master who admittedly let the movie get away from him. It IS too long and IS too pessimistic. But at least you can see where the money went. It is a true labor of love movie that, ironically, may be Cimino's finest films. I don't think it is quite as great as THE DEER HUNTER, but certainly it is better than Cimino's modestly budgeted subsequent films.

(PLOT SPOILERS-BEWARE!) It is impossible to discuss why I love the uncut HEAVEN'S GATE so much without discussing the 20 minute Prologue and five minute Epilogue. So many critics call these scenes extraneous and confused, but they are the very heart of the movie for me. The Prologue takes place at 1870 Harvard with Jim Averill as a young student in love with a young woman he is frustratingly too shy to talk to; they exchange smiles. Averill is haunted by this beautiful young woman all his life, as I am by a married young woman I loved at UCLA long ago and cannot get out of my mind. Joseph Cotten has a cameo as a head professor, and John Hurt is the class orator. Look at the end credits. Writer Cimino really did his homework-these are real speeches being spoken. And the dance on Harvard lawn, a lengthy and enthralling "Blue Danube Waltz", may be one of the American cinema's loveliest set pieces. Shockingly, it is sometimes cut for time on TV showings, instead of the overlong battle much later.

The Epilogue is the key to the whole movie for me. Study it. (PLOT SPOILER ALERT!) It is 1903, and Jim Averill is the sole survivor of the bloody Johnson County War. I won't tell you how or where Nate and Ella die. We are on a yacht off Newport, Rhode Island at sunset. Averill is below deck with a young woman. He has finally married at least a surrogate for the girl of his dreams from Harvard long ago and is still deeply unhappy. He lights a cigarette for his presumed wife, while staring off into space, lost in his dreams of the past. He walks back up on deck for one of the most beautiful final shots in the American cinema of the 1980's. (Beware of an old VHS tape version that omits this final scene and freezes on Jim below deck!) And Mansfield's music, as always, is incomparable.

So, the majestic and magnificent HEAVEN'S GATE, in its uncut 219 minute form at least, is a portrait of the entire lifetime of Jim Averill, from Harvard youth in 1870, to Wyoming marshall in 1892, to a lonely middle aged intellectual man in 1903 with all of his friends dead or long gone. It is so haunting, and Mansfield's exquisite music plus Zsigmond's sepia-tinted Panavision photography, again make it a truly special motion picture if you have a whole evening viewing slot. (There is an intermission on the letterboxed VHS copy I am reviewing.) Happy 25th Birthday, HEAVEN'S GATE!


Heaven's Gate
Bill Durham | Austin, Texas | 11/28/1999
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Like another of the reviewers on this service, I was in the audience during the opening week of Heaven's Gate in Manhattan. When I read in the newspapers a week or so later that it had been panned and was considered a "disaster," I was puzzled. I still am. The most puzzling comment of all that I have heard through the years is that the film is "incomprehensible," or "has no plot." I have no earthly idea why anyone would say that. Is it because we have become so used to short films that don't require us to think? The film's plot is very simple and very easy to follow. I don't know how anyone could be confused by it. I'm also puzzled by negative comments about the acting. I had always loved Kristofferson's music, but until this film I felt that he was a lazy actor. Heaven's Gate made me a fan. The final expression on his face, frozen in pain, is exquisite. Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, Geoffrey Lewis, and Richard Masur are superb.This film is a perfect comment on the Reagan years in American politics, although it was released only a month after his election. The idea of government troops swooping down on the side of big money has never been portrayed better. To those who have never seen the film, or those who inisist that it has no plot, I recommend that you rid your minds of all prejudice, and become ready to watch a film that will challenge the mores of American society."
Is it really that bad?
S. Organ | Philadelphia, PA United States | 11/03/2002
(3 out of 5 stars)

"It is difficult to watch Heaven's Gate without being fully aware of the film's history. It was the film that brought down a studio; it is the worst film ever made; it was a film made by an egomaniac director completely out of control; it is a complete and incoherent mess. And, as with many film legends, many of these claims are made by people who have never seen it. So, whenever one sits down to watch this 3 hour 40 minute epic, you cannot help but view the film through these prisms.The current version of the film available on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD claims to be Cimino's original cut of the film, though that is hard to prove given that the 3+ hour version was never officially released. Studio heads panicked and yanked that version several days before the opening, demanding Cimino recut it to a shorter length. Apparently, this version available on video was "found" by the studio and released because of the enormous curiosity and history of the production. There has been no formal declaration that this version IS the final cut that Cimino had planned to release.Is the film as bad as everyone says? The film that is available on video does has its problems. The audio mix is atrocious with much of the dialogue being lost in the mix of ambient sound. The opening sequence, though well executed, is totally unnecessary. The pacing of the first 40 minutes is slow, confusing, and a mishmash of scenes that the viewer is left to figure out its importance and meaning. The lead actor and the film's anchor, Kris Kristoferson, turns in a boring, leaden, one-note performance that further hampers the film.But the film also has much going for it. The cinematography, always singled out as a highlight, is truly astonishing. Combined with the meticulous and accurate production work of the sets and costumes, the film has the unmistakable look and feel of being shot in the late 1890's. It has a compelling storyline that deals with the issue of immigration in a fresh and controversial way. The performances of the actors, in particular Hubert and Waterston, are excellent and go a long way in compensating for several weakly scripted scenes. And the music of David Mansfield is note-perfect. So when these elements are combined--as they are many times throughout--the film is very impressive, engaging, and shows enormous promise.Where the film truly suffers is in the editing. I saw the original 2 1/2 version several times during its release, though it was not much better overall (it felt too short!), the storyline was clearer and there were a couple of expository moments that this version lacks. One could easily trim down the first hour to an improved, clearer, and better paced 30 minutes. It is the lack of structure that really injures this version. One almost gets the sense that the film is still in its rough-cut stage and is about 2 - 3 versions away from a finished product.The DVD release is a huge disappointment. The master is taken from the laserdisc version and suffers an enormous loss of clarity. Because of this, viewers are only given a letterboxed version and not the preferred 16x9 presentation that this widescreen presentation deserves. The audio, though stating it is 5.1, is bland and muddled and demonstrates no delineation between front and rear. What is even more frustrating is that many of the Polish scenes lack proper subtitles, so the viewer has no idea what is being spoken. (There is no English subtitle track either.)It is difficult to recommend this film to family or friends as you will never know what will be the reaction. If you are patient and understand that this is not a final version, then you are more forgiving of its faults and can enjoy many of its excellent moments. On the other hand, if you are expecting to see the Worst Film Ever Made, you have much that will prove that theory. It all depends from which prism you choose to view the film."