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Release Date(s)1980 (November 20, 2012)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Criterion - Spine #636)
Heaven’s Gate is one of the most legendary, and possibly one of the most infamous, films in the history of the medium. Essentially a western, the film is notable for not just its immense cast and lush photography, but how it changed the filmmaking industry for the worse and, to most film fans and critics, it’s the last film of Michael Camino’s career that was noteworthy.
For those who might not know the history behind the film, Heaven’s Gate was, more or less, the film that ushered in the end of the New Hollywood way of making films. During that era, many movie studios handed their money over to filmmakers to shoot their movies without heavy-handed studio involvement to see if they could come up with something different. That’s not to say that the studios weren’t involved in the final outcome and release of the films they produced, but things were a bit more lax in those days. Movie studios had previously, one decade earlier, decided that they were losing too much money and weren’t sure if the product that they were putting out was what the public wanted. In desperation, they sought out newer and younger filmmakers to make films for younger crowds, which is where they felt the money was to be had. In their way of thinking, young people would understand young filmmakers and vice versa, and the studios would reap the rewards in the process. During this time, many filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas got to make projects that they might not have gotten made otherwise under other circumstances.
Those were, of course, the memorable names. The people you might not have heard of included Peter Bogdonavich, Terrence Malick, Hal Ashby and Michael Cimino. Cimino, in particular, had just had some success with the classic film The Deer Hunter, winning Oscars in the process. Given more creative freedom and a higher budget for his next film, he set out to make a fictionalized look at the Johnson County War of Wyoming in 1892. It wound up being one of the most ambitious and talked-about films of the era, and not in a good way. Rumors of overbearing directorial control on Cimino’s part mixed with the fact that the film’s budget was spiraling out of control made United Artists, the company that was funding the project, sit up and take notice. Once the film was completed, it was more or less dumped into theaters, missing over an hour of footage that was cut out of Cimino’s original director’s cut of the film by the studio. Heaven’s Gate significantly flopped at the box office and signaled to movie studios that they needed to start regaining control of the films that they were producing and, perhaps worst of all, ended Michael Cimino’s tenure as a free-willed artist. He made other films after Heaven’s Gate, of course, but none met with the kind of success that he had had with The Deer Hunter, and he was never again given the kind of budgets necessary to create the kinds of films that he wanted to make. Not really, anyways. Many years later, he was given the option to restore his film to his specifications, including all of the footage that was originally cut out of it. It was subsequently screened at cinemas, released on DVD, and now, on Blu-ray, thanks to Criterion.
So after all of that, I’ll bet that you’re asking yourself “Was all of that fuss really worth it? Is the film really that bad?” Well, opinions will vary, of course, but in this reviewer’s opinion, Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece of storytelling. It was a film that was unjustly hacked to pieces before anyone could see it and judge it for themselves. In the theatrical cut, the cut that was originally released in 1981, scenes were completely shifted around and many things were alluded to or didn’t make sense because of the missing footage. It was an entirely different film, one that many wrote off as a waste of time and money. Now with the advent of home video (as well as retrospect), the film can be seen as it was intended. Beautifully-composed as well as riveting in narrative, the film paints a portrait of a West that is stylized but also incredibly authentic. It may owe a bit of unintentional visual inspiration to Robert Altman’s great McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but Heaven’s Gate stands on its own as not just one of the greatest westerns ever made, but as well as one of the greatest films of all time. Seemingly lost forever, the travesty of its failure is now almost set right with Michael Cimino’s grand masterpiece in its full three and a half hour form (despite the work print running for five and a half hours, but never mind).
For the debut of Heaven’s Gate on Blu-ray, Criterion, with the involvement of the director, reassembled the film using the original color separation masters to get the best possible quality since the original negative is likely unusable for such a process. However, the months of toiling, including major color corrections and final edit tweaks made by the director, were well-worth the effort. Painstaking in nearly every detail, the film is a revelation in high definition. It goes without saying that it blows the previous MGM DVD release out of water, as now the lush cinematography can be viewed in every exquisite detail. Colors are rich and extremely bold, with strong greens, tans and blues. The soft texture of the cinematography itself, while intentional, doesn’t limit the film’s detail. Grain is thick and film-like throughout, giving the film the look of an old photograph in the best possible condition, so you won’t be seeing a lot of inky blacks in this one. But the skin tones are quite accurate and the contrast is perfect. There is a sequence in the film when the quality suddenly drops for several seconds, but not enough to disregard the effort put into the whole of the work. Considering what this team of people had to work with in the first place, the quality produced here is jaw-dropping, to say the least. Other than something like The Red Shoes, this is probably one of the best recreations of a film print using the three strip color masters that I can think of.
The audio itself is equally impressive. Sonically, the DTS-HD 5.1 track delivers quite a robust soundtrack. Sound effects, especially gunfire, crackle with spectacular clarity. Dialogue is also very crisp and well balanced. Although at times, because of the accents of certain characters in the film and the overlapping nature of the dialogue itself, the subtitles may be necessary if you want to catch everything being said your first time through (although I didn’t find it necessary, personally). The score also benefits from the new sound upgrade as well, especially during the film’s most famous scene in the dance hall. It’s quite beautiful and resonates quite well. I didn’t find the soundtrack to be a completely enveloping experience, but I did find it effective in all the right ways, so it’s aces with me. There are also the aforementioned subtitles in English for those who might need them.
As this is a two disc release, you’ll find the extras on Disc Two. There are three new interviews to delve into: one with audio only featuring Cimino and producer Joann Carelli using still photographs (mostly from the behind the scenes), another with Kris Kristofferson, another with soundtrack arranger and performer David Mansfield, and the last with second assistant director Michael Stevenson. In addition, there’s also a video of the Restoration Demonstration, the teaser trailer, a TV spot and a 40-page booklet featuring the essay “Western Promise” by critic and programmer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and a 1980 interview, “The Film That Took On a Life of its Own”, with Cimino. Sorely missing from this release is the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, but you can find it on YouTube if you’re so inclined. Rights issues probably limited its inclusion, but it’s out there if you wish to see it.
I think it goes without saying that Heaven’s Gate was a true casualty of studio-meddling, one that unfortunately wasn’t seen properly until many years later, and even then, not to a wide extent. Hopefully, this release will change all of that and many people will realize just what a terrific film it really is. It should go without saying, but this release is highly recommended. It features a fantastic A/V presentation and a nice set of extras, so it’s well worth your time and money.
- Tim Salmons