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Home » Culture and Criticism

Heaven's Gate

Submitted by on December 8, 2008 – 9:45 PM24 Comments

how old you'll be when the movie's finally over

I couldn't finish it; I couldn't get through even an hour.The movie is manifestly, immediately, deeply and groundlessly in love with itself; like almost everyone else with an interest in both film and bitchy behind-the-scenes gossip, I've read Final Cut, the book about the making of the movie and about the movie's unmaking of the studio, so I shouldn't have expected much better, but Cimino's disregard for the audience is almost unbelievable.

And for his actors as well.John Hurt, who should have expected better, is forced to carry the interminable opening sequence with a monologue that, we are meant to understand, is hilaaaaaarious and meaningful to other characters in the scene, but is actually too opaque to mean anything to anyone else (a casualty of coke-fueled insistence on historical accuracy, I suspect); the delivery is peppered with saucy gazes and winks at the ladies in the gallery, none of whom is attractive by either 1870s standards or today's, and Hurt's hair is dyed an unfortunately Crisp-ish red, presumably to make him look 22, which fails, as does any implication that the character is not as gay as a Caribbean sunset.Understand: I love John Hurt and I loved him as Quentin Crisp.What I do not love is direction that means to have Hurt glaring reproachfully at Sam Waterston, then fails to yank Hurt back from the precipice of slash.

And then the dancing sequence…the movie in a nutshell, really.It is an attractive shot, it clearly took hours to set up and choreograph, and the effect is quite stunning — for ten seconds.The scene goes on for at least five minutes, and does absolutely nothing to move the narrative forward.Its only purpose is to solicit our admiration, but viewers who have seen movies before do not require nearly that long to process its difficulty, and viewers who have seen Busby Berkeley movies before will wonder why Cimino didn't vary the camera angles in a manner that efficiently communicated said difficulty, instead of framing two couples so tightly as to induce nausea.Whence proceedeth this new, but not fresh, idea — the lava lamp in his trailer?Because it's about as relevant and well-"plotted."

Steven Bach's book is more interesting, and shorter.Fuck, Tolstoy is shorter.The movie is as bad as they say, and not in amusing ways; I can't even recommend loading up the bong and watching it as wallpaper, because the print is muddy.Also: Richard Masur's Oirish accent, begorrah! 'Tis completely oover the top! Moight as well have put the lad in a potato costume!

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  • Rinaldo says:

    All true. I actually paid to see this in a theater, for the same sort of research-y reason — memory is vague now, but I think it was the cut version (down to too-long, instead of preposterously too long) that was tried a short while after it was pulled from release. Whatever. Sarah is right on, especially about diregard for the audience.

  • k says:

    Wait, is the irish accent comparable to David Boreanaz playing Angel? Cause that's my gold standard of horrible horrible accents.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    It's not that bad; it's actually pretty good…except when it's not, and then it's extra not, and you're hyper-aware that it's Richard Masur, and somehow it's more disappointing than if it were uniformly bad, because it just throws the fakeness into higher contrast.

    And I LIKE Masur, but it's typical of the movie (well, what I could bear of it) that it would give him THAT job to do, for no meaningful reason except the pretentious effort of it, instead of just letting him do the Richard Masur thing, which would have been equally effective and less distracting.

    It just seemed overall like a valentine to doing things the hard way for its own sake. Get your nose off the mirror, Mike, nobody cares.

  • Helen says:

    So you didn't make it to the 2 hours 'rollerskating in the barn' scene? 'Cause that's the scene that makes all the pain worthwhile (except, not).

  • La BellaDonna says:

    Heaven's Gate notwithstanding, I DO have to speak up for Boreanaz's accent – it is virtually the ne plus ultra of BAD OIRISH ACCENTS, I'm looking at YOU, OIRISH SPRING. Faith and begoraaaaagggh.

  • Tonya says:

    The 'rollerskating in the barn' scene is a tour de force! If you look closely, one of the original members of Huey Lewis & the News is in the band. The guy playing the bass is Sean Hopper, keyboardist for HLN.

    And no, I've never sat through the movie, either. I have no idea what it's even about.

  • Sandman says:

    Rollerskating? In a barn?! Okay, you guys are clearly pulling my leg, because that could NOT have happened. I'm afraid I might actually have to attempt to watch this thing. Did Cimino go completely around the bend, or what?

  • Rachel says:

    Thanks for attempting to take one for the team, Sars. I know next to nothing about Heaven's Gate, except that it's badness is legendary. Now I know I don't need to do any further investigation! Drug trips generally do not translate well into screenplays.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    "Moight as well have put the lad in a potato costume!"
    (You just want company on the train to DC. We see through you, Sars. Heh.)

    Thanks for the warning. According to a certain internet movie database, there are rumors of a version of this that runs OVER FIVE HOURS!

  • kelly says:

    According to Wikipedia:

    "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.'"


  • Kristen says:

    "And no, I've never sat through the movie, either. I have no idea what it's even about."

    I did sit through the movie (18 or 19 years ago), and I have no idea what it was about. My high school history teacher used up several classes with it… I never understood why, and all that I remember is the roller skating scene. Even right after I'd watched it, that was all that I remembered.

  • Keckler says:

    Wait, this movie *isn't* about the SF cult that committed mass suicide?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The rollerskating scene would seem to imply as much, but sadly: no.

  • Princess Leah says:

    Final Cut is a wonderful look at the disaster of making this movie, in no small part because Bach does not spare anyone, including himself, from the blame that they so richly deserve as a result of greenlighting this mess in the first place, and not reining in their star director once it became apparent that he had gone completely scooters. I saw it in the original theatrical release (the four hour version) because I was young and foolish and refused to believe that it could be as bad as everyone said. 'twas.

    Pity that this shambling behemoth of a train wreck was what brought down United Artists…the vision of Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith buckled under the meglomania of Cimino. This movie manages to epitomize every single possible pitfall of Hollywood movie-making with being in any way engaging or interesting.

    One of the quotes from Final Cut, which might have come from a contemporaneous review of Heaven's Gate, is something also the lines of 'An epic vision isn't worth much if you can't tell a story.' I SO want to believe that the converse is true–that a good story trumps the trappings.

  • lsn says:

    I went and saw a special presentation of the new director's cut of this movie with a film buff friend a couple of years ago. We came out laughing hysterically – the dancing, the rollerskating, the 15 minutes of people screaming at each other in various European languages (none of which were subtitled) before running out the door and shooting at each other for reasons we had given up trying to work out, and the final bit on the boat which made no sense whatsoever. Oh, and the audience members who came out saying it was a "director's masterpiece" also cracked us up a lot.

    The best bit was the actual battle scene – but the other 3 hours and something were just rubbish. Even with the great slash potential of the two male leads (and seriously, what was up with that drunk guy? Talk about opaque motives.)

  • Jennifer says:

    John Hurt/Sam Waterston slash? Wow–I find myself strangely intrigued.

  • Jaybird says:

    I've been content to learn from the experiences of other filmgoers, and so have never tried to suffer through this horrible shambling thing. But reading your descriptions of it (The skating! The screaming! The dancing! The exploding Sophocles-quoting wildebeests and the Tasmanian devils in drag!) almost makes me want to see it, in much the same way that I'm revolted by the Black Dahlia case but still find the horrible photos fascinating.

  • Steve L. says:

    "Moight as well have put the lad in a potato costume!"


    Never saw HG, but Siskel and Ebert essentially tagged it
    "Fookin Shite!"

  • Sandman says:

    @Margaret in CO: Nice one.

    One thing I learned from the wikipedia article is that this movie was more or less responsible for the supervision of the treatment of animals on movie sets by the SPCA. So all those disclaimers about how "no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture"? We have Heaven's Gate to thank for them. It sounds like some pretty horrific things happened on that set. Not sure how much that contributed to the overall disaster, but it must have been bad.

  • Steve L. says:

    When you get past the animal torture accusations, try not to LOL at the reviews:

  • Dave says:


    You say "the final bit on the boat…made no sense whatsoever." I couldn't disagree more. This is the entire driver for the story. I don't understand how people with no vision, no eye or ear for art, and no genuine connection to anyone in their lives can trash this man's movie – a masterpiece. Stick to "The Lord of The Rings," "Spiderman," and "Batman." I'm sure that you consider these kiddie movies to be of some quality. Only children need constant movement in their movies to keep their attention.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Shut up, Dave.

  • Gatorade Girl says:

    The only thing I can say in defense of this movie is that apparently, from the rather sketchy research I've done, rollerskating was HUGE around 1890. Group skating was this whole big thing in the frontier towns, go figure. What I don't know is if David Mansfield, the violin playing skater (and also the film's composer) knew how to skate before the film.

    Yeah, that's the thing I'm focusing on. The violin playing skater. Go figure.

  • Cyntada says:

    Regarding the animal abuse issues, here's the story from the owner of the abused horse, the party who filed the lawsuit. Glad to know it had a happy ending, at least as far as the horse is concerned.

    He even posted a .jpg of the Horse of Course magazine article from back in the day. But for that article, and this posting, I would probably have never heard of this movie at all.

    Based on the commentary, that would have been a good thing.

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