The cinematic art form is no stranger to the redemptive narrative arc, one that has transcended or reached beyond the dance between a narrative and it’s protagonists, and which is seemingly the destiny of individual films.
1980 – 1983 marks the release of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, all of which have been rescued from the critical scrap heap following some critical back-peddling.
If the adage is true that “Time heals all wounds”, then of these four films it is Heaven’s Gate that replaces a question mark in place of a full stop. Even today it is inflicted with a fate which it cannot seem to escape; the critical scalpel remaining sharp and opinion divided.
Now restored under the supervision of writer-director Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate has made its way onto Blu-ray, readying itself for the judgement of new and previous generations alike.
Following on from his Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, Cimino keeps his gaze fixed on the past, but this time he turns his gaze towards his homeland’s past and the Western genre; the only pure American genre outside of the gangster film.
With shades of Shane’s central conflict, itself inspired by the events of the Johnson County War of 1892, Michael Cimino exploits with his own flash of creative license the same historical events to form a backdrop to his sprawling Western character drama.
Cimino however disregards the power of the drama which lies at the heart of the American cattle barons versus the settling American ranchers or homesteaders. The creative license and exaggeration he exercises in regards to the population of immigrant settlers versus the American cattle barons dilutes a conflict that historically is a testament of America’s roots stained with the blood of its pasts civil conflicts. It is these conflicts that have marred the great experiment which aspires to liberty and equality from its very beginning, but which has represented a continuous struggle.
Whilst the “Stars and Stripes” feature prominently in the film and promotional artwork, it may seem that Cimino’s objective is to create a critique of America, but it is a critique of America through the people who shape its destiny. It is a critique which is aimed with specific focus on the differing perspectives of in the words of Joseph Cotton’s Reverend Doctor, the “cultivated mind”, represented by the opposing viewpoints of Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson). Averill perceives that prejudice and entitlement stifles the destiny of a young and aspiring country and that all shape the destiny of a country whether rich or poor. For Averill the law is the guiding light before all men, whilst Canton perceives his class to be the guiding and determining force.
Perhaps Cimino does nothing other than tell a traditional Western tale of good versus evil, but in so doing he transforms his retelling of the Johnson County War into a tale of exaggerated and fictitious American xenophobia that is ironically more pertinent today than ever.
The Western is a product of American history and myth, and Cimino like Stevens before him shows that history can be turned into simple moral plays or sprawling character dramas with little reverence for history. Their only reverence is to the creation of an entertaining and/or thought provoking narrative.
In what is a fine performance, Kris Kristofferson casts aside his previous Western incarnation from only seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whilst Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson and Christopher Walken as Nathan D. Champion lend the film their affable charm and onscreen charisma that defines them as two of cinema’s accomplished actors.
In the words of Sergio Leone the Western was “Something to do with death”, and Heaven’s Gate alongside Peckinpah’s climactic The Wild Bunch shootout and Leone’s own The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Civil War battle constitutes one of the most haunting depictions of death to grace the genre. The images of death that Cimino commits to the screen can only be answered with silence as we bear witness to women and men fight the oppression which provoked America’s own quest for independence over a century earlier. Indeed, Heaven’s Gate is “Something to do with death.”
As a sprawling human drama Heaven’s Gate is a flawed but powerful piece of filmmaking, frustratingly episodic in moments through Cimino’s unwavering patience to extend the calm before the storm. Cimino’s enthusiasm for character and dialogue, married to the aesthetic beauty of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography make this an evocative piece of filmmaking. It is a testament to the diversity of the genre in that it permits directors to offer their distinct views of the American myth that can only be defined as a tale of violent struggle, where optimism meets the cynical realities, but equally and all importantly a place where one can dream despite the onslaught of so called progress and the inevitability of history, myth and cinema stained in blood.
Heaven’s Gate is available to own now on DVD and Blu-Ray courtesy of Second Sight.
Heaven’s Gate DVD review by Paul Risker.