Hollywood’s film studios felt expansive during the 1970s. Relatively young directors like Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola could hope for big-budget projects after just one or two successes, and even expect the studio suits and bean-counters to give them a free, unsupervised hand. So in 1978 when Michael Cimino approached United Artists, proposing to revitalize the classic American genre of the western, the studio rolled out the red carpet for him.
Cimino had just released The Deerhunter to universal critical and public acclaim. He was officially a ‘genius’, entitled to big money and big stars for his next big story. He disappeared with all three to Montana to film a fictional account of the 1890s Johnson County War between the Wyoming land barons and the immigrant wave of European farmers. The studio confidently expected Cimino to weave his magic in ‘them thar hills’.
Heavens Gate proved to be epic in every sense. Months overdue, and nearly four times over an already colossal budget, Cimino presented a coma-inducing five-and-a-half-hour edit of a total 220 hours of film. After a recut to make it shorter, Heaven’s Gate was still so dreary and plain awful that it was withdrawn after its premiere.
The New York Times damned it as ‘an unqualified disaster… a forced four-hour walking tour of your own living room’.
Released on circuit six months later, slashed by another 70 minutes, the film’s total box-office was just $3.5 million – making it proportionately one of the biggest flops in movie history. Heaven’s Gate ruined Cimino’s reputation, earning him the 1982 Golden Raspberry (‘Razzie’) for Worst Director; and it pushed United Artists into bankruptcy. Most disastrously of all, Heaven’s Gate killed off a golden opportunity to create a new impetus for the whole western genre.
Toll: Countless stillborn ideas for westerns; and the artistic license to be quirky in any genre. For years afterwards, quirky in Hollywood equaled expensive and dangerous.
You should know: Over the years, no amount of editing, even into a mini-series, has made anything successful out of the wreckage of Heaven’s Gate. However, inevitable critical revisionism means that the film now has a coterie of new champions, whose claims for the film range from ‘artistic integrity of the epic form’ to ‘postmodern parable’. Mainly they want the original edit of the final battle scene released as a whole movie – at roughly two hours, it would still be longer than most films.