Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Heaven's Gate

'What one loves in life are the things that fade'.

Based on 'The Johnson County War', "Heaven's Gate" is set in late 1890's Wyoming, where cattle barons wage war on immigrant settlers from eastern Europe. When the odious Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) draws up a death list (with government backing) containing 125 names, James Averill (Kristofferson) must decide whether to help the oppressed settlers or stand aside and allow Canton's hired hands to engage in an orgy of bloodshed.

History records that "Heaven's Gate" cost $44 million to make, took $1.5 million during a brief theatrical run and brought United Artists to financial ruin.

Critical response to the most unjustly maligned film in cinema history was largely unfavourable, with the majority of critics indulging in their own kind of vicious bloodletting: "boring", "at least 90 minutes too long", "sketchy characterisation"...... just a few of the comments aimed at a director who "didn't know when to stop shooting!" Maybe those same 'learned scribes' should sit and watch the two hour abortion occasionally screened on Sky, and then return to Cimino's 219 minute cut. It's here they'll find a film of exquisite beauty, where Vilmos Szigmond's painterly photography ensures damn-near every shot is a work of art, set to David Mansfield's celestial score.

Performance-wise, "Heaven's Gate" almost manages to surpass its sumptuous visuals:Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges (saloon keeper, James H. Bridges) deliver career-bests, Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson) has rarely been better as the feisty Madame who juggles her emotions between Averill and part-time lover/mercenary Nate Champion (Walken) while John Hurt is unforgettable as the almost permanently blotto William Irvine.

Despite an excellent ensemble cast, the eye/ear candy provided by such splendid sound and vision could result in the screenplay being overlooked: subsequent viewings, however, will reveal an intensely moving script, conveying its characters collective feelings of loss, jealousy and regret. Even the finale is a masterpiece as we realise Averill has spent over 3 hours reliving his past from a ships deck, before ending the film with wordless acknowledgement of a request for a cigarette from his old college sweetheart; possibly the most moving scene in the entire film as Averill's eyes confirm a life that once was so full of promise has now lost all meaning.

So, why did the critics deliver such a savage reaction to this film? Quite simply, they reviewed the consequences of what turned out to be an enormous financial loss, and turned Cimino into a whipping boy, mindful of the possibility that they had possibly gone overboard for their praise for The Deer Hunter, whose success gave Cimino enormous leverage with his employers. This was payback in spades. Was Cimino blinded by his arrogance, with no thoughts for the money he was spending and the vast amount of footage he shot? Yes. Most definitely. But, just look at the film he turned out. Full of frankly terrific performances, from a cast he had carefully selected. Now, Heaven's Gate has emerged from the fire, and is at long last receiving the praise it deserves and we welcome its release on Blu-ray from Second Sight.

I've seen this film on Video, DVD and on the big screen at London's National Film Theatre, and this high definition presentation replicates the theatrical print, resulting in some truly stunning scenery. Indeed, Zsigmund's photography looks wonderful, with so many 'magic hour' shots taking one's breath away, and his aim of the film frequently looking like an old photograph just adds to the overall beauty. Fans of this film are likely to be delighted with how it looks here, and are also in for a treat with the supplementary material.

First up is True Gate. An Interview With Jeff Bridges. This piece has Bridges speaking with warmth about a film he watches every couple of years, recalling the film's premiere and a scathing New York Times review, both of which greatly disheartened cast and crew. He talks of great 'jam sessions' with the wonderful musicicans very night, and draws a comparison between the Johnson County situation with the oil barons of today. 19 engrossing minutes, and a pleasure to hear Jeff talk.

The next featurette is Painting Jackson County: An Interview With Vilmos Zsigmund (18 min) Here, Vilmos criticises United Artists for not standing by the film, and shares some great memories (champagne to celebrate one million foot of film shot), including Cimino's impatience ("But not with me") with some of his cast during the pursuit of excellence. A joy to witness and it nicely leads us into a 55 minute excerpt from the documentary 'Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven's Gate'. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, this absorbing feature tells the story of Cimino's film, from the story of European imigrants suspected of stealing cattle, and the death list drawn up; the original budget of $7.5 million; the reaction and efforts of studio executives who tried to get Cimino onside and the critical pounding it took from critics who decided its sins obscured its virtues. It's all here, with contributions from the likes of Steven Bach, David Field (both UA execs, with the former being the author of the best book on film I've read - Final Cut), Kristofferson, Bridges, and Cimino's assistant editor Penelope Shaw who remains fiercely loyal and makes some telling contributions. All in all, this documentary is worth the purchase price alone.

This Blu-ray release is out now on the Second Sight label, and adds to this film's standing as one of the great American movies. Yes, it's brutal in parts,but also achingly beautiful and, for me, never fails to recall aline from Edith Wharton's novel The Age Of Innocence.

"Next to death, life is the saddest thing there is".

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