I have a problem. Whenever someone tells me a movie, album or TV show is bad, I become instantly curious, and my desire to check it out for myself becomes insatiable.
If the movie, album or TV show in question is considered the worst ever, just get out of my way and take my money. I want in, and nothing will stop me until I can make my own judgment.
Nine times out of ten, I should have listened. The movie, album or TV show is as bad as everyone said, and the 30 to 120 minutes that I could have spent with my family or writing the great American novel has been pried away from me forever, taken by my own hand.
Still, every so often, something slips by that was assigned “worst thing ever” status, but really deserves a second look. The 1980 Michael Cimino movie “Heaven’s Gate” is one of those things.
The story of the movie is well-known. Cimino, fresh off winning the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for “The Deer Hunter,” decided to follow up that film with a movie that was meant to be an epic vision of the American west. He would take it out of “Gunsmoke” territory and broaden the palette to “Lawrence of Arabia” size.
The movie went drastically behind schedule and alarmingly over budget, and bad press started to follow the movie until its premiere. The movie was then released to a critical reception that had more in common with a prison gang jumping-in ceremony than an actual review of a movie on its merits. From then on, it became known as “the worst movie ever made,” and has yet to get out from under that title 37 years later.
Objectively, here’s the deal with “Heaven’s Gate.” At over three and a half hours, yes, it’s too long. And some of the stories that emerged about Cimino’s behavior on set – notably his refusal in one shot to roll camera until a cloud had moved into a specific spot in the sky – paint a picture of a self-styled auteur with too much authority and too much money, and a lot of that egotism made its way to the screen.
Still, while all of that is true, if you simply sit down, disregard that stuff and just watch the movie, it immediately becomes clear that the reviews were attempts to punish Cimino for his excessive behavior. These were not reviews of the actual movie.
Despite its length, there’s much in it to be admired. All the actors, including Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, give excellent performances, and the attention to detail in recreating the film’s late-19th century setting is at a level unlike anything I’m aware of. Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, one of the few people ever to give “Heaven’s Gate” a good review, said that “the level of craftsmanship can scarcely be higher,” and he was right.
Really, other than the movie’s length and pacing, it’s hard to find any flaw in it at all.
Cimino’s career never recovered from the drubbing that “Heaven’s Gate” took, and after 1996’s “Sunchaser,” he never made another movie. He passed away in 2016, but he did live long enough to supervise a transfer of “Heaven’s Gate” that played in revival houses and was released in 2013 on DVD and Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, a distribution company that reissues the movies of such filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. He’s in good and, perhaps, fitting company.
The entire sordid story behind “Heaven’s Gate” is told here and in a documentary called “Final Cut” that’s worth seeing. But better yet, maybe the best thing is to forget about all of that, pick up the Criterion disc, watch this visual masterpiece, and come to your own conclusions.
If you simply sit down, disregard that stuff and just watch the movie, it immediately becomes clear that the reviews were attempts to punish Cimino for his excessive behavior.