Thursday, February 2, 2012

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the Death of the Auteur Theory

The “pantheon” of worst films is usually topped by fare such as Edward D. Wood Jr’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). No question. It is truly terrible. But naming a picture like that the “worst film ever made” is too easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The man had no talent so it was easy for him to make a truly awful movie. What I think should be considered when creating a list of the worst films ever made are the filmmaking skills and ambition of the director. Michael Cimino had both. His The Deer Hunter (1978) won the Oscar for Best Picture, and his debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), was a quality character-driven action picture that starred Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. The film he made after The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, gets my nomination for the worst film ever made because Cimino had talent and ambition. He was also (and still remains) a megalomaniac.

And just in case you think I’m now shooting fish in a barrel, labeling a film “the worst ever made” by jumping on the bandwagon of what everybody already knows, I was actually at the Toronto debut screening on November 20, 1980. Most people never saw the full version on the big screen since it was pulled from release after that evening and only briefly returned in a severely cut form (the long version is now on DVD; the short version is not). Going in, I knew very little about what had happened the night before at its world premiere in New York City (and the savage review it got from The New York Times critic Vincent Canby). Sure, I admit, I had heard a brief report on the radio that the screening had not gone well, but that was all I knew (remember, this was prior to texting and Google and we had to rely on newspapers, radio and TV). I thought little of the report since I preferred to make up my own mind.

I ended up at the screening because I was working as a film critic for the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Newspaper. In fact, a couple of years before, the first picture I ever reviewed for the paper was Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, so it seemed only natural that I review his follow up. My colleague film critic at the time was Atom Egoyan (later to be the director of Chloe, The Sweet Hereafter, and several others). Since he also wanted to see the film, and the ticket let two people in, he came with me.

Director Michael Cimino
The dearly loved, but now long-gone, palatial University Theatre was the venue. The place was packed with dignitaries, press and people involved in the film (the picture’s stars or those who had helped make the film). I don’t remember who made the introductions that night, but I do remember the moment when Michael Cimino was introduced. Atom and I were sitting on the floor level, ahead of the leading edge of the balcony. A spotlight went up to the first row of the balcony as we craned our necks to view this round-faced man with a mess of black hair, reluctantly peering over the balcony edge, barely raising his ass off the seat. That should have been a hint of what was to come. When the creator of a picture doesn’t want to be seen, you know something is amiss.

Then the picture began. Heaven’s Gate is supposedly based on a true story called The Johnson County War (which was the film’s original title). In the 1890s, cattle barons controlled vast swaths of the land in Wyoming. Much to their anger, thousands of immigrants from Europe were beginning to descend on this territory, setting up camps and supposedly rustling cattle to eat. The barons hired a group of thugs to kill the rustlers and intimidate the other settlers into submission, or, at least, run them off the property. After initial attacks, the settlers fought back. At least that’s what the film was supposed to be about.

What was on screen, all three hours and forty-one minutes of it, though was actually an incoherent mess with confusing scenes and incomprehensible dialogue. Thirty-two years later (I’ve never re-watched the film and never will), ‘what-the-fuck?’ scenes continue to stick out in my mind. In an endless prologue, our main characters (particularly Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt) are graduating from Harvard University. Joseph Cotton, as the head of the university, gives some sort of ‘you are the youth of tomorrow’ speech and then John Hurt, a drunk John Hurt (probably in real life, not just in character) gave a rambling valedictorian speech that amounted to gibberish. I remember I turned to Atom and said “what?” to which he just shrugged.

There is one very effective scene early in the picture (after the prologue) where Christopher Walken, who plays the head of the gang to stop the rustlers, comes across a small settlement of them. He then confronts one of their members and when provoked (attacked? I really don’t remember) he shoots one of the rustlers through their hung laundry. We see his body cast this long shadow across the sheet until his bullet penetrates both the shadow and the sheet killing the trespasser. It’s a powerfully evocative scene and probably the only one in the whole picture.

Heaven's Gate roller rink
As this endless dirge unspooled, Atom and I began doing something we had never done before (and I know I’ve not done since). We began to constantly lob what we thought were quiet quips back and forth about the film. I recall commenting to Atom, “What exactly is [singer] Ronnie Hawkins’ role in this?” To which he responded, “Beats me.” Hawkins appeared in scene after scene after scene and all I remember him doing is riding in circles on his horse periodically throwing dynamite at folks during the climactic battle. And if you think the title, Heaven’s Gate, has some significant meaning, think again. It is simply the name of a frontier roller rink (I’m not kidding). Midway through the film, Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert go for a skate … a very long and pointless skate.

The picture finally ground to a halt almost four hours later with an epilogue, supposedly set years later. But how could you possibly tell? Kristofferson had shaved off his beard and he was now lolling on a yacht with some middle-aged woman (supposedly it was his moneyed girlfriend from the Harvard prologue who he returned to, I guess, after the calamity of the war). The lights came up and, without question, it was the quietest audience I’ve ever heard after the debut of a “major motion picture.” Usually there’s applause, or something, but this thing just ended. As Atom and I put on our coats, the man sitting in front of us turned around and said, “Congratulations on going to your first film ever. Some of us prefer quiet!” Clearly, Atom and my kibitzing had not been as quiet as we thought. I spotted Elwy Yost sitting a couple of rows away. He turned to his companion and said “my kingdom for a pair of scissors.” You know a picture is doomed when someone as forgiving of a film’s flaws as Elwy wants to cut it.

Atom bid me adieu and I started to head out, but first I needed to visit the washroom (it was a long film). The downstairs one had a big line-up, so I headed upstairs. Up there, the television media were hard at work interviewing cast members … er … well, interviewing Ronnie Hawkins because, as I was to discover later, he was the only one involved in the making of the film who had stayed around (Cimino had fled part way through the film and insisted on being immediately flown back to California, or so the story goes). I heard Hawkins say, “Yay, I was supposed to be on the picture a couple of weeks, but I spent seven months there. I almost got killed during that final battle scene when a pyrotechnic went off early. Not sure why I was there so long, but that was Michael.” After coming out of the washroom, I was buttonholed by Bob McAdorey, then the entertainment reporter for Global Television. I spoke to him briefly, telling him I‘d always found his reports entertaining. Obviously without any cast members to interview, he asked if I’d comment. They turned the camera on me and I said, “Well, it’s one of the best shot films I’ve ever seen, but the thing makes no sense whatsoever.” I guess they liked my comment because, not only did McAdorey use my clip on the next night’s Global newscast, but earlier in the morning, listening to CFNY-FM, I heard the audio portion of my comments on their news report.

Composer David Mansfield
There was one other thing I really liked about the film which I didn’t mention at the time because I didn’t think of it, and that was David Mansfield’s absolutely beautiful score. In fact, yesterday, I listened and enjoyed again two tracks from Mansfield’s music on an MP3 disc my Critics at Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, gave me a while back. Combining elements of Celtic music, eastern European and classic film score stylings, Mansfield created something that the picture most assuredly was not, a work of art. (Clearly, Mansfield is a masochist since he went on to score most of Cimono’s subsequent films, including the alarmingly racist Year of the Dragon.) There’s a Mini Masterpiece within Mediocre Movies moment late in Year of the the Dragon that I will write about soon.

Heaven’s Gate is one picture not deserving of a re-evaluation, or rationalizations that it is a flawed, misunderstood masterpiece (critics such as the late Robin Wood and David Thomson, who should know better, have attempted to do just that). Heaven’s Gate was insulting, vile, long-winded, pointless, and incomprehensible (in the real meaning of the word) plus a waste of time, money and effort. I also wasted almost four hours of the only life I will ever have watching this thing. But if you want the full account of this picture’s sordid story, find a copy of Final Cut by Steven Bach, the executive who green lit the picture (the documentary made about it, based on Bach’s book; it can be watched in eight parts on youtube).

As we all know now, the greatest catastrophe to come out of the disaster of Heaven’s Gate was the decline of the personal filmmaker in Hollywood. In the Seventies, directors with vision were able to work with large budgets for major studios on projects that mattered. In a fulfillment of what earlier became known as the auteur theory (a theory that believed that certain quality filmmakers were the true authors of a film), this view ignored the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative medium instead focusing solely on the director. The problem with this is that while it’s true that certain filmmakers have a recognizable style, or themes they prefer to explore, they need producers and other collaborators to provide boundaries for them to work within. The proponents of this theory also often say that the auteur’s bad movies are deserving of praise. This led to some filmmakers, such as Cimino, buying into this worshipfulness. Egos became as inflated as budgets, plus giving them a sense of entitlement and grand ambition that took them miles beyond their abilities. Ironically, Heaven’s Gate ruined it for filmmakers who truly had vision and were making interesting pictures. After Cimino’s folly, studios rarely permitted filmmakers to have the free reign they had prior to this debacle.

The decline in the type of films that excited myself and other critics (such as Kevin Courrier, Susan Green, Shlomo Schwartzberg and Steve Vineberg), who got our start in the mid- to late-‘70s, with pictures like The Godfather, The Conversation, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Carrie, The Last Picture Show, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman’s version), saw a huge decline from Heaven’s Gate forward, because risky films were far less likely to get any studio backing. This remains generally true to this day as studio flacks keep a tighter and tighter leash on talented filmmakers (Kaufman, De Palma and Bogdanovich haven’t made a picture in years; Coppola’s quality run is long over; Scorsese’s output, until this year’s terrific Hugo, had become more and more impersonal), and yet they still let incompetent hacks, like Joel Schumacher (Phantom of the Opera – 2004; Trespass – 2011), continue to make meaningless pulp that frequently cost way more than Heaven’s Gate did (it cost $36 million in 1980 – a great deal of money then). Why? Because they know these directors will make uncomplicated films on schedule, on budget and do it exactly the way the studio suits want it done. That is the true downside of Heaven’s Gate’s failure.

Talents like David Fincher (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network) still do sneak through, but the golden goose has been cooked and left to dry in the sun. When the executives allowed Michael Cimono a free hand to make whatever picture he wanted, the American film renaissance ended, and I was there on the night the decline began.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.


  1. This film falls within a small niche of American films that investigate the depths of power in America. Jarmusch's Dead Man would be another example. It seems to me that a lot of political flexibility is required for such films to be adequately comprehended and enjoyed. I fail to see why you found it so incomprehensible. Most of your complaints seem to center around the film's failure to follow norms (length, etc.). However, you might be right that it's audio is quite bad. I think you are on very thin ice in your contention that this is the worst film ever.

  2. He's not on anything so elegant as thin ice. He's in idiot concrete.

  3. David Churchill comments: Hello Anonymous number two. Although we welcome all comments, we do appreciate that if you are going to write that you actually put your name to your piece as we always do. Thank you.

  4. I watched the movie last night on DVD. All I can say is thank God for fast-forward. I can't imagine having to sit through the whole four hours and twenty minutes of Cimino's painfully self-indulgent flick. I did, however, disagree with one of your comments, about the roller skating scenes. Yes, like everything in Heaven's Gate, it's loooooong. But I enjoyed every drawn-out minute of it! And the music — I can't get the tune out of my head. But that's a good thing.

    Vera Greenwood

    1. Extremely soporific film. The ambien of gorgeous looking, super boring films

  5. I would agree w/ the idiot concrete comment. Particularly when one considers a "film critic" refuses to revisit a film. This is without question far from the worst film ever made. Indeed it is flawed, but it's significantly better than this "critic" gives it credit for. Films like 2001, L'Aventurra, Vertigo, and Eyes Without A Face were excoriated by citics of their time, only to find a complete reversal many years later. (I'm not suggesting Heaven's Gate is at the level of the aforementioned films, it's not.)

    However, while Mr. Churchill's account is an engaging, entertaining read, his view on the death of the Auteur theory is superficial, unoriginal, parroted group think written about in a myriad of other venues. The truth is much more involved and having to do w/ changing release patterns and infux of exec's coming from TV, etc. Mr. Churchill strikes me as an intelligent person who has some writing chops but this piece is not very well thought out at all. I believe this film, and the death of the 70's auteur film, deserves a much more rigorous analysis...

  6. T. David DrumhellerMarch 11, 2013 at 8:51 PM

    I just saw the 216min version of HG this afternoon (would like to have seen the alleged 260min version) at the famous Castro Theater in San Francisco. I had never seen any version before, but had heard the legend, and was curious.

    Overall, I thought the film wonderful. I truly hardly noticed the time going by, and was sad when it finally ended. This article is simply unfair. "Worst Movie Ever"?!? I've seen thousands of worse films. (Try anything by the pretentious 'avante-gardiste' Tarkovsky. See that Nicole Kidman movie BIRTH - I think that was the name - for something genuinely unbelievably bad.)

    The rollerskating scene you mock was beautifully paced and shot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it obviously was unnecessary in the context of the central plot (though it did make the two main characters seem to be in love, and that love story or triangle was a sub-plot). Why do film critics love it when movie casts burst out into utterly inappropriate impromptu singing and dancing during any typical boring Bollywood flick?

    I can't imagine why persons found the plot unintelligible. I thought it was explained pretty well (the one flaw being the lack of explanation for how the Averill character got from Harvard graduation to being a Wyoming sheriff two decades later).

    The one terrible problem I had was likewise with the dialogic sound quality. I saw Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER last month, also at the Castro, and I could not make out about a quarter of the dialogue (fortunately I'd seen it previously). Before reading this review, I assumed the Castro Theater just had a poor sound system (I've had auditory problems with other films seen there over the years). I now think Cimino himself may have had a personal failing with respect to recognizing how an audience would perceive his films' aural quality. I'm surprised this problem couldn't get fixed in a 'remastered' version (though perhaps the Castro showed an original, 33-34 year old, 35mm print - I don't know).

    Anyway, in sum, I enjoyed the whole movie, and judge it ambitious and well (if not perfectly) made. I was certainly never bored, as I was with, say, the truly, spectacularly awful MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, which I only stayed through because it was the second film of a three-pack I had paid for, and I wished to see the third film (director van Sant later miraculously outdid his own awfulness with a movie called GERRY, that I and perhaps no more than 10 other people actually saw - see that movie as a true yardstick of the worst a movie can be, and still get screened), nor did I think HG remotely as meandering and pointless as Antonioni's massively overrated ZABRISKIE POINT.

    You should give HG a second look.

    1. I'm afraid that HG is ONLY worth investing time in if you have an "auteur's" control of the remote to FF through abominably bad scenes. Of which there are many. I see comments commending the music score and/or cinematography. I beg to differ.The film is preposterously unwatchable. It's unwatchably preposterous. Is it "The Worst"? Who cares? The music cannot be great in such a film. Ditto for the camera. It's NOT FUNNY. Give it a half hour. C

  7. I couldn't agree more with your article about Heavens Gate. I've tried to like this film several times and just gave up. I saw the edited version when it came out and left the theatre very confused. Sometime in the late 80's I borrowed a VHS version of the 3.5 hour version and was willing to give it a chance. I figured the edited version that I saw in 1980 was butchered and that this VHS version ( 2 tapes) would finally shed some light on the genius of this film. Alas it was not to be. The long (and I stress long) version was even more confusing then the 2.5
    Michael Cimino as far as I'm concerned had a heavy hand in ruining the movie industry today. Investors today want their money going to a committee style of film making with stop gaps, too many meetings and endless testing.

  8. The film was a masterpiece on release and always will be.It was unfortunately too late on arrival in so far as what the movie going public had begun to be weaned on and thus solely anticipated and expected:the Hollywood Blockbuster/Sci-Fi/SFX era.The trivial hysteria surrounding the critical savaging of the film was pre-meditated and no worse than the many controversies surrounding it's making.It stood no chance.I saw it many years ago and declared it a masterpiece in my own mind,regardless of its squandered history.Its elegiac and painterly form,funereal pacing and craftsmanship all enveloped me like no other picture before.Like David Lean before him,with his rapturous and exquisite Ryan's Daughter,Cimino became just another statistic for the masses of film critics,all flailing around at the time in a bored panic,looking for the next 'big' cinematic target to crucify.So the film has finally come to be seen as the neglected masterwork it actually is over the past number of years..? Of course it has.