The Rotten Tomatometer: Heaven’s Gate
ROTTEN TOMATOES RATING: 56%
Kris Kristofferson sprints down a sidewalk in the opening scene of Heaven’s Gate, in the same way that many critics ran upon first seeing Michael Cimino’s nearly four-hour Western that bankrupted United Artists and signaled the end for the auteur movement in New Hollywood. None of them could leave the theater fast enough.
Upon its release in 1980, two years after Cimino won Best Director at the Academy Awards for The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate was condemned, with some calling it the worst film of all time. Ever since, it’s been an anomaly, a film many may have heard of (its reputation does precede it) with few having actually sat all the way through it. Westerns are ostracized enough as it is, but stretching one out to almost four hours and expecting people to sit through it is the biggest stretch of them all.
The film is about settlers feuding with immigrants moving into their territory in Wyoming, focusing on two childhood friends and the woman they both love. The film ran over schedule and budget repeatedly, with Cimino said to have had a dictatorial ego during the entire shoot, as one would following an Academy Award win.
Trusting your film with a cast led by Kristofferson, who was never a household name and not someone who sells tickets is a bold move, even if he’s fine in the role.
Christopher Walken, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Deer Hunter, was not yet the star he is today, and Isabelle Huppert, as the woman who comes in between the two men, was unknown to Americans. Rounding out the cast are character actors like John Hurt, Sam Waterson, Brad Dourif, Terry O’Quinn, and newcomers Mickey Rourke and Jeff Bridges.
Heaven’s Gate deviated from normal Westerns, ushering in a character study and scene after scene full of dialogue or quiet contemplation, rather than high-noon showdowns. The film takes an introspective approach to the old frontier when audiences were trained to root for the good guys to take out the bad guys. Amongst a cast of morally grey characters, there are no easily identifiable heroes, and thus audiences check out, or worse, don’t show up at all.
The film features the type of cinematography that would make John Ford proud, while the shootouts that end the film are gritty and gruesome and not at all romanticized — a clear sign that Hollywood would reject it.
Heaven’s Gate is an ode to the large epics Hollywood once commissioned on a regular basis, and frankly better than most of those, but its nostalgic take on the material is what ultimately sunk it.
The film, while too long, is the embodiment of everything that made the 1970s so great for Hollywood. New maverick directors emerged making the movies they wanted to see, not allowing studio heads to interfere. Such was the case with Heaven’s Gate, and while not a perfect film, it was unfairly maligned from the start.
Cimino did it his way at a time when audiences decided his way was wrong, abandoning him when he most needed their support.
Negativity surrounded the film for its entire existence, never allowing the film to find an audience that would appreciate it. The film was pulled from theaters and was re-cut, leaving it with the same amount of versions and paying customers.
Was Heaven’s Gate disparaged due to it being a Western, a genre left behind by audiences and, in turn, Hollywood? Perhaps, had the film been released several years earlier, this entire article would likely not exist, and its standing on Rotten Tomatoes could very well have been among some of the more positively received films on the website.
Heaven’s Gate is a great film that was never going to meet the astronomical expectations set for it, and due to its own subject matter, can now be seen as a work of social commentary on the changes that occurred in Hollywood it helped to initiate.