Beginning with a graduation and ending with tears of regret, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is a monumental piece of American cinema; an opulent leviathan that moves to its own strange rhythm. While its troubling conception and destructive aftermath are legendary, the picture now stands proudly as an elegy for New Hollywood. Accused of destroying the movement, it ironically represents its apex, bringing the disparate strands of seventies American cinema to a mournful climax. Though its length and scope are reminiscent of the historical epics of the fifties, Heaven’s Gate remains a revolutionary film.
Cimino’s masterpiece is an openly leftist western, fuelled by modern, radical liberal notions. The sprawling plot is nominally about Harvard graduate Jim Averill (acclaimed actor and country singer Kris Kristofferson) returning to Johnson County, Wyoming to resume his post as marshal. He comes back to a community in crisis; the European immigrants who live in the area have become the subject of a death list drawn up by the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association who accuse them of stealing livestock for food. While rehashing the criticism to which Heaven’s Gate was subjected on its initial release is an exercise in futility, it is worth noting just how extraordinarily wrong contemporary audiences were.
The film represents the fruits of a decade of untrammelled auteurism in American cinema; it is the final word on the time when the director was king. Cimino’s signature is embedded in the celluloid; it’s the sum of one man’s creative vision and ambitions, projected against the weight of American history. There’s just so much to love here. From the wide vistas to light creeping in through shutters, the camerawork is frequently breathtaking. In the age of CGI, we are unlikely to see the kind of physical spectacle seen in Heaven’s Gate again, with each frame is a treasure trove of painstaking detail and historical richness.
Heaven’s Gate’s greatest achievement is the sense of fin-de-siècle contemplation buried within is political narratives. Cimino shows us a country determined to beat down the hands that built it – namely its immigrants. The fight for Johnson County functions as a microcosm of seventies America; a battle for the soul of a nation. It’s telling that the enemies are stock growers who represent commerce, and Cimino makes them synonymous with both the law and the ruling senate. In a state of lawlessness, money talks. It was an incredibly bold path for a western to take then, and it remains so to this day.