Immigration reform didn’t start with 9/11. It has been a top priority of the neo-Nazi skinhead agenda since the 1980’s. But that wasn’t the beginning. In 1857, Mormons massacred 120 settlers who were traveling through Utah into California. They didn’t care much for immigrants either. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law with the intention of stopping Chinese immigration and to deport those “illegals” who had already immigrated. This wasn’t enough for the anti-Chinese residents of Washington State who, in the fall of 1885, massacred 28 Chinese railroad workers at Rock Springs. In Seattle and Tacoma, homes were being burned and Chinese families forcibly driven out of the territory. By 1887, the entire Chinese population had been expelled from Tacoma. But hatred of immigrants exceeded the boundaries of religion and race.
In “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino emphasizes the anti-immigration aspect of 1890’s Johnson Country War, during which immigrant farmers in Wyoming were accused by representatives of the cattle industry of not being farmers at all, but cattle rustlers, and 125 of them were placed on a death list. It’s too bad the movie is such a boring shambles, because the core story is a fascinating piece of frontier history. Stories of the conflicts between cattle ranchers and farmers are common in Western movies, but “Heaven’s Gate” goes beneath the surface to expose the roots of these conflicts. Unfortunately, director Cimino has too many lesser things on his mind and loses focus on the more important issues.
Cimino was never a very good director, despite the Oscars that were heaped upon him for “The Deer Hunter.” And there is nothing wrong with his work on “Heaven’s Gate” that was not already obvious in the previous film. But awards and the myth of the boy genius trumped common sense, and United Artists kept pouring money into the production until it had lost $44 million. Cimino not only blew his chance to make a good picture, but bankrupted the studio that bankrolled him. A more modest production would have been more suitable to the story, which was slight of event and heavy of theme. After all the footage was assembled, a good editor may have found an excellent 90 minute western in Cimino’s 325 minute rough cut.
He could have started by getting rid of every scene that included Isabelle Huppert’s Ella, the madam of a whorehouse that accepted cattle as payment. This would have eliminated the idiotic romantic triangle between Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill and Christopher Walken’s Nathan D. Champion, and Huppert’s Ella, knocking out over an hour of the picture’s silliest moments. Furthermore, It would have eliminated the great contradiction that disables the film’s central premise. If the farmers really were paying for whores with stolen cattle, then they were thieves, not innocent immigrant farmers, and the cattle ranchers had a legitimate grievance against them. But Cimino is going for poetry, not logic, and Cimino is a very bad poet.
He is a worse film-maker than he is a poet. In fact, he isn’t much good at anything except wasting the studio’s money. Another deluded Stroheim, spending thousands of dollars on underwear that will never be seen, while offering surfaces that are sometimes smooth, but more often rough. There are several gorgeous shots in the film, and he sticks them in whenever he needs a startling vista, and repeats them at will. Worse is his utter failure at intelligently shooting the central massacre sequence, which repeats the same six camera set-ups for five minutes, all similar shots of people, animals, and vehicles swiping across the screen from right to left. Watching this rotating circle of images made me feel like a kid getting a bloody nose on a speeding carousel.
Then there are the rip-offs from other film-makers. Pathetic attempts at copying Peckinpah’s set-ups for a scene in which a shack is fired upon by an excessive number of gunmen on a grassy ridge. Laughable Barry Lyndon moments that alternate with indifferently lit landscapes. And that epilogue that looks like a parody of Visconti’s “Death in Venice.” Four minutes of pretension that are intrrupted by the single line of dialogue, “I would like a cigarette.” I think by that moment, everybody in the theatre was craving something on that order, be it a cigarette, a shot of whiskey, or a long, hot bath.