Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s Western epic that turns 40 on Nov. 19, earned a place in Hollywood infamy for bankrupting United Artists and bringing the curtain down on the auteur era of the 1970s. But the truth is, Heaven’s Gate is good.
In its Nov. 20, 1980, review, The Hollywood Reporter said the film — about the 1892 Johnson County War, in which wealthy Wyoming cattle owners slaughtered immigrant homesteaders — had “explosive force” and was “richly textured and visually compelling.” But THR was an outlier.
After it screened for critics in New York on Nov. 18, the buzz was instantaneous: Cimino’s film — whose massive cost overruns had been covered in the press — was a disaster. “I always suspected that maybe the movie got talked about too much beforehand,” says Christopher Walken, who was 36 when he played a ranch enforcer in Heaven’s Gate, after winning a supporting actor Oscar for Cimino’s previous effort, The Deer Hunter. “I was at that screening, and I thought I’d watched a good movie.”
The reviews were so bad that Cimino, at the encouragement of UA, decided to pull it from theaters just hours before its Nov. 20 opening. (And because theaters depended on a limited supply of film prints, most had nothing to replace it with.) Cimino, who said he was pressured to forgo test screenings, explained in a full-page ad the same day in THR: “Unable to benefit from audience reaction, we rushed to completion.”
The 219-minute version was trimmed down to 149 minutes and opened on 810 screens on April 24, 1981. But by then, Gate’s stink was too strong: Made for $44 million ($147 million today), it brought in a paltry $3.5 million domestically ($10 million in 2020). Walken thinks the film more than delivers a bang for the buck.
“Nowadays, movies cost $200 million to make, and then there’s marketing. The ‘scandalous’ price of Heaven’s Gate was $44 million. It’s a beautiful movie,” he says. “Go and feast your eyes.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.