Why 'Heaven's Gate' failed

I thought they could make a pretty good movie out of Heaven's Gate if they just lopped off a couple of hours. I still think so, but the filmmakers have met me only halfway. They've been working on the picture for several months, ever since it was yanked off the screen after just a few showings, in the face of disastrous reviews. Now it's still about 2 1/2 hours long, and it's still a bore.

A beautiful bore, I hasten to add. The director, Michael Cimino, is a whiz at images. The new edition of his intellectual western is as lovely as the original, with landscapes and skyscapes and cityscapes that rank with Hollywood's best. Vilmos Szygmund, the cinematographer, is clearly at the peak of his powers.

But that's all the praise I can muster for "Heaven's Gate," which is back on screen again, and -- judging from early returns --bombing so badly that it won't begin to recoup its investment of well over $30 million. Even the cable, home-video, and overseas markets may not be able to bail out a disaster of this magnitude. It's the rough beast Hollywood has been dreading, its hour come round at last.

Why has "Heaven's Gate" failed so profoundly, despite its glamour and its lofty ambition of evoking the old West in terms of class struggle vs. personal ambition?

Basically, it's a matter of moviemaking savvy, and that "personal vision" Cimino is supposed to be giving us. Trouble is, his screenplay lacks any kind of sustained dramatic tension. There's a hero, a villain, a love triangle, even a range war. Yet the movie moseys along as if none of this matters very much, bogging down in flat confrontations, and culminating in a heap of deliberately cynical violence. There's no suspense, little surprise, and logic itself flies out the window in spots. Even the romantic part steers clear of true emotion, preferring Isabelle Huppert's nudity and Kris Kristofferson's cuddly grin.

I won't belabor "Heaven's Gate" more, except to note that some good actors are done in by it. Miss Huppert is one, in her thankless role as a frontier madam. Sam Waterston is another, as a rancher who sparks the plot by stirring up the gentry against "thieving immigrants." Christopher Walken almost makes it as a hired gun with a conscience, but poor John Hurt as if like he's flailing around, unable to make sense of the besotted aristocrat he's playing.

There has been much debate over escalating Hollywood budgets. There has been much nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time when modest, black-and-white movies were projected on flat, square screens with glorious monophonic soundtracks. There has been much criticism of the enormous sums spent on clinkers like "1941" and "The Blues Brothers," even if they did eventually squeak into the black.

I agree, much of the way. Still, expensive movies can be fun, if the money is spent properly. True, most of the dollars lavished on "Heaven's Gate" are at least visible on the screen and not languishing in some superstar's bank account. But the Olympian pictorial values of "Heaven's Gate" serve only to mask a very poor screenplay. Without the camouflage of all those store-bought images, the picture might never have been made and released in such a bloated condidition, and we'd all be better off -- Hollywood, moviegoers, and critics like me, who have had to sit through two different editions just to write a review!

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