Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 2)

“So. Now I can say I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate,” quoth

  as the credits roll.

Which is about all there is to say. I have no profound insights to add to viewing the second half of Michael Cimino’s legendary disaster. (You may read my comments on Part I here.)

The second half moves a good deal more quickly than the first, largely because its narrative is substantially more compressed, but it is no more dramatically coherent. There’s very little sense of “this happened, then this happened, and because of that, this happened” — it’s more like a series of discrete events presented in pageant form with very little to connect them dramatically. Some of the staging of these events is thoughtful and impressive, and some is not. But more importantly, not enough of it has any dramatic weight.

Example: a group of immigrants gather at the skating rink to discuss the invasion of their county by an army of hired assassins. They argue, in different languages, for a long time. Motions are presented and heatedly debated. Oratorical heroes are made and prominent citizens are shouted down. What are they saying? We don’t know — there are no subtitles. But more problematically, we’ve never met any of these people before and have no particular emotional attachment to them. It wouldn’t matter if we could understand what they are shouting if we had any idea what any of them stood for. It’s like we just walked into the middle of the movie, even though we’ve been watching closely from the beginning. There is a good deal of shouting and pushing and kissing and hugging and beating of breasts, then they all get on their horses and ride somewhere. Where are they going? We don’t know. Oh, it turns out they’re riding to where the assassins are camped out. Okay. And there’s a massive shootout. Some assassins are killed, others are not. Some immigrants are killed, others are not. None of it means anything because we don’t know who any of these people are. There doesn’t seem to be any dramatic thrust to any of the choices the director has made — the story doesn’t go anywhere.

Kris Kristofferson is the sheriff (or not — it’s unclear). He’s in love with a prostitute, who’s in love with an assassin, whose job it is to kill her. Good setup. A little melodramatic, but eminently workable. What happens in this fraught tangle of misspent love? Well, the prostitute gets raped by some cattlemen, which makes the assassin switch sides, which makes the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after the renegade assassin. That’s right, three hours into the movie, the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after a renegade assassin. The leader of the cattlemen has set the narrative into motion by forming this army of gunmen, and now, three hours later, now that the time has come for him to put his army of gunmen into action, he says “Well, wait a minute, hold your horses, what about that renegade assassin?

Has the assassin vowed to lead the immigrants in an armed resistance? No. Has he personally sworn to kill the leader of the cattlemen? No. With history and three hours of squandered narrative bearing down on him, the leader of the cattlemen decides to take a little detour on his way to destiny. The assassin and some other guys who happen to be in the cabin at the time are killed by the cattlemen. So, faced with an interesting dramatic problem regarding an unsolvable lover’s knot, the writer/director chooses to ignore his romantic plot altogether and have the characters go do something else. (For the record, the prostitute says good-bye to the sheriff and rides to be with the assassin, happens upon the shooting, barely escapes with her life, then races to town with the news of the imminent invasion — oh wait, no, that’s not what happens, no, she races to town and finds that the town already knows about the imminent invasion. Which means she didn’t have to race to town after all, because the shouting immigrants already have a plan. Let’s face it, three and a half hours into the movie, the main characters all kind of kick back and relax while a bunch of people we’ve never met before get on with blowing the shit out of each other.

Kristofferson is given the classic Western moment of the gunman who, brokenhearted, turns his back on the problem at hand and fixes to light out for the territories. Except he doesn’t. He says he’s fixin’ to, but instead he hangs around town. Then, later, unannounced and without preamble, he wanders back into the narrative and is suddenly seen acting as the leader of the immigrant forces, giving them ace military tips that, er, that get lots of immigrants massacred (okay, maybe those tips weren’t so ace after all). As I say, each of these events is presented as an individual event seemingly unconnected to anything that has happened before or since.

John Hurt, bless his heart, fares worst. He doesn’t even seem to know what he’s doing there. He drinks, he looks guilty, he barks out this or that exhortation, then dies unceremoniously in a shootout. He dominated the first 23 minutes of the movie (the scenes at Harvard) and he’s supposed to be the protagonist’s best friend, but his character and death are rendered meaningless.

As with the first half, much of the photography is stunningly beautiful, or would be if the transfer were any good, which it is, alas, not.

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4 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 2)”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, Todd, hate to be petty, but:

    ‘… more like a series of [discrete] events …’

  2. pseydtonne says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to review Heaven’s Gate. I remember learning about this movie when I was a kid as an example of largesse without reward and How Hollywood Told Directors To Shove Off in the Eighties (TM) but I never got the chance to see what made them cringe.

    I assumed it might be like Once Upon A Time in America, where I got into it because my dad loved individual scenes (the kid bringing pastries to the whorehouse then eating the pastries instead) and later learned no one understood the flick.

    Instead you have described a flick that, even if you carved it up, makes as little sense as Living Out Loud. That movie only makes sense if you’re an alcoholic. If you don’t dig booze, you just want to smack everyone in the back of the head.

    You have reassured my soul that I haven’t missed anything. Thank you.