Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Knock on Heaven's Gate

Flush with the mid 1970's success of The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino dusted off his script about the Johnson County war and was given a boatload of money to make his film, his way.  He was given, for the time anyway, unheard of control and cash to bring his script to life.

Almost from day one of filming reports started to filter in the newspapers about the film being over budget, about Cimino being a perfectionist tyrant, about how much money was being spent on the sets, the actors, and the production in general.  Influential critics and studio people, some obviously jealous of the success of The Deer Hunter, became virtual assassins who's mission was to keep a steady stream of bad news about Heaven's Gate going.   By the time the film was finished the consensus was the whole production had been a fiasco and to make sure that it did indeed become a fiasco, the studio only let the film play in theaters for a scant few weeks, which insured that it would never ever make the money they had put into back.

I remember all that as clear as day because I loved The Deer Hunter and I could not wait to see what Cimino was going to direct next.  Alas, I was not given the opportunity to find out because Heaven's Gate never played where I lived.  The studio that bank rolled it, United Artists, refused to let it play in small towns like the one I lived in.  They felt if it wasn't embraced by the chi chi poo poo crowds in NYC and LA, then the peons in the hinterlands weren't going to get to see the film.

For years I wanted to see what the fuss had been about.  I wanted to see the finished product and decide for myself if I liked the movie.  I wanted to see if all the sniping and bitchiness was right.  Alas, I searched high and low for the film in video stores for years and I never could find it.  It was as if the critics and put a hit on the film and United Artists wouldn't let it out to play, no matter what.

Fast forward to the first of this month and the 339 minute cut of Heaven's Gate hit Netflix Instant.  Finally.  I finally got to see the film that Cimino had wanted to make, not the version the studio made him cut up and release, not the 219 minute version they reluctantly released to certain markets, but the whole thing in all it's glory.  I was overjoyed and ready to see one of the most notorious films Hollywood ever bankrolled. 

It took me three days to see it all the way through.  I purposely broke up the viewing of the film so that I didn't fall asleep during it and that I could let what I had seen sink it.  And after seeing it, I can tell you it's not perfect, in fact it's deeply flawed, but it's nowhere near the bad film they tried to make it out to be.  It takes it's time getting up and running.  At times it's dazzlingly beautiful and amazing.  At others it's maddeningly frustrating and I found myself shouting at the screen.  But all in all, it's a wondrous piece of work and it's a very stunning testament to it's cinematic time.

My problems with the film are these:
  • Kris Kristofferson is not a charismatic leading man.  In a film with a scope this huge, he gets lost amid the action and the scenery.  He wasn't bad as the sheriff who wanted to help the immigrants, he just wasn't that good.
  • As stunning and beautiful as the opening sequences set in Harvard were, they were more than a bit superfluous.   They added nothing to the story and in fact they were a major distraction in that they kept the film from getting to the meat of the story which was the conflict between the ranchers association and the immigrants.  
  • John Hurt's character should have been cut altogether.  His character added nothing to the story.
  • Subtitles would have been nice in the scenes with the immigrants.  
  • The sound throughout the film was shoddy at best.
  • The ending scene with Kristofferson aboard the yacht made no sense.  
What was right with the film was the following:
  • The locations were breathtaking.  
  • The sets and the whole look of the production was dead on.  
  • The costumes and the music was spot on.
  • The performances of Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, Richard Massur, and Mickey Rourke were outstanding.  
  • The action sequences were outrageously good.
  • When it finally got going, the story was very good.
The budget for the movie was reported to be $44 million, an almost unheard of amount for a film like this.  It's easy to see where they spent it all when you look at the crowd scenes and the sets they built from scratch.  It's not a sanitized western, it's a gritty, dirty, warts, and all western.  Cimino went for realism and he achieved it in spades.  Was the budget well spent?  Yes.  This a highly realistic, beautiful film.

Like I said, it's got it's problems but it's not the turkey they made it out to be all those years ago.  I'm of a mind that it's an overlooked and under appreciated masterpiece that should have gotten more love from a press corp that wanted Cimino to fail and fail big.  I recommend you see this version of the film, yes it's long, yes the sound has problems, but it's a film making landmark that's too good and too important to let some asswipe film critic who's puffed up with his sense of self importance ruin for the rest of us.  See this movie and if you watch it with an open mind, I know you'll like it as much as I did.


zencomix said...

I've never seen it, and I too sometimes wondered about it. Was the sound really that bad? Shoddy sound is usually a deal breaker for me.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I had to constantly adjust the volume.