Monday, January 17, 2005

Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate

Two days ago at the Los Angeles County Museum I saw the director's cut of Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," the 1980 film that is one of the greatest American films I've ever seen. The film was stupendous-- the best film yet made about the epic history of the American West-- but when it was first shown it did miserably.

When "Heaven's Gate" was released in 1980, director Cimino had gone way over budget and the United Artists executives cut 1 1/2 hrs out of a 3 1/2 hr film director's cut and threw out the negatives for the film. The released shortened film got savaged by the critics and ignored by the public--this financial loss helped United Artists go into bankruptcy and destroyed Cimino's career. No one ever got to see the director's cut until now.

MGM film archivist, in reconstructing the original 3 1/2 hour film without any negatives, carefully made it out of duplicates. The archivest as well as the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond spoke about the film afterwards at LA County Msuem to a rapt film audience, detailing both the making of the film and then the careful reconstruction from duplicates.

"Heaven's Gate" as well as two other Hollywood films--"Shane" and "The Johnson County War"-- are about one of the most amazing events in U.S. history: the Johnson County War in 1892 Wyoming. The East Coast rich who owned large cattle ranches were unhappy at alleged cattle rustling of their cattle in Johnson County, Wyoming. Small farmers/ranches dominated Johnson County whose court did not punish the alleged cattle rustlers.

The cinematography by Vilmos Zisgmond is beautifully captures the conflict. In one early shot the sherrif, Kris Kristofferson, is coming into town in comfort in the railroad car while on the top of the car are seated hundreds of impoverished new immigrants from Eastern Europe--men, women with scarves around their heads, children.The film is visually stunning, contrasting the gorgeous western scenery of pine trees and snow covered mountains, with the grueling work of immigrants pulling plows by hands without oxen. In another early shot an immigrant is butchering a calf for his hungry family living in a tiny cabin in the plains when a gunmen shots him dead; then his wife drags his dead body on a cart down the road with their two children following. At the same time the cattle barons must in their luxurious club organized a vigilante group of 50 gunmen that invaded Johnson County on a railroad car with a death list of 50 people they aimed to kill.

There is a stellar cast of actors in the lead roles: Kris Kristofferson plays the sherrif; Isabelle Huppert is his love, a madame who runs a bordello; Christopher Walken, who is hired as a vigalente for the cattle barons who falls in love with Huppert; Jeff Bridges, who plays a saloonkeeper who sides with the immigrants; and Sam Waterson who is brilliant as the leader of the cattle lords.

During the discussion after the film one man in the audience said that the film, one of the last films deep affected by the Vietnam War, came out just when Reagen was elected in 1980, and those in the Reagen administration thought the film "anti-American" and didn't want to see any more such films. Scenes such as when the vigalentes arrive, they then executed three men in a shootout that Cimino's captures in all its gore--these scenes opposed the heroic cowboy myth of the new President Reagan. In Heaven's Gate the small ranchers/small farmers of Johnson County are impoverished, hardworking East European/German immigrants, organize with the sheriff a force of both men and women to defend their county. What's stunning is the film's end when the immigrants attack the invaders, defeat them in one battle, and then have a seige against the invaders. Women turn out to be warriors as well as men taking part in a seige against the vigalente invaders.

Cimino has captured some of the complex, fasinating history of America as few films ever had. To me, the crux of Cimino's brilliance in "Heaven's Gate" is he makes at look at America's history, particulary the suffering, strength and courage of immigrants who suffered racism and exploitation and had to put their lives on the line in Johnson County. His cinematory also shows the glories of the West, the visual backdrop of the war. Hopefully, MGM will put the director's cut out on DVD so more people can see this great film.