Heaven's Gate is a 1980 western movie depicting the Johnson County War, a dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. The film's production was plagued by cost and time over runs, negative press, and rumors about director Michael Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It debuted to poor reviews and earned little money, eventually contributing the collapse of its studio United Artists and effectively destroyed the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the hottest directors in Hollywood due to The Deer Hunter.
Cimino had an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed the film far over its planned budget. The movie's financial problems and United Artists' subsequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films.
The film's actors included Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Masur, Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and Willem Dafoe.
The film then flashes forward 20 years, where Averill is now the sheriff in the booming region of Johnson County, Wyoming, where European immigrants are stealing the cattle of the rich WASP ranch owners for food. Nathan D. Champion (Walken) – who knows Averill – is an enforcer for the landowners, and he kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a meeting of The Stock Growers Association (a group wealthy ranch owners), a dissipated Billy Irvine is revealed to be a member. Quite intoxicated, he leaves the meeting and goes upstairs to a billiard room, where he encounters Averill and tells him of the Stock Growers's intention to violently force the settlers to leave. As Averill leaves, he exchanges bitter words (and punches) with the head of the Association, Frank Canton (Waterston), who is politically connected.
Ella Watson (Huppert), a bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes, is in love with Averill and Champion, and she helps teach the illiterate Champion how to read and write. She finds herself caught between the two as it's revealed that the Association has composed a list of more than one hundred settlers ("thieves and anarchists," as Canton calls them) – Ella included – who will be killed by men from Texas who are hired by the Association. Averill gets a copy of the list from Captain Minardi (Terry O'Quinn) of the U.S. Army and later reads the names on the list to the settlers, who are shocked and begin to argue about what to do, with one becoming enraged enough to shoot the mayor (Paul Koslo) in the ear. Cully (Richard Masur), a train conductor and friend of Averill's, sees the train containing Canton's posse and rides off to warn the settlers, but is murdered by the posse after stopping to sleep during his journey. Later, a group of men come to Ella's bordello and rape her, but all of them except one are shot and killed by Averill. Champion arrives, and after realizing that his landowner bosses seek to eliminate Ella, he goes to Canton's camp and shoots the remaining rapist, after which he and Canton become enemies because of Champion's refusal to participate in the slaughter.
"Trapper" (Geoffrey Lewis) – one of Champion's friends – is walking away from the cabin he and Champion share when he encounters Canton and possibly Canton's entire posse. He is given one minute to go back to the cabin and warn Champion and their friend Nick Ray (Mickey Rourke) and then come back to safety. However, as soon as Trapper emerges from the door he is shot, and the gun battle begins. Ella arrives in a wagon and shoots one of the hired guns but doesn't stay, escaping on her horse. Champion and Nick Ray and are then killed. Ella returns to town and warns the settlers that Canton's men are nearby, and the settlers decide to fight back. Averill then leads the settlers to attack Canton's gang (after he and Ella discover the bodies of Nate and Nick Ray), and both sides suffer casualties (including a drunken Billy Irvine) before the U.S. Army arrives and stops the fighting, just as Averill's side is about to overrun the landowners' men, helped by Averill's knowledge of classical war wagons and tactics. Later, John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) meets Ella and Averill at Ella's cabin, as all three are going to leave the area. They are ambushed by Canton and two others. Bridges and Averill kill Canton and one of the men, but both Bridges and Ella are killed. Averill then mourns Ella as he holds her in his arms, as the film fades out.
The film then shows a title, "Newport, Rhode Island, 1903," with a yacht at sea in the background. A well-dressed, mustachioed Averill is revealed to be the yacht's owner, walking on the deck. Going down into the yacht, he enters a room and an attractive lady (who apparently is one of two women who eyed Averill during the graduation 33 years earlier) is asleep. Averill sits in a chair and looks at her, saying nothing. The woman awakens and asks Averill for a cigarette, who then sits on an ottoman closer to her and offers her one and lights it without speaking, barely moving from his ottoman. They look at each other, and Averill gets up and goes towards the door. Exchanging looks with her, Averill then peers at the rest of the room and then leaves.
The project promptly fell behind schedule, according to legend by day six of filming it was already five days behind schedule. Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing approximately $200,000 per day. Despite going overbudget, Cimino was not financially penalized because he had a contract with United Artists to the effect that all money spent "to complete and deliver the picture in time for a Christmas 1979 release shall not be treated as overbudget expenditures." The film finished shooting in March 1980, having cost nearly $30 million.
As production staggered forward, United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino and replacing him with another director. Norman Jewison was reportedly approached and asked if he would take over, but he rejected the job.
Production was also marred by controversy regarding Cimino's cruelty to horses used on set. The American Humane Association has claimed that four horses were killed and many more injured during filming of a battle scene in Heaven's Gate. One of the horses killed, plus its rider (Ronnie Hawkins) who survived, was actually blown up by dynamite; the footage appeared in the final cut.
During postproduction, after months of delays, last minute changes, and cost overruns, Cimino delivered his version which ran 5 hours and 25 minutes (325 minutes) long; United Artists executives forced Cimino to edit the film to 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes). Cimino pulled that version from release after its premiere in New York City on November 19, 1980. That cut of the film did run for one week at New York's Cinema I theater, however.
The premiere was by all accounts a disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Cimino is said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told, "Because they hate the movie, Michael."
A subsequent review by New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Heaven's Gate "an unqualified disaster," comparing it to "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Canby went even further by stating that "It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect." Roger Ebert quipped in The Chicago Sun-Times: "The most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon.
Heaven's Gate resurfaced six months later in a 2 hour and 29 minute (149 minute) version attempting to recoup some of its losses. But negative publicity had already damaged the film's reputation and this version quickly disappeared from theatres.
In 2008, film critic Joe Queenan of The Guardian named Heaven's Gate as the worst movie ever made. In his review, Queenan notes that "this is a movie that destroyed the director's career. This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business. This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl. This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that defies belief."
Transamerica then sold United Artists to MGM, which effectively ended the existence of the studio. MGM would later revive the name "United Artists" as a subsidiary division. 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 and Rocky franchises. Many have also argued that United Artists was already struggling at the time with the box offices flops of Cruising and Foxes, both released earlier in 1980.
The fracas had a wider effect on the American film industry at the time. During the 1970s, relatively young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin were given unprecedentedly large budgets with very little studio control (New Hollywood). The studio largesse eventually led to the new paradigm of the high concept feature, epitomized by Jaws and Star Wars. But it also led to less successful films as Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977), and culminating in Coppola's One from the Heart and Cimino's Heaven's Gate, among other money-losers. As the new high-concept paradigm of film making became more entrenched, studio control of budgets and productions became tighter, ending the free-wheeling excesses (or, the infiltration of the culture of the promotion of aesthetic freedom, if you prefer to view film production primarily as an artistic rather than a commercial venture) that begat Heaven's Gate.
The very poor box office performance of the film also had a huge impact on the western genre of films which had a revival in the late 1960s. From this point on, very few western films were released by major studios.
In addition, there was some controversy among animal rights activists: four horses were killed during the filming, including one being dynamited onscreen (Major Wolcott's (Ronnie Hawkins's) horse); horses, steer and chickens were bled to provide "fake blood" for the actors, the steer were also gutted to provide "fake intestines" for the actors. Though Heaven's Gate was not the first film to have animals killed during its production, it is believed that the film was responsible for sparking the now common use of the "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer and more rigorous supervision of animal acts by the American Humane Association who had been inspecting film production since the 1940s.
When MGM home video released the film on VHS in the 1980s, they released Cimino's 219 minute cut, using the tagline "Heaven's Gate… The Legendary Uncut Version." Subsequent releases on laserdisc and DVD have been the 219 minute cut. The 149 minute cut, released in 1981, has never been released on home video in the United States and is now very difficult to see or get access to. This cut of the film is not just shorter but differs in placement of scenes and selection of takes.
"The whole idea of a director's cut being something you could actually market came out of Jerry Harvey's rescue of Heaven's Gate," notes F.X. Feeney, a film critic who contributed heavily to Z Channel's programming guide. "It's an important measure, because home video, home viewing via pay TV, these things have really revolutionized how we perceive movies."
In October 2004, an uncut version of the film was again shown in selected art-house cinemas in the U.S. and Australia, along with Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, a documentary about Z Channel. In 2005, the original uncut version of Heaven's Gate was re-released in Paris. It was also shown to a sold out audience at New York's Museum of Modern Art with a live introduction by Isabelle Huppert.
In an episode of Animaniacs titled "Video Review", a video copy of Heaven's Gate is used as a weapon, an exploding 'bomb' (along with another 'bomb', 1941 directed by Steven Spielberg). This is a tribute to the early Warner Bros. Cartoons such as Book Revue in which the inventory of a store spring to life.