HEAVEN'S GATE: "You May Be Surprised, However, To Learn That Wyoming In 1892 Was Completely Covered In Huddled Masses."
Print Friendly and PDF

I finally got around to watching a small fraction of Michael Cimino's famous flop of 1980, the epic Western Heaven's Gate. It's being critically re-evaluated following a Criterion DVD release last year. 

It appears to have been before it's time, as it's now being celebrated for exposing how rich white capitalists hated immigrants. You may have been under the impression that American capitalists favored mass immigration as a source of cheap labor, while the opposition to immigration came from labor, Progressive reformers, and the like, but that just shows you know a suspicious amount about history. What are you? An anti-ignorite?

"Heaven's Gate" is very long, but there are some staggering scenes in it. For example, check out the shot of the waltz after the 1870 Harvard graduation from 0:17 to 0:43 in the above clip. This tops even Cimino's endless Russian wedding celebration in the first 45 minutes of his 1978 Oscar-winning fever dream The Deer Hunter.

Granted, this waltz scene is goofy. This is a cowboy shoot-em-up movie, not a musical or a huge budget Student Prince operetta. And why is a middle-aged Kris Kristofferson finally graduating from college? Is his fraternity buddy played by Roddy McDowell, or is he that guy with the Alien in his chest? And in either case, isn't McDowell/Hurt a little old for Harvard? Is that Harvard, or is Harvard not picturesque enough for Cimino, so he filmed it at Oxford? And why after a couple of minutes of dancing does the film seem to jump backwards an hour in time to the newly graduated boys playing ring-around-the-rosey and brawling? 

Presumably, it's just all the Scarface-sized piles of cocaine consumed on the set, but who knows?

Then the movie jumps forward a couple of decades to the famous Johnson County War between big and small cattle ranchers. 

You may be surprised, however, to learn that Wyoming in 1892 was completely covered in Huddled Masses. Kristofferson, now the Marshall of Johnson County, is the only passenger inside the train carriage, while hundreds of impoverished immigrants cling to the roof, like it's the night train to Calcutta. Then, the immigrants trudge in a vast sea of humanity across the barren High Plains toward the looming Rockies. Why have so many chosen such a dry, cold destination? Perhaps they are going to Butte to work in the mines? No, they are just going out into the picturesque emptiness to farm or ranch or rustle cattle or do whatever it is that people who aren't music publishers and costume designers like normal folks (i.e., Cimino's parents) do.

Vincent Canby's famously destructive review in the New York Times' began:

''HEAVEN'S GATE,'' Michael Cimino's gigantic new western and his first film since the Oscar-winning ''The Deer Hunter,'' is apparently based on a historical incident that occured in Johnson County, Wyo. in 1890: with the tacit approval of the state government, the county's wealthy cattle barons banded together in a systematic attempt to murder more than 100 German, Bulgarian, Russian and Ukrainian settlers who were encroaching on their lands. If one can say nothing else on behalf of ''Heaven's Gate'' (and I certainly can't), it's probably the first western to celebrate the role played by central and eastern Europeans in the settlement of the American West.

Was Canby surprised about his ignorance of the giant role of immigrants in Wyoming history because nobody much cares about Slavs? Or was it because Cimino just made up the whole immigrant angle?

You can't really blame Canby for not knowing anything more than Cimino did about the history. They didn't have Wikipedia back then. Today, however, you can look up "Heaven's Gate" in Wikipedia and read:

Apart from being set in Wyoming and the fact that many of the characters have the names of key figures in the Johnson County War, the plot and the characters themselves have almost no relation to the actual historical people and events.[12] While there were certainly small numbers of settlers arriving in northern Wyoming, there were not hordes of poor European immigrants streaming en masse,[13] let alone killing rich men's cattle out of hunger.  

For example, the names of some of the small ranchers and their allies in the Johnson County War who were attacked by the big ranchers include Tom Waggoner, Nate Champion, Ellen Watson, Jim Averell, John A. Tisdale, Orley “Ranger” Jones, and Willis Van Devanter. The Johnson County War, as more accurately depicted in Open Range with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner as small timers shooting it out with the big money boys, was actually Old Americans v. Old Americans.

But we've got the Internet now, so the critics who are revisiting Heaven's Gate at their leisure are  .... as well-informed about the immigration aspect as Canby working against deadline was in 1980. For example, NPR reported last December:

With that conflict established, the movie slowly, slowly, slowly builds to the actual historical event known as the Johnson County War between mercenary killers and immigrants. And it must be said that this showdown actually feels more timely now — in this era of Occupy Wall Street and fierce battles over immigration — than it did at the very beginning of the Reagan era, when the film's gutbucket Marxism ran against the prevailing cultural mood.

Oh, well.

Speaking of World War T, for recent photographs of Cimino and accompanying rumors, see here.

Print Friendly and PDF