At 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 21, a sleepy guard on the graveyard shift at United Artists studio was jerked awake by a line of headlights moving toward the front gate.

Before the cars reached his guard tower, he buzzed security headquarters on the other side of the lot. "What's up?" he asked. When he heard the answer, he hurriedly waved the pre-dawn caravan through.

Hollywood's whiz-kid director, Michael Cimino, 38, was coming to work. His eyes were ringed with circles and his shoulders slumped from exhaustion. In the car with him were cans containing his new 3 1/2-hour film, "Heaven's Gate," a $36-million movie that had been yanked out of theaters two days earlier after it was panned by New York critics.

By 6 that morning, Cimino and his crew -- many of whom helped him cut the brilliant Oscar-winning, "The Deer Hunter" -- had settled into the vast Culver City laboratories to re-cut, re-edit and assemble the bruised "Heaven's Gate" into a salable movie of about two hours.

In less than a week, the film had become a creative hell for Cimino and a frightening purgatory for United Artists, which had to pull it from the very projection rooms of theaters whose owners had paid millions in advances for the rights to show it this Christmas.

Not since MGM yanked in Erich Von Stroheim's masterpiece "Greed" in 1923 has a finished film of this epic size been so brutally ordered into artistic surgery. Expectations for thefilm, touted by United Artists executives as "the new 'Birth of a Nation' and a modern 'Gone With the Wind,'" sank from the sublime to the ridiculous in only three days: It opened in New York with a press preview on Tuesday, Nov. 18. It was panned the next morning by every critic in attendance. United Artists pulled it out of theaters on Wednesday.

Last Monday, distributors in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto began the depressing task of refunding more than $100,000 in advance ticket sales and then began frantically looking for anything to replace the Cimino film.

Worse yet, United Artists had announced in August that it would spend $10 million in advertising alone to launch the film. (Insiders say the total was closer to $15 million.) The blitz was first evident in September when United Artists ran a seven-page foldout ad in the trade papers with 11-by-14-inch portraits of all the stars. And millions were spent on TV and radio spots in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto -- money that will have to be spent again when "'Heaven's Gate" is eventually released.

The studio wasn't the only loser. Liberty Records had already distributed 500,000 copies of the soundtrack album, now on sale at record stores. Without the film to sell it, the LP may face some resistance: It is composed entirely of Eastern-European folk songs except for the intended single, "The Mamou Two-Step." Liberty Records said last week that it had hastily re-directed its sales efforts to foreign-language newspapers.

A final embarrassment this week is the appearance of an eight-page color spread on the film in the December issue of Life magazine, entitled "Return of the Epic Western." A United Artists spokesman pointed to the spread at a recent press conference and asked, "Would Life magazine devote this much attention to a flop?" But, of course, it had before: notably in the case of Marlin Brando's "Mutiny on the Bounty" and marilyn Monroe's "Let's Make love."

The "Heaven's Gate" debacle is already raising a number of questions about the future of the film industry. Among them: Will it signal the end of runaway budgets and a return to studio control? Film-business professor James Monaco of the New York School of Social Research believes the money-glutted Western is the last of a line of film dinosaurs: big-budgeted, studio-indulged movies that arose as new-wave directors like Cimino, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and Frances Coppola began to assume more power than the producers for whom they worked. "I believe 'Heaven's Gate' is a holdover from that era, an era that began with the auteur of director-oriented movie school of the late '60s," said Monaco.

Of course, "Heaven's Gate" is only the latest in a commercially dismal school of movie whales that have been beached on the marketplace since November of last year: "Star Trek," "The Black Hole," "1941," "The Blues Brothers," and "Raise the Titanic" -- all in the $30- and $40-million range and none of them yet within sight of showing a profit.

"I believe "Heaven's Gate" will finally emerge from the re-cutting as a monumentally successful movie," said a United Artists vice president. "But I also think it will be the very last of its type, where directors are given unlimited power and money and then turned loose on their own."

That sentiment echoes a prophetic claim made last summer by United Artists senior vice president Steven Bach, the man who originally recruited Cimino for "Heaven's Gate" when Cimino was about to sign with Warner Brothers. In August Bach defended the 5 1/2-hour rough cut of the film by saying: "The industry, to a degree, has abdicated to directors who are overly strong. This is made worse by producers who are emasculated. There is a general view that what the director does is a very mysterious thing. Therefore he's allowed to operate without even the kind of strictures you apply to a contractor who is building a swimming pool in your backyard." But Bach also stands for another statement he made in August: "Heaven's Gate justifies its budget because it will be another 'Gone With the Wind.'"

The Cimino affair has also raised two other questions. First: How much clout do critics really have? Since United Artists pointedly singled out bad reviews as a whole -- and Vincent Canby of The New York Times in particular -- as reasons for pulling the film, it seems that the critics have much more power than previously believed. Second: Could the incident sound the national death knell for the system of "blind bidding" in which distributors have to pay millions of dollars in guarantees for films they are not allowed to see?

"If you were an exhibitor, would you want to play this picture after reading Vincent Canby's review?" asked Hy Smith, United Artists vice president for publicity and advertising. Canby himself believes "that United Artists is kind of desperate when they make such a claim. Personally I think they couldn't care less about the critics' opinion of 'Heaven's Gate,'" Canby said. "The movie seemed badly edited. And from a narrative point of view, it was hard to believe that a director had been working 23 hours a day for a year to edit this film. There are simply too many key things in the film that don't make sense."

Canby said he was sorry the $36-million cost makes the film a corporate disaster rather than simply an artistic one: "When so many people's livelihoods depend on the outcome of one film, it goes kind of cockeyed. It becomes scary. The cost of a film should never become the one important thing as it seems to have here."

Canby said he can't shake the suspicion that perhaps United Artists has "used the critical reaction as an excuse to pull in the film and whack it down to a more commercial length." But what upsets him the most is "the glee so many people -- particularly radio and TV people -- are taking in Cimino's misfortune. I liked "The Deer Hunter' a great deal in spite of some faults," said Canby. "This delight people take in knocking an artist off his pedestal is unhealthy."

A spokesman for United Artists agreed: This town would rather see somebody get knocked down than anything else. They are always grasping at anybody above them. The envy that comes out at a time like this shows the real ugliness of Hollywood."

How did a simple Western of the 1800s become such a lavish and expensive spectacle in the first place? Cimino's supporters say that his genius and who worked on the "Heaven's Gate" set, say he became an artistic tyrant and indulged his wildest dreams on location in Kalispell, Mont.

The story of "Heaven's Gate" started 10 years ago when Cimino was a beginning scriptwriter who couldn't put together enough money to make an 8-minute short. While working on the script for a science-fiction film called "Silent Running," he finished a first draft on a script that he said was his passion. He called it then "The Johnson County Wars."

He continuously reworked the idea and tried in vain to sell it as he worked himself up to full scriptwriter status and then persuaded Clint Eastwood to let him direct as well as write the Eastwood movie, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot." Then came "The Deer Hunter" and its multiple Oscars, including best picture and best direction. Soon Cimino wrote his own ticket and reported to the distant Montana location for "Heaven's Gate."

The greening of "Heaven's Gate" began during the first days of filming Cimino rented out motels to the tune of $70,000 a month, spent $750,000 in contracting costs alone to build a pair of Western towns and hired 250 extras, sending them off with cassettes of 1890s music and antique skates for a skating scene he planned at the end of the film. The learning process for the skaters alone took six months.

He imported long-retired buggy designers to build a fleet of wagon trains, brought an 1890 locomotive out of drydock in Denver and shipped it laboriously to Montana (too large for almost all modern railroad tunnels, the engine had to be shipped to the set through Canada -- some 3,000 miles out of the way) and ordered still other extras to take lessons in waltzing, the art of the bullwhip and the playing of antique instruments.

Then with Kris Kristoffersen, Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges in the leads, he began principal photography. Cimino came to "Heavens Gate" with the reputation of a painstaking perfectionist; people would be calling him obsessive before the last of 150,000 feet of film were in the can. "(That much film would, normally, be enough for 10 movies).

One extra who was admittedly disgruntled during the filming began counting the number of times Cimino shot each scene: The average was 20 with one Kristoffersen bit running to 53 takes. The extra reported that Cimino made all members of the crew call him "Sir," and that he gave all of his directions to the cast through the use of an intermediary, assistant director Michael Grillo. On the other hand, a close associate of Cimino's says that he finished the film with universal respect and affection from his cast. Several of the actors, including Bridges, later said that Cimino's control was awesome.

Whatever the case, the damage was done when reports by another unhappy extra, Les Gapay, appeared in newspapers including The Washington Post. Shortly thereafter, United Artists executives flew to Montana and rumors surfaced in Hollywood that they were going to shut down production. By that time, Cimino had his cast well up into remote Glacier Park where he had the Glacier Park Inn opened out of season while he commuted daily by helicopter. g

Steven Bach admitted in August that the studio had once considered a shutdown. "The atmosphere at United Artists was tense," he said. "For many months there were trips to Montana -- friendly but concerned. Michael was always very shrewed with us. He would always offer to show us footage. He knew how good the picture was and knew that we would recognize that this was no ordinary movie."

After the final trip to Montana, United Artists issued an official statement "that the budget had grown to more than $30 million but that the finished film justifies it."

Cimino brought the uncut film back to Hollywood more than a year ago. Still, says one of Cimino's friends, "he was rushed. He really needed more time. But there was so much push from UA that he gave in and met the deadline with an unfinished film." United Artists spokesmen deny that there was such pressure.

A United Artists executive said last week that it is "a sad but true fact" that if the film came across the studio's desks today -- even with its original $12.8-million budget -- it would not be approved because the market has shifted in the last year to favor medium- to low-priced films.

But many observers feel that the issue of the film's budget has been overemphasized. "Inflation, just in the last four years, has pushed the cost of even ordinary films to steep levels," said a United Artists spokesman. "A lot of this is what happened to "Heaven's Gate." A recent economic study at UCLA backs up some of these claims. The study estimates that "Gone With the Wind," if it were made today, would cost a minimum of $70 million. "Birth of a Nation," with its endless extras, would probably cost more than $200 million.

Beyond the financial loss, a secondary blow to the film and to United Artists is the fact that it will now no longer qualify for the Academy Award, the Golden Globe or the New York Film Critics Award of 1980. Since Cimino's films are considered arty and "hard to sell," United Artists had counted on a number of nominations and perhaps the best-picture Oscar to lure ticket buyers in much the same way Universal used the Oscar to sell "The Deer Hunter" two years ago. An insider at United Artists concedes this, adding that "the film will probably have run its course before the 1981 awards."

Film economists believe that the pulling of "Heaven's Gate" and the resulting press attention hurt the industry as a whole -- beyond its devastating effect on United Artists' 1981 earnings, a fact already accepted by Transamerica Corp., United Artists' parent company. A Transamerica spokesman announced in New York Wednesday that "we are ready to accept the fact that 'Heaven's Gate' will not turn a profit. And we will write off some portion of the movies's cost."

That leads to the question everybody is asking: Who pulled the movie back in? The Los Angeles trade papers credit United Artists executives, who are trying to get the film down to two hours and to offset predictably terrible box office. Cimino's agents and United Artists both say it was Cimino himself who personally asked United Artists president Andy Albeck to pull the movie and hand it back to him for recutting. "I will say that we asked him time and time again to cut the movie to a normal length," said a United Artists spokesman. "But it was Cimino himself who did the pulling. He was not satisfied, and the critics backed him up in New York. It was a brave thing for us to do, for Cimino to do. The easiest thing would have been to let the film go into release."

Part of the decision may rest on simple economics. Figures released this summer showed that the release of a 3 1/2-hour version of the film would result in only two showings per day compared to four a day for a conventional length -- thereby costing distributors a collective $400,000 a day when the movie reaches full release.

Writers at Daily Variety speculated that "Heaven's Gate" may even be taken out of Cimino's hands. And a spokesman for United Artists said, "Whether or not we will turn over the final cut to him is a very tricky question." But still another spokesman, one closer to the top, said this week: "Cimino and nobody but Cimino will cut the film. A shorter finished print should be shown to Steven Bach a month from now. And we hope to have it in 400 theaters by mid-February."

As Cimino goes to work in the editing labs, one bit of tie in advertising is still around to haunt him. Now appearing in a dozen national magazines is a two-page ad for Kodak film. It shows Cimino in a Lord Byron pose looking out of the pages over a headline that says: "If you don't get it right -- what's the point?"