Heaven's Gate

November 19th, 1980


Heaven's Gate

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Michael Cimino's bleak anti-western based on events in 1890s Wyoming. Sheriff James Averill attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests...

Release Year: 1980

Rating: 6.5/10 (5,373 voted)

Director: Michael Cimino

Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt

Michael Cimino's bleak anti-western based on events in 1890s Wyoming. Sheriff James Averill attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests, and also clashes with a hired gun, Nathan Champion, over the woman they both love, Ella Watson. Both men find themselves questioning their roles in the furious conflict between wealthy landowners and European immigrants attempting to build new lives on the American frontier, which culminates in a brutal pitched battle.

Kris Kristofferson - James Averill
Christopher Walken - Nathan D. Champion (as Chris Walken)
John Hurt - Billy Irvine
Sam Waterston - Frank Canton
Brad Dourif - Mr. Eggleston
Isabelle Huppert - Ella Watson
Joseph Cotten - The Reverend Doctor
Jeff Bridges - John L. Bridges
Ronnie Hawkins - Major Wolcott
Paul Koslo - Mayor Charlie Lezak
Geoffrey Lewis - Trapper Fred
Richard Masur - Cully
Rosie Vela - Beautiful girl (as Roseanne Vela)
Mary Catherine Wright - Nell (as Mary C. Wright)
Nicholas Woodeson - Small man

Taglines: The only thing greater than their passion for America...was their passion for each other.

Release Date: 19 November 1980

Filming Locations: Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $44,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend: $12,032 (USA) (19 November 1980) (2 Screens)

Gross: $3,484,331 (USA)

Technical Specs

Runtime: (re-cut)  | (original cut)

Did You Know?

Real horses' entrails were used to add realism to the gorier scenes.

Factual errors: The period steam engine is a coal fired engine, with black smoke. In the West, steam engines had wide, open smokestacks for burning cheap, plentiful wood, producing white smoke and live cinders. In fact, piles of logs are stacked on the accompanying tender.

Ella Watson: Do you think a woman can love two men?
James Averill: Sure you can. Why not three? But it sure as hell isn't convenient.

User Review


Rating: 10/10

I saw Heaven's Gate on its opening week nearly twenty years ago. Tickets were sold in advance based on the great anticipation of seeing Cimino's long in the making follow up to his 1978 masterpiece "The Deerhunter." The reviews came in and critics trashed the film with vehemence. An influential New York film critic led the way and most critics followed suit, and the 3hr. 40-min. film was pulled from distribution. United Artists had Cimino shorten the film by about an hour and it was re-released many months later to equally horrible reviews and to dismal business. The film at that time cost about 40 million dollars (now considered low budget) making it one of the most expensive in history and Cimino had free rein on the project with endless retakes despite it being only his third film. "The Deerhunter" had also received a negative backlash based on a perceived political ideology, which was not popular. I mention all this to present a possible bias building up against Cimino. At the time I thought the film was very good and when I saw the shorter version it was still very good only less so. The film showed up again in a museum in the early 1990's. They were supposed to show the long version but they could not find an existing print. Nevertheless, seeing the film years later I now thought Heaven's Gate was a masterpiece. Finally, the long version started to appear in a few select cities, I got to see it recently and it was well worth the wait. Heaven's Gate begins with the graduation ceremony at Harvard University. Two of the graduates are Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt and we some of the flaws in their characters early on. Despite the mandate Joseph Cotton gives in his speech to the graduating class to use their education to enlighten and improve their country, many of the graduates behave as if they are part of an elite country club. The film flashes ahead 20 years to Johnson County in Wyoming. A cattle company called "the Stockholders Association" has hired poor people to shoot 125 poor immigrants claiming they are cattle thieves. Kristofferson sides with the immigrants while John Hurt is part of the Association. Although Hurt is totally against this insane action he is too ineffectual a character to do anything about it. A massacre takes place but the immigrants do well in defending themselves. A United States Cavalry comes to the rescue of the Association to allegedly arrest them after most of the damage has been done when in fact they sanctioned the mass killing. Kristofferson also suffers a great personal loss and the film ends with him years later as part of the elite class of his Harvard days married, bored, on a yacht, living but dead on the inside.

This is a very complex film which is brilliant in every department such as it's themes, structure, direction, cinematography, writing, music, editing, set designs, and acting. Kristofferson, Walken, Hurt, Huppert, Dourif, Bridges, Waterston, and Cotton are all excellent portraying very complex characters. Some of the major complaints I read about this film state that is ugly to look at, incoherent, too long, that the characters make no sense and that the words are often unintelligible. In its defense, Heaven's Gate has the look of photographs of that period just as "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" did. Some of the scenes are smoky looking to suggest the industrial revolution or sometimes horses, wagons, people are passing by from all sides creating a sense of reality.(The critic who called it one of the ugliest movies ever made likes to use his thumbs a lot.) But in spite of all that, the composition of each frame and the cinematography are impeccable. The film makes a great deal of sense if you pay attention to it. Everything is not spelled out for the viewer and one has to observe closely to understand the motivations of the characters or its themes. As to its length, it is a beautifully structured piece, at times moving, poetic, exhilarating, or devastating with virtually one great scene following another. At times some of the words are unintelligible especially in some of the scenes bustling with activity. But one could understand such a cinematic film as this through its use of film language, the glances between characters or their actions. One day soon this film should be re-released in its full length so that people and critics could give it a second chance. Do not let Michael Cimino become another Orson Welles- under appreciated in his lifetime and not able to make the kinds of great films he is capable of making.


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