Director's Cut Series: Heaven's Gate

Photo courtesy United Artists

Since its initial release, Michael Cimino’s recounting of a despicable episode from America’s not-too-distant past — the 1892 land war between wealthy cattle barons and immigrant homesteaders in Johnson County, Wyoming — has become synonymous with critical and commercial failure of the highest possible stakes. But among those trivia wizards who know that Heaven’s Gate was the straw that nearly broke United Artists’ back, how many have ever actually seen Cimino’s film in its uncut, big-screen glory? Though the full cut of the movie has survived for years on home video, where it is now much easier to see than the execrable shortened version, it is still something more rumored than known — which may have less to do with the film’s maligned reputation than with its stinging indictment of American capitalism run amok. The virtues of Heaven’s Gate are manifold, but the rapturous images created by Cimino and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond — Western landscapes worthy of Ford and crowd scenes suggestive of Griffith, all burnished with the faded half-light of a withered photograph — bear special mention, as does the ensemble acting of Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Richard Masur, Mickey Rourke and Jeff Bridges, all at or near their best. To see the film again today is to be reminded of the last moment at which American movies dared to dream big. No matter that Heaven’s Gate bears a 1980 copyright date; it is, in every respect, the last movie of the 1970s. A newly restored print is featured as part of the American Cinematheque’s series of directors’ cuts, which also includes screenings of Donnie Darko, Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (Burn!). (American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater; Sun., April 2, 6:30 p.m.

—Scott Foundas


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