Michael Cimino Revisits His Notorious Flop Heaven's Gate, Which Maybe Was a Masterpiece All Along

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So goes the adage from John Ford's 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and so it has gone for Heaven's Gate, the class-war Western written and directed by one of Ford's truest disciples among contemporary American filmmakers: Michael Cimino. Released in a single New York cinema in the fall of 1980, then hastily pulled by its beleaguered distributor, United Artists, Heaven's Gate was reissued the following year in a drastically cut version and has lived on in the pop lexicon as a euphemism without context — shorthand for large-scale Hollywood excess and failure, named for a movie that few audiences of the past three decades have been able to properly see to judge for themselves.

Now, finally, the winds of change have begun to blow favorably upon Heaven's Gate. A stunning new restoration produced by the Criterion Collection and supervised by Cimino has brought the film back before audiences in its full, uncut glory, beginning with special presentations at last fall's Venice and New York film festivals, where it received enthusiastic standing ovations. The New York screening — a return to "the scene of the crime," as a visibly emotional Cimino commented onstage afterward — came as particularly sweet vindication for the filmmaker, as did an accompanying headline, "Time Has Been Kind to Heaven's Gate," in the New York Times (whose then-lead film critic, Vincent Canby, eviscerated the movie in 1980).

Then, last October, Heaven's Gate screened on the closing night of France's Grand Lyon Film Festival, a celebration of classic films organized by the Institut Lumière, the film museum located on the grounds of the former photography factory where brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière produced some of the world's first motion pictures. The screening took place in a converted gymnasium before an audience of more than 4,000 spectators, and the reaction was once again ecstatic. Later that evening, at a dinner in Cimino's honor held at a small Lyonnais bistro, longtime Lumière Institute program director Thierry Frémaux proclaimed that the time had come to regard Heaven's Gate not merely as a movie deserving of a better reputation but as one of the masterpieces of world cinema.

Michael Cimino and Kris Kristofferson on the set of Heaven's Gate.
Michael Cimino and Kris Kristofferson on the set of Heaven's Gate.

"All of those years, I felt like Heaven's Gate was a beautiful, fantastically colored balloon tied to a string fastened to my wrist, so the balloon could never fly," Cimino says over dinner at Marino, the Melrose Avenue Italian haunt where he goes when he doesn't want to be recognized. It is, he says, the kind of place where you can show up in your pajamas, though on this particular evening he's wearing an elegant, snap-button denim shirt and amber sunglasses to shade his sensitive eyes. "When Thierry said what he said, I just felt so light," he continues. "I thought, finally, the movie is off on its own. It's floating freely and going up into the clouds."

Based on a real-life incident that Cimino first discovered while researching the history of barbed wire in the West, Heaven's Gate depicts a bloody 1890 land battle between poor, predominantly Eastern European homesteaders and wealthy cattle barons in the frontier territory of Johnson County, Wyoming.

To authentically re-create the period, Cimino built an entire Western town on the movie's Montana location and transported a working steam locomotive from a Denver museum. (An ad for Kodak film stock in Variety featured director and train beneath the boldfaced quotation, "If you don't get it right, what's the point?" — this could be a mantra for Cimino's entire career.)

That fastidious attention to detail is hardly for naught: Watching Heaven's Gate, you feel a sensory immersion in the world of Johnson County — the precise textures of costumes and props, the faces of thousands of extras who seem to have stepped out of old daguerrotypes — nearly forgotten at the movies in the CGI era. Which is to say nothing of the landscape photography of Cimino and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, in which characters disappear into billowing dust, and low clouds loom portentously on the horizon. It is said that Cimino, like David Lean before him, spent days waiting for light and weather to perfectly align, but he was right to do so, for not only is Heaven's Gate one of the most visually ravishing films ever made but also one in which the beauty of the images is matched by the meaning they carry.

"This is going to sound corny as hell, but you have to be at one with that place," says Cimino, who fell in love with the West as a young man and has returned to it time and again in both the films he has made and the many he hasn't (among the latter a planned adaptation of Frederick Manfred's novel Conquering Horse, about the Dakota Indians before the arrival of the white man). "The Indians believe all things have spirit — even the hail that comes from the sky is spirit. If you believe that, which I implicitly do, everything is alive. You can have this incredibly gorgeous frame, magically lit, and you get the actors there, and just as you're ready to roll, a little cloud comes in front of the sun and the shot turns to shit. So you've got a choice: Do you shoot it looking utterly mediocre, or do you wait? And the mountain knows you're looking at your watch. And the mountain says, 'I'm going to test this joker.' Because the mountain doesn't automatically give you its beauty; it sees if you're equal to it. If you prove that you are, it will allow you to see it."

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