It was supposed to be a masterpiece, a Western epic that would rival Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. But Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 film directed by Michael Cimino, turned out to be a disaster that bankrupted United Artists and ended the golden age of directorial freedom in Hollywood.
The film, which is based on the Johnson County War of 1889-1893, a conflict between Wyoming’s biggest cattle ranchers and the immigrant homesteaders who challenged their monopoly, cost $44 million to make and earned only $3.5 million at the box office.
The critics savaged it as an “unqualified disaster” and a “monumental flop”. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: “’Heaven’s Gate’ fails so completely that you might suspect that Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and the Devil has just come around to collect.”
The film was pulled from theaters after its disastrous premiere and recut by Cimino, but it failed to improve its reputation. It became a laughingstock and a synonym for Hollywood folly. The film’s title was used to mock other failures, such as Waterworld and Kevinsgate.
But was Heaven’s Gate really that bad? Some critics and fans think otherwise. They argue that the film is a misunderstood masterpiece, a richly textured and visually compelling saga that explores the themes of class, immigration, violence and love in the American West.
Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar for his role in Cimino’s previous film, The Deer Hunter, and played a ranch enforcer in Heaven’s Gate, defended the film as a beautiful movie. “I always suspected that maybe the movie got talked about too much beforehand,” he said. “I was at that screening, and I thought I’d watched a good movie.”
Seth Abramovitch of The Hollywood Reporter agreed. He wrote: “It’s a beautiful movie. Go and feast your eyes.”
The film is also remarkably timely for today, with its depiction of refugees seeking a new life and the anti-immigrant sentiment that they face. Nicholas Barber of BBC Culture wrote: “Heaven’s Gate is one of those rare films that seems more relevant now than it did when it was made.”
The film also had a lasting impact on the industry, especially on animal welfare. The controversy surrounding the animal action in Heaven’s Gate prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize AHA oversight of animals in filmed media.
Heaven’s Gate may have been a flop, but it was also a landmark in cinema history. It deserves another chance to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience.