HEAVEN'S GATE -- At the Avalon 1, Hampton Mall, K-B Cerberus, K-B Cinema 7, K-B Silver, Laurel Cinema, NTI Jefferson, NTI Marumsco, NTI Tysons Cinema, NTI Marlow, Roth's Montgomery, Roth's Randolph, Showcase Beacon Mall, Showcase Beltway Plaza and Showcase Bradlick.
Wow -- what a clever promotion campaign!
"Heaven's Gate," the film Michael Cimino spent so much time and money making after his award-winning "The Deer Hunter," was widely advertised and opened in New York in a version nearly four hours long. Then it was conspicuously withdrawn from circulation as being too dreadful for public view, and needing re-editing. Now, in a version nearly two and half hours long, it has been re-submitted to the public. v
So of course people are curious to see what all the fuss was about. They can now feel that they are getting off easily compared to those who suffered through the original. (The "nearly"s in time estimates are because no two stupefied viewers have timed it the same.) But the greatest advantage is that, having been warned how terrible the film is, they should go with low expectations and the willingness to supply their own amusement.
The facts remain, nevertheless, that "Heaven's Gate" was a mistake, whether it's heralded as a work of art or pegged as a flop, and that it's still too long by perhaps two hours.
The basic mistake is that Cimino tried to do too much. He obviously planned to draw on the great Western movie tradition to do a story about class warfare and an unorthodox romance, and he failed so thoroughly as to make the film ludicrous on all three counts.
As a Western, it looks silly. Filmed in daguerrotype browns, it shows a curiously polluted landscape populated by odd groups of foreigners: Eastern European intellectuals in round-rimmed glasses, representing The People, with a French madam added for spice; and pseudo-aristocrats, of the Russian and English models, as The Oppressors. One wonders not only how all these people got from Ellis Island to Wyoming, but where all the folks -- the cowboys and Indians who usually inhabit Westerns -- have been hidden.
The hero, played by Kris Kristofferson, is an indecisive character who graduates from Harvard in the class of 1870 and then goes idealistically slumming. There is no other way to describe how he plays the dandy in front of poor people and the revolutionary in front of the rich. He is apparently comfortable nowhere except in the local brothel.
The story, based on the "Johnson County War" between landowners and immigrants they believed to be stealing their cattle, is done with such pretentious implication of great meaning that it seems to be the prelude to a great national class struggle that we somehow never heard about. That political-minded immigrants who speak in subtitles should have turned in their long black coats for blue jeans after the conflict was settled seems impossible.
Woven into this is a love triangle, involving our Harvard hero, Isabelle Hubbert as the French madam, and Christopher Walken as the cattleowners' hired gun. Here it's the absence of an understanding of class differences that makes the situation ridiculous. The heroine, who performs services in her brothel as well as keeping the accounts, has more legitimate suitors for her hand than customers. No one seems to hold her profession against her. Just as we were cheated of the political revolution that should have been the result of the local warfare, we are also robbed, through accident, of the spectacle of Madam's being taken back home and introduced to the other Harvard wives.
Now there would have been a movie. Too bad there was no time to get around to it.