One can’t often declare winsomeness as the distinctive attribute of a film where glistening cattle entrails are dragged through several feet of dirt, but Heaven’s Gate arrived during an era of particularly vicious American westerns. While arguably just as brutal as Peckinpah’s cowboy epics and just as misanthropic as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Cimino’s famously overlong oater is nowhere near as ugly, its litany of very visible animal-rights violations notwithstanding. While ugliness both atmospheric (think of Warren Beatty’s McCabe, perpetually shaking himself clean of the gritty out-of-doors while entering saloons) and interpersonal (take your pick of Peckinpah’s rape scenes) defined and revived the western genre in the 1970s, Heaven’s Gate represented a slight return to classicism—to larger-than-life Panavision spectacle and crane shot-managed majesty, however contradicted by narrative bleakness.
This sounds like the kind of reactionism that might play out superficially, in picturesque B-roll, but the film’s comparative old-fashionedness isn’t only a matter of how the camera lingers longer on, say, a waltzing couple than on bullet hole-riddled corpses. Consider Heaven’s Gate’s only on-screen instance of sexual violence, occasioned by cattle barons who intend to run Isabelle Huppert’s entrepreneurial whore-madam out of town with horny hired goons. The camera angles are at first almost shyly tasteful, obscuring everything beneath the waist and focusing on the lecherous gang-groping; we then shift to the voyeuristic, window-perched perspective of the woman’s rescuer, who halts the molestation after discovering the bodies of the ancillary brothel women upstairs, frozen in a painterly, blood-streaked still life. It’s not a pleasant scene by any means, but the attack is never definitively felt from the victims’ traumatized point of view. It’s instead “witnessed” by an omniscient, if silent, narrator. Or by God, if you prefer spiritual shorthand.
That this abuse is merely seen rather than forced upon us suggests a preference for the dramatic over the visceral; it also suggests a scattershot kind of humanism, for after all, they know not what they do. Indeed, though God’s eyes peer down at a lot of misery, none of it registers as ugly or offensive, and some of it seems downright hieratic. (An avuncular stationmaster played by Richard Masur gets ambushed among rolling, Golgotha-like hills.) This distance, maintained tonally rather than in the ratio of wide shots to close-ups, is the key to Cimino’s film. The director doesn’t quite reinstate the deceptive cleanness of Hollywood artifice that Altman, Peckinpah, and others stripped away from the western, but he does replace their tendency to wallow in frontier filth with an old-school nostalgia for American individualism—the assumption being that this hybrid approach will provide room enough for both grime and gaiety, both myth and history. And eventually, the distance we feel between ourselves and the flailing of Heaven’s Gate’s characters represents temporal remove. The past envisioned by the film appears to be buckling under the weight of 100 years of happenings, lies, legends, and subsequent attempts to negotiate truth.
One of the movie’s mercilessly repeated images is telling: A human figure, sauntering through the smoky, granular shafts of light from a nearby window, morphs from outline to silhouette to visible body. There are few moments where we can’t feel Cimino wrestling with and reshaping history’s sawdust clouds in order to snatch the human beings who move helplessly through them. (In the case of John Hurt’s valedictorian turned alcoholic and Jeff Bridges’s unofficial local peacemaker, the director lets the clouds win.) In that sense, the film that Heaven’s Gate most resembles isn’t a western at all, but Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise. Like Carné, Cimino meticulously evokes 19th-century society using its own picturesque ephemera as a reference; the film’s woody, coppery look is just as inspired by the daguerreotype as Children of Paradise’s lithe ornateness was by Boulevard du Crime advertisements. Each film’s story, too, dramatizes a less than narratively tidy historical event with a love triangle and a few socioeconomic contrivances. But even more crucially, both Carné and Cimino protract their films not with action or chronology, but with pile-ups of speculative human detail—day-to-day textures and tiny tragedies more suggestive of raw life than plot.
These details make Cimino’s immigrant-ville Wyoming a lot richer than the sum of his core cast, who often stoop to exaggerated sadism (Sam Waterston’s cattle-baron ringleader), exaggerated idealism (Kris Kristofferson’s federal marshal), or implausible turn-coating (Christopher Walken’s mercenary). Far more representative of the land are the roller-skating fiddle tunes and long-range rifles; the hardly blameless European émigrés who waste away the American dream hourly with cockfights, liquor binges, and petty border arguments; and bubbly whores who run from their bedrooms, fresh from intercourse, with soiled sheets wrapped loosely around their breasts. Pulchritude and vulgarity are not only in abundance, but cost roughly the same.
These details lope before us on their way to the film’s third-act massacre (a highly fictionalized account of the Johnson County War), yet the eruption of violence doesn’t shatter the human density as definitively as one would expect. Friendly fire kills just as gruesomely as more deliberate ammo from either opposing side; the ears of rationalists are shot off in the heat of the moment, and errant horse carts crush the limbs of their less careful passengers. That irony is still so palpable such disturbing passages suggests again that we’ve got a God’s-eye view, albeit one that, like a Deist entity, hasn’t the power to disseminate any benevolence toward the cavalcade of errors, manipulations, and misunderstandings it observes. To his credit, Cimino renders us helpless not before carnage or greed, but before his epic’s breadth of motivation and circumstance. It’s not the past’s ugliness that terrifies us in Heaven’s Gate, but its far more intimidating immensity.