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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Heaven’s Gate – The 40th Anniversary

From Hollywood Disaster To An American Masterpiece


It’s 1978 and writer/director Michael Cimino was beginning to have it all. Having just won critical and fan praise, and winning five Oscars for his Vietnam masterpiece “The Deer Hunter”. It’s easy to see why Cimino would be trusted by any major studio, with head lining an even more ambitious film as his next project. Known more for its notorious reputation, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” thrives as an historical epic western of beautiful craftsmanship and striking, focused filmmaking by Cimino. Good or bad, some movies live and die upon their notoriety, and “Heaven’s Gate” was as notorious as they come. Starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe in his first film appearance. Going nearly three times over budget to being marred by accusations of cruelty to animals during it’s production to under performing in theaters upon its high expectations, due to Cimino’s monstrous perfectionist approach to his craft. The results of it’s disastrous box office resulted in the closure of it’s film studio United Artists, the end of the “New Hollywood” filmmaking phase and becoming the final nail in the coffin of Cimino’s once burgeoning career. After being re-cut over the years into five different versions. “Heaven’s Gate” was released in it’s definitive version, as a “directors cut” in 2012 that runs at four hours in length and supervised by Cimino himself. Cimino’s 1980 epic Americana western became one of the biggest, most notorious flops in Hollywood history. While I personally love “Heaven’s Gate”, as so much of it is splendid and is an undeniable masterpiece. It’s mind boggling that anyone could pit the movie as an unqualified disaster as it’s timeless in its craft and subject. But a bold and engrossing spectacle that was let down by controversy and scandal, yet buoyed by Cimino’s uncompromising and far reaching vision. Frame for frame it can rival any motion picture for sheer cinematic beauty. This is the story of “Heaven’s Gate”….

It had all started so promisingly for the New York born Michael Cimino, who graduated in graphic arts from Michigan State University and began his film career filming commercials. Cimino moved to Los Angeles to take up screenwriting in 1971, where he submitted an original script for “The Johnson County War” (later re-named “Heaven’s Gate”) but the project was shelved when it failed to attract any big name talent. Instead Cimino co-wrote the scripts to the Bruce Dern sci-fi thriller “Silent Running” (1972) and Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” sequel, “Magnum Force” (1973). Cimino’s directorial debut was “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”, which he also scripted. Star Clint Eastwood had read the script and sent it to his personal production company Malpaso Productions, which allowed Cimino to direct the film in 1974.

His follow-up was an industry head turner and deemed Michael Cimino the next big thing. It was the Vietnam drama, “The Deer Hunter”, with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. It was a critical smash that went on to win five Oscars, including best picture, in 1979 and live on to become masterpiece status. Any major film studio would have been keen to finance his third film, but none was more excited than United Artists. The studios top executives had just walked out over a disagreement with UA’s parent company, Transamerica, so their replacements were desperate to be associated with a prestigious hit. The sprawling western epic “Heaven’s Gate” was to be the proud centerpiece of the studios slate of films, but instead sent the studio into bankruptcy. Cimino was simply trying to make a David Lean picture much like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”, but set in the American West. 

The film’s subject was the Johnson County War of 1889-1893, a conflict between Wyoming’s biggest cattle ranchers and the immigrant homesteaders who challenged their monopoly. But Cimino wasn’t setting out to make a film full of western style shoot-outs. “Heaven’s Gate” was meant to be a work of art and a monumental American saga. While at its heart it would be a tragic love triangle between Kris Kristofferson’s noble marshal, the Association’s ruthless sharp-shooter (played by Christopher Walken) and the bordello madam they both adore (played by Isabelle Huppert). 

The cast was impressive including: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe in his first film role. “Heaven’s Gate” when released in 1980, was regarded as one of the worst films ever made and became a synonym for Hollywood foolishness. It has since been released over five different versions and film cuts that improved it’s reputation to being called an American masterpiece in it’s years to come. Cimino’s career had been destroyed and further tarnished after the disastrous release of “Heaven’s Gate”. He followed up the western epic by directing four films, which all failed critically and commercially. After the release of his final film “Sunchaser” in 1996, he retired from filmmaking.

Thankfully to director Michael Cimino’s perfectionism his once disaster of a film, is now feted as an epic American masterpiece. His painstaking methods also help explain why the film went four times over budget and a year behind schedule. When it finally premiered, 40 years ago (on November 18th), the films soundtrack could barely be heard or properly celebrated over the gossip about Cimino’s self-indulgence and the studio’s impatience. The critics pronounced it an “unqualified disaster”, and the viewing public agreed, as it showed in it’s box office ticket sales of $3.5 million from a budget that grew from a proposed $7.5m to an agreed $11.6m to a total of what was a whopping budget of $44m.

The film’s original cut was subsequently condemned as one of the worst films ever made. The film’s failure at the box office had major financial repercussions for United Artists, causing the company to go bankrupt. Transamerica then sold United Artists to Kirk Kerkorian, who also owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which effectively ended the studio’s existence as an independent studio. United Artists would then merge MGM into becoming MGM/UA Entertainment Co. before United Artists was revived as a subsidiary division in 1987. While the money loss due to “Heaven’s Gate” was considerable, United Artists was still a thriving studio with a steady income provided by the James Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky franchises. But United Artists found itself struggling after the executive walkout in 1978 and after several other major box office flops in 1980, including Cruising and Foxes.

During the 70s, relatively young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, William Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg had been given large budgets with very little studio control. However, some directors’ power lessened considerably, as a result of disappointing box-office performers such as both Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (1977) and the aforementioned “Cruising” (1980), Coppola’s “One from the Heart” (1981) and of course Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”. As the new high-concept paradigm of filmmaking became more entrenched, studio control of budgets and productions became tighter, ending the free-wheeling excesses.

“Heaven’s Gate” was the one blamed for ending those freewheeling glory days of Hollywood in the 1970s, resulting in the demise of the director driven film production in the American film. Causing films to steer back toward greater studio control of films that led to the new paradigm of the high concept feature, ushering in the corporate blockbusters of the 1980s that was epitomized by “Jaws” and “Star Wars”. 

Principal photography for “Heaven’s Gate” began on April 16, 1979 in Glacier National Park, just east of Kalispell in Montana, with the majority of the town scenes filmed in the Two Medicine area, just north of the village of East Glacier Park. Shooting also included the town of Wallace, Idaho. It has been said that day six into filming, Cimino was already five days behind schedule and had already spent $900,000 on a minute and a half of usable footage (that’s really crazy!). 

Cimino’s fanatical attention to detail was so intense that a street had to be built to his precise specifications, that it had to be torn down and rebuilt because it reportedly “didn’t look right”. The street in question needed to be six feet wider; the sets construction boss said it would be cheaper to tear down one side and move it back six feet, but Cimino insisted that both sides be dismantled and moved back three feet, then reassembled again. Another occasion an entire tree was cut down, moved in pieces and relocated to the courtyard where the Harvard 1870 graduation scene was shot. Cimino also had an irrigation system built under the land where the major battlefield scene would unfold, so that it would remain vividly green, to contrast with the red tint color of the film.

The studio knew something had to be done. But when another United Artist executive, Derek Kavanagh was dispatched to Wyoming to rewrite Cimino’s schedule, the director responded by dictating and posting a memo: “Derek Kavanagh is not to come to the location set. He is not to enter the editing room. He is not to speak to me at all”.

Cimino and the perfectionist he is, set about making what is still one of the most gloriously scenic and meticulously detailed Westerns ever seen. Every ingredient and element had to be impeccable, even if that meant building a Wild West town from scratch to transporting a vintage steam train from a museum in Montana at a cost of $150 thousand dollars to signing up 1200 extras, all of whom were dressed in authentic period costumes and whom were sent to a daily “Cimino Camp”, where they were taught everything from horse-riding, gun shooting, rollerskating and cock-fighting. 

One day, a crowd of those extras sat around for hours while Cimino waited for the light to change and when an Assistant Director suggested, that it might be time for a lunchbreak, Cimino snapped, “Lunch? This is bigger than lunch!” The cast and crew nicknamed him “Ayatollah Cimino” (Ayatollah was the name of a leader in Iran), due to his obsessive behavior. Production kept falling behind schedule as rumors spread that Cimino was demanding up to 50 takes of individual scenes and even delaying filming until a cloud that he liked would roll into the frame. Even actor John Hurt had reportedly spent so long waiting around on the production for something to do that he went off and made “The Elephant Man”, released in 1980, for David Lynch in the interim and then came back to shoot more scenes on “Heaven’s Gate”.

As production staggered forward, United Artists had seriously considered firing Cimino and replacing him with another director, who was reportedly Norman Jewison (“Moonstruck”) and David Lean (“Lawrence Of Arabia”). “Heaven’s Gate” had more than it’s fair share of on set stories. In a making-of documentary, actor Jeff Bridges recalls that when it was time to film the climactic battle scenes, the actors would be woken up at 3:30am, and driven for three hours along dirt roads to the site. Once there, it was mostly actors, rather than stunt-riders, who had to race their horses at full speed through clouds of dust with guns blazing. Bridges was terrified by the lack of the safety precautions, saying “Even in a real battle, you don’t do it over and over again”. 

Two and a half hours into Michael Cimino’s epic Western, theres a sequence of a band of townsfolk who bustles into a hotel room to wake up a dead drunk federal marshal (played by Kris Kristofferson). The marshal is so shocked that he kicks one of his visitors away and then drives the others back with the crack of a bull-whip. It’s a short, simple sequence and Cimino filmed it 52 times. “That’s all we shot that day. It went on and on and on and on”, groans Sandra Jordan (the films key costumer).

Kris Kristofferson who did a phone interview from his Maui home with The Los Angeles Times, chuckles and sighs as he recalls what it was like working on “Heaven’s Gate”. Kristofferson said: “It was an ordeal”, as he remembered the aforementioned sequence. “We kept doing it right. But some guy in the scene didn’t do it right”. 

Most of the on-set stories, however, isn’t about a lunatic taking dangerous risks, but about Cimino a director and artist who was labouring to make the best film possible. “From someone on the outside it would look like it was almost too much” says Bridges, “but it never appeared that way to me. It was like, oh, this guy really cares”. Lead actor Kris Kristofferson roughly said the same thing…”I bet Michelangelo cared. I bet Picasso cared. Anybody who believes in his artistic vision, I bet they care. I probably didn’t care that much! But I was glad to be working with somebody who did!”.

Cimino had shot more than 1.3 million feet of film (which is nearly 220 hours of footage), costing the studio approximately $200,000 per day in salary, locations and acting fees. Privately, it was joked that Cimino wished to surpass Francis Ford Coppola’s mark of shooting one million feet of footage from 1979’s “Apocalypse Now”. 

“Heaven’s Gate” finished shooting in March of 1980. Cimino would have to edit over a million feet of footage down to the required two to three hour film that was specified in his contract. Reportedly, Cimino had changed the lock to the studio’s editing room to prohibit any executives from seeing the film until he completed his cut, although Cimino has disputed this story. Working with Oscar-winning editor William H. Reynolds, Cimino worked doggedly over the project and locking himself into the cutting room, working for days without sleep. 

As one crew member involved noted, “Michael didn’t want respect. He wanted awe. The idea was that the magic man was in his workshop doing his magic and we should all just leave him alone and let him finish”. On June 26th 1980, Cimino previewed a workprint cut for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran five hours and twenty five minutes, which Cimino said was “about 15 minutes longer than what the final cut would be”. 

The executives flatly refused to release the film at that length and once again contemplated firing Cimino. However, Cimino promised them he could re-edit the film and spent the rest of the summer and fall of 1980 doing so, finally cutting it down to its original premiere length of 3 hours and 39 minutes.

Cimino finished editing just in time for the New York premiere on November 18th, 1980. But the film he premiered and presented at the premiere was nearly four hours long. Bridges remembers the audience’s befuddled silence, saying “After all that work. Ugh, it was terrible”. During an intermission at that same premiere, the audience was so subdued that Cimino was said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told by his publicist, “Because they hate the movie, Michael”. But the worse was yet to come….

The reviews in the next morning’s newspapers condemned the film as a pretentious, obscure, meandering, extravagant fiasco. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely. That you might suspect Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and the Devil has just come around to collect”. After a sparsely attended one week run, Cimino and United Artists had quickly pulled the film from any further releases, completely postponing a full worldwide release. 

United Artists gave Cimino another chance to edit it down to a more reasonable two and a half hours in order to re-release it back into theaters the following spring. When the film made a disappointing $3.5 million at the box office, the humiliation continued and Cimino’s reputation as a filmmaker plummeted. Cimino wrote an open letter to the studio that was printed in several trade papers blaming the unrealistic deadline pressures for the film’s failure. United Artists reportedly also hired its own editor to try to edit Cimino’s footage into a releasable film, but had no success.

The very poor box office performance of the film also contributed to a negative impact on the Western genre, which had enjoyed a revival since the late 1960s. Very few Western films were released in the 80s by major studios, aside from “Pale Rider” and “Silverado” (both released in 1985). But a brief revival of the Western came in the 90s with the Oscar-winning hits “Dances with Wolves”, “Unforgiven” and “Tombstone”. When reports had emerged of “Dances With Wolves” going over budget, Kevin Costner’s Oscar winning Western was nicknamed “Kevin’s Gate”. Cimino’s pride and joy had officially become a punchline.

On April 24th 1981, the film opened in 810 theaters in a “director’s cut” running at two hours and twenty nine minutes (this would be Cimino’s third time recutting the film). But Cimino would have the last laugh as his “original” cut of “Heaven’s Gate” earned rapturous reviews when it was shown in Britain in 1982. Thirty years after that, he presented the restored directors cut that ran nearly four hours long at the Venice Film Festival and its reception was even more euphoric. 

In total there are five different versions of the film, including:

•Cut 1 – The Workprint cut: (325 minutes). This “workprint” cut was shown to executives in June 1980. Cimino had rushed through post-production and editing in order to meet his contractual requirements to United Artists and to qualify for the 1980 Academy Awards.

•Cut 2 – Initial “Premiere” Cut: (219 minutes). In 1982, this 219 minute cut that premiered at the 1980 film premiere would be the version aired on cable television. It was the first time that the longer version was widely exhibited and which was dubbed the “director’s cut”. When MGM released the film on VHS and videodisc in the 1980s, it released this directors cut with the tagline “Heaven’s Gate…The Legendary Uncut Version”. Subsequent releases in it’s later years on both LaserDisc and DVD have contained only the 219 minute premiere cut. 

Due to the wide availability of the 219 minute version and its frequent labeling as either “uncut” or the “director’s cut”, Cimino insisted that the so-called “original premiere version” did not fully correspond to his intentions and that he was under pressure to bring it out for the predetermined date and did not consider the film ready, making it essentially what Cimino considers an “unfinished” film. Jeff Bridges joked that Cimino had worked on editing the “premiere cut” of the film so close to the films big premiere, that the print screened was still wet from the lab.

•Cut 3 – Director’s Second edit: (149 minutes). Ultimately, this is Cimino’s second edited version that premiered in April 1981 and was the only cut of the film screened in wide release. The original negative for the longer version no longer exists because it was directly edited on for this 149 minute version. This cut of the film is not just shorter but differs radically in placement of scenes and selection of takes. and after leaving theaters, it was not released on home video of any kind in the United States, but was later released on DVD in France. This version has also aired on the MGM HD cable channel and was available free with ads on US streaming provider Tubi from March to November 2017.

•Cut 4 – Radical Cut: (219 minutes). Some shots are slightly shorter and a shot with a single line has been cut (just after John Hurt is beaten by Sam Waterston). This cut was reassembled by MGM archivist John Kirk, who reported that large portions of the original negative had been discarded, making this an all-new radical version using whatever alternative available scenes that were found. The restored print was screened in Paris and presented to a sold out audience at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with a live introduction by it’s co-star Isabelle Huppert. Because the project was commissioned by then MGM executive Bingham Ray, who was ousted shortly thereafter, the budget for the project was cut and a planned wider release and DVD release never materialized. Reassembled by MGM with available high quality footage, that used alternative footage where required.

•Cut 5 – Digitally restored Director’s Cut: (216 minutes). Restored in 2012 for the 69th Venice Film Festival, followed by a Blu Ray & DVD release by the prestigious home video company known as The Criterion Collection. The restored 216 minute version with intermission removed and the film being slightly shortened. This was the officially deemed “Director’s Cut” that was personally supervised by Michael Cimino, who has expressed this as his preferred version of the film and feels it is the complete version he intended to make.

After it’s release “Heaven’s Gate” was marred by accusations of cruelty to animals during it’s production. One assertion was that live horses were bled from the neck without giving them pain killers so that their blood could be collected and smeared upon the actors in a scene. The American Humane Association (AHA), which was barred from monitoring the animal action on the set had asserted that four horses were killed and many more injured during a battle scene. It was claimed that one of the horses was blown up by dynamite (this footage appears in the final cut of the film).

According to the AHA, the owner of an abused horse filed a lawsuit against the producers, director, Partisan Productions and the horse wrangler. The owner cited wrongful injury and breach of contract for willfully depriving her Arabian gelding of proper care. The suit cited “the severe physical and behavioral trauma and disfigurement” of the horse. The case was settled out of court.

There were also accusations of actual cockfights, decapitated chickens and a group of cows disemboweled to provide “fake intestines” for the actors. The outcry prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize the AHA to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.

“Heaven’s Gate” is listed on AHA’s list of unacceptable films and the AHA had protested the film by distributing an international press release detailing the assertions of animal cruelty and asking people to boycott it. AHA organized picket lines outside movie theaters in Hollywood while local humane societies did the same across the USA. Though “Heaven’s Gate” was not the first film to have animals killed during its production, it is believed that the film was largely responsible for sparking the now common use of the “No animals were harmed…” disclaimer and more rigorous supervision of animal acts by the AHA, which had been inspecting film production since the 1940s.

“Heaven’s Gate” was nominated for one Oscar at the 54th Academy Awards for Best Art Direction. While at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival it was in competition for the highly elite Palme d’Or. The Golden Raspberry Awards which awards the worst films of the year, gave “Heaven’s Gate” five nominations at their 2nd award ceremony. It was nominated for worst picture, worst screenplay, worst musical score, worst actor (Kris Kristofferson) and worst director for Michael Cimino (who took home the win). 

The first time I had seen any version of “Heaven’s Gate”, was the supervised by Cimino himself directors cut that was provided in all of it’s glorious splendor thanks to the Criterion Collection. I personally love “Heaven’s Gate”, as so much of it is splendid and is an undeniable masterpiece. It’s mind boggling that anyone could pit the movie as an unqualified disaster as it’s timeless in its craft and subject. But a bold and engrossing spectacle that was let down by controversy and scandal, yet buoyed by Cimino’s uncompromising and far reaching vision. Frame for frame it can rival any motion picture for sheer cinematic beauty. 

“Heaven’s Gate” is colossally ambitious and mysteriously moving, with an unhurried, unforced pace. For all the abuse heaped on it, Cimino’s film is a majestic and lovingly detailed Western that simultaneously celebrates and undermines the myth of the American frontier. Despite its notorious reputation, “Heaven’s Gate” thrives as an epic historical western of beautiful craftsmanship and striking filmmaking by Michael Cimino. It Is indeed a demanding watch for some, but it’s a rewarding watch. It’s a bold and engrossing masterpiece, buoyed by Cimino’s uncompromising and far reaching vision.   

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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