Heaven’s Gate (1980)

heavens gate poster 1980 movie
7.5 Overall Score
Story: 7/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 10/10

Fantastic looking

Interesting story is buried in rather limp love story

Movie Info

Movie Name: Heaven’s Gate

Studio: Partisan Productions

Genre(s): Western/Drama

Release Date(s): November 19, 1980

MPAA Rating: R

heavens gate town

Heaven’s Gate…reminding us that America always had a problem with immigrant farmers

A war is brewing in Johnson County to the north of Casper, Wyoming.  Ranchers aren’t happy about farmers building fences and blocking the land they see as their grazing land and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association intends to do something about it.  With written permission from government, there has been an order to clear the land of thieves and anarchists and many of the immigrant farmers have made the list.  Town marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) realizes that there is a reckoning coming and that there is no legal way to stop it.  Both Averill and his friend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) have been romancing a local brothel operator named Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) whose payment methods have landed her on the list to be exterminated.  With no options left, the purge is coming and there will be blood.

heavens gate isabelle huppert kris kristofferson james averill ella watson

…and back to a sappy love story

Written and directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate is a historic western action-drama.  The story loosely adapts the events surrounding the Johnson County War which was fought between 1889 and 1893 between cattle ranchers and farmers in Wyoming.  The film’s budget exploded and became synonymous with box office bombs due to threatening the finances of United Artists, but the film also faced accusations of animal abuse.  It was met with negative reviews upon its release but has since garnered positive reviews and multiple edits.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and won a Razzie for Worst Director with nominations for Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Kris Kristofferson also for Rollover), Worst Screenplay, and Worst Musical Score.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #636).

heavens gate rollerskating fiddle player

Best rollerskating fiddle player ever!

Heaven’s Gate was a legendary film.  It was the type of movie that was always compared to other films that threatened to bomb or had a massive budget.  With The Deer Hunter, Cimino already demonstrated an attention to detail and the willingness to ignore pacing and editing in exchange for his vision and storytelling…Heaven’s Gate should have been no surprise to the producers.  Despite the backlash, Heaven’s Gate does have some powerful moments and is impressive in its scope.

The biggest problem with Heaven’s Gate is its length.  It is an epic and at over three and a half hours, you expect a lot from it.  While something like Lawrence of Arabia also has a long runtime, it is largely filled with story and development that is propelled by the imagery.  Heaven’s Gate isn’t short on imagery, but it does feel a bit slim on story.  The rivalry between the ranchers and the farmers is extremely interesting and the fact that a lot of the story was based on real events is shocking…but the sappy romance and rivalry of the Kristofferson-Huppert-Walken love triangle feels below the movie instead of tied into it directly.

heavens gate nathan d champion death christopher walken

Christopher Walken goes all Bonnie and Clyde

That being said, I didn’t really have a problem with the acting.  Kristofferson was the typical Kristofferson of films from the time, and Walken wasn’t the “Christopher Walken” character yet that he plays now.  You have John Hurt caught up in the mess along with Brad Dourif and Sam Waterston plays the amoral leader of the men brought in to hunt the farmers.  Isabelle Huppert is an odd choice and her foreign background gives the character a bit of depth and makes her somewhat of an enigma.  Joseph Cotten (in one of his final roles), Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, and a deleted scene with Sam Peckinpah among others shows how packed the movie was…and reports indicate that it was pretty miserable for the cast.

heavens gate final battle montana mountains

Kind of like the end of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace…with carriages

What soars in Heaven’s Gate is the visuals.  Cimino might have abused his pull as director on the budget, but it pays off.  The beauty of the Rocky Mountain setting and the fields contrast with some of the most violent battle scenes.  The town set also looks fantastic along with the cinematography in general.  You get all the visuals of a Western but oddities like a roller skating rink (it is no Xanadu though).

Heaven’s Gate is a problematic movie that is definitely worth a watch simply because of its legacy.  The movie put a chill in director oriented films which probably lasted until a lot of the independent films of the 1990s.  It is a grand opus, ostentatious, and a bizarre footnote in film history…but under-seen.  Check out Heaven’s Gate (even if it takes a few sittings) and think about how a grand movie (aka pre-computer animation) was put together.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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