Reappreciation Society: Heaven’s Gate

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Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s grand, epic retelling of the Johnston County War in 1892 Wyoming, has become a byword for profligacy and headstrong vanity. In truth, based on a notorious early review that examined everything but the film on screen, vexatiously fixated on scurrilous rumour and annoyance at being kept in the dark about the production. Cimino’s own withdrawing of the film to re-edit after only a week of screening did nothing to help its reputation, until its rennaissance at the Venice Film festival in 2012.

An alternative title (Heaven’s Gate is the name of the rollerskating arena the immigrant population carouse and congregate in) could be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a double-edged title. The town of Casper’s stationmaster apprises Kris Kristofferson’s Marshall Jim Averill, newly arrived, of the enmity the cattle Stockholders Association holds for the European immigrants scratching a living on “their” land: “If the rich could hire others to do their diein’ for them, the poor could make a wonderful livin’.”  (Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satiric essay suggested the poor of Ireland eat their children). The other “modest proposal” is a death list of 100 or so deemed troublemakers the wealthy cattle barons want removed from Wyoming, hired guns swamping the town to run the settlers down. All apparently sanctioned down the line from the US President himself. Averill is told of this by old Harvard class mate and valedictorian Billy Irvine (John Hurt) now a dissolute, weak willed drunk.

With the gulf between the “one percent” and the rest of us, as well as UK media and political fixation on the immigrant “other”, the class struggle of Heaven’s Gate has never been more pertinent, or affecting. The film is one long, slow burn towards tragic, bloody irresolution, tied in with a love triangle between Averill, Ella (Isabelle Huppert) and Stockbroker enforcer Nate Champion (Christoper Walken).

The film is beautifully made, interesting and grand (and yes, overly long), without quite achieving the greatness it strives for. The scale and attention to detail of the town and the many interiors, and loving sweeps of panoramic views is antecedent to David Milch and HBO’s magnificent Deadwood, showing both the beauty of the surroundings, and the grinding hardship of the settlers underdog existence. Walken’s character is introduced first in silhouette, then revealed in the hole he blows through a sheet, killing an immigrant, reduced to cattle rustling, skinning the carcass behind his cabin.

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Champion too, will come to face the Stockholders wrath, growing a conscience late in the day. He also dies, riddled with bullets outside his own rough home, where he has pasted newspaper to the walls to “civilise the wilderness.”

Jim Averill is a curiously passive protagonist, only taking action after the settlers take up arms themselves against the mob riding off the train to meet them, organising them into Roman Testudo, in a reversal of the Huns against the civilised Romans.

The film remains compelling, however. Billy’s rhyming speech at the friends Harvard graduation (Oxford stood in for the college) is itself satiric, yet ringfencing the sense of entitlement and status quo of the alumni’s background. They are young, rich and happy. The first of three circles of life and death is here, as the students waltz dizzyingly around the courtyard to Strauss’ The Blue Danube. Their carefree demeanour here contrasts with the closed, buttoned up grasping greed of their older contemporaries in the Stockholder’s Association later.

Also with the giddy kicking back of the skaters at Heaven’s Gate, the bar / skate rink run by Jeff Bridges’ John L. Bridges (it transpired the actor most likely had ancestry in the area at that time). Cimino revels in detail, the delighted look on one blond haired little scamp’s face at the circling skaters, swirling with a cacophony of diegetic fiddling and unsubtitled, European dialects, testament to their earthy, sensual joie de vivre.

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The circle of life becomes one of death at the film’s climax as the settlers ride rings in their wagons and on horseback around the enforcers sent to wipe them out, each side engulfed in a plume of blood and dust. A tragic sight is one woman, we see earlier laughing with Bridges, slowly push the barrel of a pistol into her mouth as she leans defeated against a wagon, and blow her brains out.  US Cavalry have arrived to ostensibly arrest the gunmen, in reality to rescue them. David Mansfield scored (he also plays the town’s violinist at Bridges’ place) and his pared down, almost peeking out from under cover rendition of The Blue Danube when the dust is settling on the climactic battle, comments on the clash of classes on the plains of Wyoming – a footnote in history, but a milestone in lives wiped out with malice aforethought.

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Originally posted 2015-03-27 13:48:13. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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