CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
Let’s revisit the ever-reviled “Heaven’s Gate.” Here’s what the film isn’t. It isn’t an epic, despite its three-hour running time. It isn’t a factual re-creation of The Johnson County War, a struggle between large and small ranchers in 1890s Wyoming. The fact that Michael Cimino used names of actual participants in his film only muddies the waters, encouraging viewers to expect verisimilitude rather than drama.
When it opened in theaters in 1980, “Heaven’s Gate” received one of the worst critical drubbings ever handed a major Hollywood film. Some of this may have been put down to artistic differences, but I suspect that some it was motivated by politics. Filming in 1980, Cimino seemed to transport himself back in time to 1890 and allowed that bygone era’s rage, that anger over political and class rivalries to breathe life into his tale. But in 1980, how many people wanted to hear that wealthy ranchers from Eastern Social Register families hired thugs and gunmen to intimidate and murder settlers who were filing claims on “their” heretofore open ranges? It was out-of-step with Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” times. Had “Heaven’s Gate” appeared a few years earlier, say in 1976 when Sterling Hayden’s magisterial novel “Voyage” was published, it may have received a different, more welcoming reception.
Now Cimino clearly re-wrote history to suit his purposes, consequently, James Averill, a mere J.P. and local Johnson County merchant became a U.S. Marshal with an Eastern pedigree. Frank Canton, who actually was sheriff of Johnson County and a hireling of the wealth ranchers became the leader of the Stock Growers Association and another wealthy Easterner. Nate Champion remained a Wyoming native but in Cimino’s hands this real-life enemy of the big ranching interests became Canton’s top hired gun. The real Averill was one of the first victims in the war, lynched by regulators, whereas in the film he retires, defeated and disillusioned, to his yacht off Newport, R.I. Canton who is the last of the regulators to die in the film, shot by Averill, in real-life lived to a ripe old age and was Adjutant General of the Oklahoma National Guard. Only Champion met the same fate in both film and reality–ambushed and killed by Canton’s regulators.
What Cimino did get right was the underlying cause of the range war–the fact that wealthy interests opposed being forced to give ground to–not even the poor–but merely the less-wealthy ranchers. (Cimino turned these small-time ranchers into farmers and made them largely Slavic immigrants, further stressing the class warfare aspects of his story.)
The length of the film is really a non-issue to my mind. As a viewer you should allow the director to tell the tale in his own way. Those who were discomfited by the fact the Cimino begins his film with an exquisitely detailed re-creation of the Harvard Commencement ceremonies for the year 1870 were probably sleeping when Averill reminisces later in the film that he recalls that day as the best day of his life. That this sequence is revealed as a dream that the world-weary Averill is having as he travels, alone in a First-Class train car, while hundreds of new settlers ride atop the car roofs, from St. Louis to Cheyenne, WY further explains its perhaps-too-pretty visuals. But if we look a bit more closely at what’s happening–and I should add that this entire Harvard sequence lasts 20 minutes, not an eternity–the speech given to the graduates by The Reverend Doctor sets up the entire theme of the film: that these idealistic young men, America’s best and brightest, should serve as missionaries, civilizing and uplifting their fellow Americans, not blessed with a Harvard education. He is immediately followed by W.C. Irvine, the Class Orator, who delivers a smirking, mocking valedictory address, complete with pratfalls and mock-drunkenness. Yet twenty years on, Averill will be in Wyoming trying to create order out of chaos, while Irvine will be riding with Canton and his regulators, armed with a list of 125 Johnson County settlers to be killed on sight.
This is a good time to say a word for the acting as well. Although Joseph Cotten only appears in this opening sequence, his palpable annoyance at Irvine’s clownish address speaks volumes about where this story is going. John Hurt’s Irvine devolves from a pretend-drunk to a real one and is rather pathetically killed in the climactic Powder River battle, reminiscing about springtime in Paris. Clearly he should never have left there to run cattle in Wyoming.
Now although the film wears the borrowed clothing of an epic. It isn’t an epic. There is no real escalation of action leading up to the climactic battle and, technically, the bad guys win. A lot more Slavic settlers are killed than professional gunmen–which if you think about it, is logical–handing a farmer a rifle doesn’t make him a sharpshooter. Further, the bad guys are rescued by the U.S. Cavalry, ostensibly led away under arrest, although no one is actually held. What the film really is, is a romantic drama told against a backdrop of strife and oppression. Averill and Champion are both drawn to Ella Watson–a smart and successful young madam (the real Ella was neither, but we’ll let that go by)–Averill gives her things, Champion asks her to marry him. It’s possible that Averill is already married, since he carries with him a framed photograph of his younger self posing with a buxom young lady, who strikingly resembles the red-haired beauty that he danced with at the Harvard Commencement on the best day of his life. Ella’s rape and near-murder at the hands of Canton’s men finally decides Averill to go against “his own kind” by actively aiding the settlers after he had previously been warned to remain neutral. But again, the romance of Averill and Ella, which seems to going somewhere, especially after a lovely waltz sequence at the “Heaven’s Gate” roller-skating rink, goes nowhere. She accepts Champion’s proposal; Champion is killed; she takes part in the Powder River battle; she is killed by Canton. Averill winds up on a yacht in Newport, lighting a cigarette for an aging beauty who looks suspiciously like the girl in the photograph and the girl at the commencement dance. As the film’s original-release poster declared, “What one loves in life are the things that fade.”