There were major setbacks in the film's production due to cost and time overruns, negative press (including allegations of animal abuse on-set), and rumors about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style; the film resultantly opened to poor reviews, earning only $3.5 million domestically (from an estimated $44 million budget), eventually causing its parent studio, United Artists, to collapse, and effectively destroying the reputation of its director, Cimino, previously a rising Hollywood auteur from the success of his 1978 film The Deer Hunter, winner of the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979. Cimino had an expensive and ambitious vision for the film, pushing it nearly four times over its planned budget. Its resulting financial problems and United Artists' consequent demise led to a move away from the brief 1970s period of director-driven film production in the American film industry, back towards greater studio control of films, as had been predominant in Hollywood until the late 1960s.
In 1870, two young men, Jim Averill and Billy Irvine, graduate from Harvard College. The Reverend Doctor speaks to the graduates on the association of "the cultivated mind with the uncultivated" and the importance of education. Irvine, brilliant but obviously intoxicated, follows this with his opposing, irreverent views. A celebration is then held after which the male students serenade the women present, including Averill's girlfriend.
Twenty years later, Averill is passing through the booming town of Casper, Wyoming, on his way north to Johnson County where he is now a Marshal. Poor European immigrants new to the region are in conflict with wealthy, established cattle barons organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association; the newcomers sometimes steal their cattle for food. Nate Champion – a friend of Averill and an enforcer for the stockmen – kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a formal board meeting, the head of the Association, Frank Canton, tells members, including a drunk Irvine, of plans to kill 125 named settlers, as thieves and anarchists. Irvine leaves the meeting, encounters Averill, and tells him of the Association's plans. As Averill leaves, he exchanges bitter words with Canton. Canton slapping Averill across the face immediately provokes retaliation, and Canton is knocked to the floor. That night, Canton recruits men to kill the named settlers.
Ella Watson, a Johnson County bordello madam from Quebec, who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes, is infatuated with both Averill and Champion. Averill and Watson skate in a crowd, then dance alone, in an enormous roller skating rink called "Heaven's Gate", which has been built by local entrepreneur John L. Bridges. Averill gets a copy of the Association's death list from a baseball-playing U.S. Army captain and later reads the names aloud to the settlers, who are thrown into terrified turmoil. Cully, a station master and friend of Averill's, sees the train with Canton's posse heading north and rides off to warn the settlers but is murdered en route. Later, a group of men come to Watson's bordello and rape her. All but one are shot and killed by Averill. Champion, realizing that his landowner bosses seek to eliminate Watson, goes to Canton's camp and shoots the remaining rapist, then refuses to participate in the slaughter.
Canton and his men encounter one of Champion's friends leaving a cabin with Champion and his friend Nick inside, and a gunfight ensues. Attempting to save Champion, Watson arrives in her wagon and shoots one of the hired guns before escaping on horseback. Champion and his two friends are killed in a massive, merciless barrage which ends with his cabin in flames. Watson warns the settlers of Canton's approach at another huge, chaotic gathering at "Heaven's Gate". The agitated settlers decide to fight back; Bridges leads the attack on Canton's gang. With the hired invaders now surrounded, both sides suffer casualties (including a drunken, poetic Irvine) as Canton leaves to bring help. Watson and Averill return to Champion's charred and smoking cabin and discover his body along with a hand written letter documenting his last minutes alive.
Realizing that they are unable to prevail over the mercenaries in open battle, Averill decides to use the final option: unsealing the Heaven's Gate near to the mercenaries camp. Being a descendent of a long line of holy men, Averill possesses the knowledge of the required ritual. He sneaks to the Gate and releases the power contained within. As expected, the angels which pour out turn their flaming swords upon the mercenaries, slaughtering them with neither mercy nor pity. To Averril's horror, however, the angels' rampage continues after the mercenaries are set to flight. Decreeing that all are guilty and tainted by sin, the angels turn on the settlers as well as a contingent of the U.S. Army led by Canton that had arrived, intending to reinforce the mercenaries. Averril frantically tries to close the Gate, but is chased off by guarding angels; he can only watch as Bridges, Watson, and Canton are all slain as well.
Averril narrowly escapes, but can see the smoke rising from the flames of the remnants of Casper as the sun sets. In the distance, he hears a faint blast of a trumpet that sounds seven times. He meets an attractive, middle-aged woman. The woman, Averill's old Harvard girlfriend (perhaps now his wife), asks him for a cigarette. Silently he complies, lights it, and returns to the deck.
The basic plot elements of the film were inspired by Wyoming's 1892 Johnson County War, the archetypal cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, which also served as the background for Shane and The Virginian. Most of the film's principal characters bear the names of actual key figures in the war, but the events portrayed in Heaven's Gate bear little resemblance to actual historical events.
While homesteaders did begin to settle northern Wyoming in the 1890s, claiming land under the newly-enacted Homestead Acts, there were no hordes of starving European immigrants, killing rich men's cattle to feed their families, as depicted in the film. Nate Champion, who is portrayed as a murderer and "enforcer" for the stockmen, was actually a popular small rancher in Johnson County, nicknamed "king of the rustlers" by the stockmen because he resisted their tactic of claiming all unbranded young cattle as their own.
Jim Averell was another homesteader who lived about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Johnson County. Two years before the Johnson County War began, he and his common-law wife Ella Watson were murdered by stockmen, who falsely accused Watson of exchanging sexual favors for stolen cattle. There is no evidence that Watson was a bordello madam, as portrayed in the film, nor that Watson or Averell ever knew Nate Champion.
In 1971, rising Hollywood film director Michael Cimino submitted an original script for Heaven's Gate (then called The Johnson County War) but the project was shelved when it failed to attract big-name talent. In 1979, after two hit films in a row – 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (filmed in Montana), and on the eve of winning two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture) for 1978's The Deer Hunter – Cimino, now one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, used his "star power" to convince United Artists to resurrect the project with Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken as the three main characters. He was given an initial budget of $11.6 million, but was also provided with carte blanche.
Principal photography began on April 16, 1979, in Glacier National Park, east of Kalispell, Montana, with the majority of the town scenes filmed in the Two Medicine area, north of the village of East Glacier Park. Shooting also included the town of Wallace, Idaho. The project had a December 14 projected release date and $11.6 million budget and promptly fell behind schedule.
According to legend, by the sixth day of filming the project was already five days behind schedule. As an example of Cimino's fanatical attention to detail, a street built to his precise specifications had to be torn down and rebuilt because it reportedly "didn't look right". The street in question needed to be six feet wider; the set construction boss said it would be cheaper to tear down one side and move it back six feet, but Cimino insisted that both sides be dismantled and moved back three feet, then reassembled.
An entire tree was cut down, moved in pieces, and relocated to the courtyard where the Harvard 1870 graduation scene was shot.
Cimino had an irrigation system built under the land where the major battlefield scene would unfold, so that it would remain vividly green, to contrast with the red color it would later be awash with after the bloody carnage.
Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing the studio in salary, locations, and acting fees approximately $200,000 per day. Privately, it was said Cimino had expressed his wish to surpass Francis Ford Coppola's mark of shooting one million feet of footage for Apocalypse Now (1979).
Cimino's obsessive behavior soon earned him the nickname "The Ayatollah". Production fell behind schedule as rumors spread of Cimino's demanding up to 50 takes of individual scenes and delaying filming until a cloud that he liked rolled into the frame. As a result of the numerous delays, several of the musicians originally brought to Montana to work on the film for only three weeks ended up stranded, waiting to be called for shoots to materialize, and simply sat there for six months. The experience, as the Associated Press put it, "was both stunningly boring and a raucous good time, full of jam sessions, strange adventures and curiously little actual shooting." The jam sessions served as the beginning of numerous musical collaborations between Bridges and Kristofferson.
As production staggered forward, United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino and replacing him with another director.
Actor John Hurt spent so long waiting around on the production for something to do, he went off and made The Elephant Man (1980) for David Lynch in the interim, and then came back to shoot more scenes on Heaven's Gate.
Heaven's Gate finished shooting in March 1980, having cost nearly $30 million. Reportedly, during post-production Cimino changed the lock to the studio's editing room, prohibiting executives from seeing the film until he completed his cut, although Cimino disputed the story. Working with Oscar-winning editor William H. Reynolds, Cimino slaved over his project. As one person involved in the project noted, "Michael didn't want respect. He wanted awe. The idea was that the magic man was in his workshop doing his magic, and we should all just leave him alone and let him finish."
On June 26, 1980, Cimino previewed a workprint for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran five hours and twenty-five minutes (325 minutes), which Cimino said was "about 15 minutes longer than the final cut would be."
The executives flatly refused to release the film at that length and once again contemplated firing Cimino. However, Cimino promised them he could re-edit the film and spent the entire summer and fall of 1980 doing so, finally paring it down to its original premiere length of 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes). The original wide-release opening on Christmas of 1979 had come and gone, so UA and Cimino finally set up a release date in November 1980.
The final cut finally premiered at New York's Cinema 1 theater on November 19, 1980. The premiere was, by all accounts, a disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Cimino was said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told by his publicist, "Because they hate the movie, Michael."
New York Times critic Vincent Canby panned the film, calling it "something quite rare in movies these days - an unqualified disaster," comparing it to "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Canby went even further by stating that "[i]t fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect."
After a sparsely attended one-week run, Cimino and United Artists quickly pulled the film from any further releases, completely postponing a full worldwide release.
In April 1981 in Los Angeles, the film resurfaced in a "director's cut" two-hour-twenty-nine-minute (149 minute) version that Cimino had recut for a third time. Reviewing the shorter cut in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert criticized the film's formal choices and its narrative inconsistencies and incredulities, concluding that the film was "[t]he most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times issued a dissenting opinion when he reviewed the shortened film, becoming one of its few American champions and calling it "a true screen epic" while stating that in two decades as a critic, he had never felt "so totally alone".
The film closed after the second week, having grossed only $1.3 million total on its $44 million budget.
Writing in The Guardian in 2008, Joe Queenan declared Heaven’s Gate the worst film made up to that time. “This is a movie that destroyed the director's career,” he wrote. “This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business. This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl. This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that defies belief.”
In subsequent years, some critics have come to the film's defense, beginning with European critics who praised it after the film played at the Cannes Film Festival. Robin Wood was an early champion of Heaven's Gate and its reassessment, calling it "one of the few authentically innovative Hollywood films ... It seems to me, in its original version, among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema." David Thomson calls the film "a wounded monster" and argues that it takes part in "a rich American tradition (Melville, James, Ives, Pollock, Parker) that seeks a mighty dispersal of what has gone before. In America, there are great innovations in art that suddenly create fields of apparent emptiness. They may seem like omissions or mistakes at first. Yet in time we come to see them as meant for our exploration." Martin Scorsese has said that the film has many overlooked virtues. Some of these critics have attempted to impugn the motives of the earliest reviewers. Robin Wood noted, in his initial review of the film, reviewers tended to pile on the film, attempting to "outdo [one an]other with sarcasm and contempt." Several members of the cast and crew have complained that the initial reviews of the film were tainted by its production history and that daily critics were reviewing it as a business story as much as a motion picture. In April 2011, the staff of Time Out London selected Heaven's Gate as the 12th greatest Western. While Peter Biskind covered the many excesses and problems with the movie in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he also noted that Heaven's Gate was not dissimilar to other big-budget, troubled projects of the late 1970s and early 1980s (such as Steven Spielberg's 1941 and Warren Beatty's Reds), and that the backlash against Heaven's Gate could have easily been directed elsewhere. Biskind speculated that Michael Cimino's personal unpopularity was the main reason this film became so widely reviled.
In the fall of 2012, the film was re-released to "soak up acclaim" as a 216-minute "director's cut" at the 69th Venice Film Festival on August 30 in the presence of Cimino, followed one month later by screening at the New York Film Festival, and then at the Festival Lumière in France. Venice Festival director Alberto Barbera described the film as an "absolute masterpiece" that had disappeared, and whose 1980 cutting was characterized as a "massacre" by nervous producers and had been "one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history" that had destroyed careers (Cimino and Kristofferson) following "annihilat[ing]" critical reviews.
In March 2013, the new director's cut was again featured back in New York City in a week-long run screening at the Film Forum. A major article by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis opined that the film's "second coming ... brightens a murky, legendary work of art" in a restoration that also "reveals the contradictions of a great flop." An article by Nicholas Barber on the BBC website in December 2015 traced the history of the critical reception of Heaven's Gate and concludes: "so much of Heaven’s Gate is patently splendid that it is mind-boggling that anyone could pronounce it an 'unqualified disaster'. And the scenes which were slammed in 1980 as being symptomatic of waste and excess – the Harvard waltz, the massed rollerskating – are the scenes which take your breath away." Reflecting on the depicted negative attitudes to immigrants, he writes: "However unwelcome Heaven’s Gate may have been in 1980, there hasn’t been a more urgently topical film in 2015."
The film's $44 million cost ($201 million in 2016 dollars) and poor performance at the box office ($3.5 million gross in the United States) generated more negative publicity than actual financial damage, causing Transamerica Corporation, United Artists' corporate owner, to become anxious over its own public image and to abandon film production altogether.
Transamerica then sold United Artists to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which effectively ended the studio's existence. MGM would later revive UA as a subsidiary division. While the money loss due to Heaven's Gate was considerable, United Artists was still a thriving studio with a steady income provided by the James Bond, The Pink Panther and Rocky franchises. On the other hand, UA was already struggling after the executive walkout in 1978 and several other major box office flops in 1980, including Cruising, Foxes and Roadie.
The fracas had a wider effect on the American film industry. During the 1970s, relatively young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, William Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg had been given large budgets with very little studio control (see New Hollywood). The studios evolved away from the director-driven film and eventually led to the new paradigm of the high concept feature, epitomized by Jaws and Star Wars. However, the directors' power lessened considerably, as a result of disappointing box-office performers such as both Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) and Cruising (1980), and culminating in Coppola's One from the Heart and Cimino's Heaven's Gate. As the new high-concept paradigm of filmmaking became more entrenched, studio control of budgets and productions became tighter, ending the free-wheeling excesses that had begotten Heaven's Gate.
The very poor box office performance of the film also contributed to a negative impact on the Western genre, which had enjoyed a revival since the late 1960s. Very few Western films were released from 1980 on by major studios, save for Pale Rider and Silverado, both released in 1985, and a brief revival in the early 1990s with the Oscar-winning hits Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven and Tombstone.
The film was marred by accusations of cruelty to animals during production. One assertion was that live horses were bled from the neck without giving them pain-killers so that their blood could be collected and smeared upon the actors in a scene. The American Humane Association (AHA) asserted that four horses were killed and many more injured during a battle scene. It was claimed that one of the horses was blown up by dynamite. This footage appears in the final cut of the film.
The AHA was barred from monitoring the animal action on the set. According to the AHA, the owner of an abused horse filed a lawsuit against the producers, director, Partisan Productions, and the horse wrangler. The owner cited wrongful injury and breach of contract for willfully depriving her Arabian gelding of proper care. The suit cited "the severe physical and behavioral trauma and disfigurement" of the horse. The case was settled out of court.
There were accusations of actual cockfights, decapitated chickens, and a group of cows disemboweled to provide "fake intestines" for the actors. The outcry prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize the AHA to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.
The film is listed on AHA's list of unacceptable films. The AHA protested the film by distributing an international press release detailing the assertions of animal cruelty and asking people to boycott it. AHA organized picket lines outside movie theaters in Hollywood while local humane societies did the same across the USA. Though Heaven's Gate was not the first film to have animals killed during its production, it is believed that the film was largely responsible for sparking the now common use of the "No animals were harmed ..." disclaimer and more rigorous supervision of animal acts by the AHA, which had been inspecting film production since the 1940s.
All available versions released in the UK (including the 2012 directors cut) have mandated BBFC cuts to the animal cruelty.
There were several versions of the film.
- Workprint cut 325-minutes
- Print for studio executives, early 1980
- Initial "Premiere" Release: 219-minutes
- Cinema release, November 1980, aborted after 1 week
- Shown on Z Channel cable, 1982, as "The Directors cut"
- Released on VHS and LaserDisc by MGM as "The Legendary Uncut Version", later released on DVD in 2000
- Director's Second edit: 149-minutes
- Wide cinema release, April 1981
- Released on DVD in France and the Netherlands
- Radical Cut: 219-minute
- 2005 special screening in Paris and New York
- Reassembled by MGM with available high quality footage (using alternative footage where required)
- Digitally restored Directors Cut: 216 minutes
- Restored in 2012 for the 69th Venice Film Festival, followed by a BD & DVD release.
- Based on the initial release with the intermission removed, and slightly shortened.
Notwithstanding the 325 minute "workprint" cut shown to executives in June 1980, Cimino had rushed through post-production and editing in order to meet his contractual requirements to United Artists, and to qualify for the 1980 Academy Awards. The version screened at the November 1980 premiere ran three hours and 39 minutes. Bridges joked that Cimino had worked on the film so close to the premiere that the print screened was still wet from the lab.
After the aborted one-week premiere run in New York, Cimino and United Artists pulled the film; Cimino wrote an open letter to the studio that was printed in several trade papers blaming unrealistic deadline pressures for the film's failure. United Artists reportedly also hired its own editor to try to edit Cimino's footage into a releasable film with no real success.
Ultimately, Cimino's second edited version, a 149-minute version, premiered in April 1981 and was the only cut of the film screened in wide release. The original negative for the longer version no longer exists because it was directly edited on for the 149-minute version. (An interpositive of the longer version was used as the source for the Criterion Collection release.) This cut of the film is not just shorter but differs radically in placement of scenes and selection of takes. This version, after leaving theaters, was not released on home video of any kind in the United States, but was later released on DVD in France ("la Porte du Paradis"). This version has also aired on the MGM HD cable channel and is available free-with-ads on US streaming provider TubiTV.
In 1982, Z Channel aired the 219-minute 1980 premiere version of the film on cable television – the first time that the longer version was widely exhibited – and which Z Channel dubbed the "director's cut". As critic F.X. Feeney noted in the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, Z Channel's broadcast of Heaven's Gate first popularized the concept of a "director's cut".
When MGM (which acquired the rights to United Artists's catalog after its demise) released the film on VHS and videodisc in the 1980s, it released Cimino's 219-minute cut with the tagline "Heaven's Gate... The Legendary Uncut Version." Subsequent releases on LaserDisc and DVD have contained only the 219-minute cut.
Due to the wide availability of the 219-minute 1980 premiere version of Heaven's Gate and its frequent labeling as either "uncut" or the "director's cut", Cimino insisted that the so-called "original version" did not fully correspond to his intentions, and that he was under pressure to bring it out for the predetermined date and did not consider the film ready, making even the 219-minute version essentially an "unfinished" film.
The 216-minute version shown in Venice is quite similar to the 219-minute version, but with no intermission. Some shots in the second part are slightly shorter and a shot with a single line has been cut (just after John Hurt is beaten by Sam Waterston).
In the 149-minute version of Heaven's Gate released in 1981, the following scenes are cut:Irvine's speech at the Harvard graduation
The co-ed circle dancing immediately following graduation
Averill beating up the brute enforcer (who beats up the immigrant in front of his wife and kids)
Averill passing the beaten man's widow in the carriage, asking her how she's doing
The spitting fight between the two immigrant landowners in the cockfight scene
The entire roller skating dance scene
A shot of female immigrants carrying a load up the hill
Champion almost shooting the stock grower that insults Ella Watson
The scene where Ella Watson first leaves Champion to return to Averill
The introductory part of the scene where Averill reads the names on the "death list" (the edited version starts with John Bridges firing the gun in the air, to restore order)
Averill weeping to Bridges that he "hates getting old", while looking at the old photo of himself and his girlfriend
The immigrants being informed that Averill quit his post, and Watson warning them the stock growers have arrived
The last five or so minutes of the second battle scene, including the footage of the character crushed under the wagon and the woman killing him in mercy
That same woman killing herself, post-battle, and Bridges and Averill surveying the carnage
Any reference to the woman on the boat, presumably Averill's girlfriend or wife, from the end of the film
In 2005, MGM released the film in selected cinemas in the United States and Europe. The 219-minute cut was reassembled by MGM archivist John Kirk, who reported that large portions of the original negative had been discarded, making this an all-new radical version using whatever alternative available scenes that could be found. The restored print was screened in Paris and presented to a sold-out audience at New York's Museum of Modern Art with a live introduction by Isabelle Huppert. Because the project was commissioned by then-MGM executive Bingham Ray, who was ousted shortly thereafter, the budget for the project was cut and a planned wider release and DVD never materialized and probably never will.
In 2012, MGM released yet another version, digitally restored and 216 minutes long. It premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival as part of the Venice Classics series.
The Criterion Collection released the restored 216 minute version on Blu-ray Disc and DVD on November 20, 2012. This "Director's Cut" was personally supervised by Michael Cimino and Joann Carelli. Cimino explains in the special features portion of the DVD that this is his preferred version of the film, and he feels it is the complete version he intended to make.54th Academy Awards
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Tambi Larsen and James L. Berkey)
1981 Cannes Film Festival
Palme d'Or (Michael Cimino)
2nd Golden Raspberry Awards
Worst Director – Michael Cimino
Worst Screenplay – Michael Cimino
Worst Musical Score
Worst Actor – Kris Kristofferson