Synopsis - A dramatization of the real-life Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, in which a Sheriff born into wealth, attempts to protect immigrant farmers from rich cattle interests.
This is a movie i've been meaning to watch for a long time but for one reason or another never got around to, a common story amongst film geeks regarding the infamous Heaven's Gate. The reason why is that this three and a half hour marathon was never labeled as a life changing cinematic experience, in fact, most of its notoriety comes from the tumultuous shoot, going insanely over budget, and bringing down a movie studio (United Artists). Watching a movie just to see the the McGuffin that caused all of the scandal is not that motivating. Somehow we all forget just how great of a visual storyteller Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) was and never factor in that maybe, just maybe he could make a good movie.
The result? It's not a great movie, but I say that with a caveat. There is a masterpiece in Heaven's Gate. A David Lean, life changing cinematic experience that makes you think about the world, yourself, and your place in this world. The problem is that they should have cut about half an hour out of this thing, eradicating any redundant or drawn out sequences that don't add to the story, slow down the pace, and desensitize you to what is in fact awe-inspiring footage. A specific example includes the redundant sequences of Harvard youth celebrating their graduation. The choreographed dance sequence is mesmerizing. Watching all the men get drunk around the tree was entertaining. Then they continue to show more of the same, drawing it out well into the night. We're being told the exact same thing with each sequence so after a while it feels like being told to take out the trash twenty times.
There were various edited down versions, but the problem was each time they cut out too much. This isn't an hour and a half story, this is an epic that deserves more screen time. We need to see the conflict develop and play out to truly be invested in the feud and its consequences. Now, it might not warrant three and a half hours, but there is definitely a sweet spot at three hours that would bring us a movie that would go down in the annals as big as the other greats. The movie has the feel of an Emile Zola story, refusing to romanticize the poor and instead opting to show people for all of their warts.
The sets are rich with detail and the acting top notch, especially from Jeff Bridges, who is introduced to the audience as he runs a cockfight in the back of his saloon. Christopher Walken also delivers one of his best performances as Nate Champion, a murderer and "enforcer" for the stockmen.
This is a tale of one of the many growing pains this country had in its development, in its quest to find out of the American experiment had any longevity. Cimino tells that tale very well, making you believe that these were the puberty stricken years of the United States. This is how it happened. Whether it actually did or didn't is irrelevant.
I recommend you watch Heaven's Gate. Watch it and enjoy what works, because what works does so better than a majority of the other movies out there.
NOTE: I've seen footage from the restored cut of the movie made in 2013. I prefer the original colors. The world of this movie is flawed and the washed out sepia tone of the original displayed that to me. Making the colors as vibrant and rich as they are now takes away from the bleakness of the situation.