After five months of supposedly intense, sleepless toil, director Michael Cimino has emerged from the editing room with a revised "Heaven's Gate" that runs about two hours, 30 minutes -- the only apparent improvement on the original three-hour, 40-minute version that laid a thunderous egg at a New York press preview last November. Assuming this version is indeed the "finished" film, one is obliged to conclude that Cimino always had an irreparable botch on his hands.
Now at several area theaters, the revised "Heaven's Gate" stolidly confirms every disparaging comment heard in the wake of its debut. It's a humiliating white elephant, whose ceaseless portentousness is constantly being undermined by incoherence.
Cimino was, of course, set up for this downfall by the success of "The Deer Hunter," an impressive movie that nevertheless revealed excruciating dramatic weaknesses. Task forces and star fleets could have been piloted comfortably through the gaps in story continuity and chronology. In "Heaven's Gate," the intervals between cryptic, platitudinous remarks disclose a similar spaciousness.
"Heaven's Gate" commences with an elaborate prologue introducing Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt among the revelers at graduation day (Harvard, 1870). The original climax of the sequence has been cut -- Hurt's idealistic valedictory speech, designed for ironic contrast with his corrupted situation two decades later as a Wyoming rancher. That cut is something of a pity considering the ineffable silliness of the character (no one ever looks less like a rancher) he's portraying. What remains is typical Cimino embroidery -- lots of marching and hubbub and waltzing around the quad -- punctuated with typically meaningless exchanges. After making eyes at each other, Kristofferson and a Boston belle consummate the relationship while dancing: "God, you're beautiful," says he; "So are you," she replies.
Cimino functions like a glorified second-unit director, orchestrating the scenic atmosphere around the major characters while habitually neglecting primary dramatic business. The sketchy writing compels the actors to suggest volume through heroic poses, intent stares, pregnant pauses.
"Heaven's Gate" inflates Cimino's artistic flaws while failing to duplicate the topicality, pictorial brilliance and melodramatic intensity that salvaged "The Deer Hunter." I was prepared for a confused scenario, but it came as a geniune shock to discover that "Heaven's Gate" doesn't look so hot either. Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond are so enamored of soft hues that the ostensible setting -- Johnson County, Wyo., in the early 1890s -- is left weirdly desaturated. Moreover, the air is so choked with smoke and dust that air pollution seems a visible threat.
Perhaps the atmospheric haze should be interpreted as a symbol of the murk that clouded Cimino's brain while writing and directing this blighted epic. The dithering plot was inspired by a historical range war, the so-called Johnson County War, a series of skirmishes between mercenaries hired by the Stock Growers Association and immigrant settlers accused of cattle rustling. Cimino crowds a situation that lasted three years into a few perplexing days of feckless socializing, debating and disorganized combat.
The antagonists never transcend a peculiarly outmoded form of caricature. The rancher-settler conflict as formulated by Cimino seems to be the work of a simpleton overwhelmed by the discovery of revisionist history. As the leader of the landowners, Sam Waterston resembles a displaced Cossack. This motif harmonizes with the equally undifferentiated immigrant hordes who are being threatened with murder. Early in the movie we see train loads and columns of immigrants who might have been transposed from the conclusion of "Fiddler on the Roof." There's even a conspicuous village fiddler in Sweetwater, the riverside community where trouble seems to be brewing and Kristofferson, who is now a lawman, returns to cavort with his sweetie, a French madame played by Isabelle Huppert, and brood about the discouraging prospects for law and order.
One gathers that Kristofferson is somehow immobilized by his Harvard education. There's certainly nothing except cliched world-weariness preventing him from doing something tangible to defend the law. By the time he finally condescends to play a leadership role, the movie is almost over and he looks even more preposterous acting heroic than he did acting dilatory.
The settlers are huddled masses waiting to be liberated from Cimino's picturesque conescension. The sociology of Sweetwater is bewildering. There's a thriving ethnic culture that contradicts the assertion that the immigrants must rustle to avoid starvation.
It's a maddening exercise in futility trying to make sense of Cimino's incomprehensible class struggle and phantom characters. The conflict is meant to be illuminated by a romantic triangle which finds Huppert torn between Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, cast as a gunfighter in the hire of the ranchers. After an abrupt, intimidating introduction, Walken seems to disappear for years. When he returns, the movie is in such an advanced state of infirmity that he simply joins the casualty list.
Cimino might be credited with an art director's vision of the West, but there's never a moment in the film where he appears to know what he's doing or where hed's going in dramatic terms. In "The Emigrants" and "The New Land" the Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell actually told the epic story Cimino aspires to tell in "Heaven's Gate." A ruined monument to folly, "Heaven's Gate" can only hope to interest confirmed moviegoers who want to sift through the wreckage.