Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.”

A sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) tries to stop the slaughter of 125 innocent immigrants in 1890s Wyoming.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Christopher Walken Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Immigrants and Immigration
  • Isabelle Huppert Films
  • John Hurt Films
  • Joseph Cotten Films
  • Kris Kristofferson Films
  • Mickey Rourke Films
  • Sam Waterston Films
  • Sheriffs
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this notoriously pretentious, painfully slow, annoyingly confusing historical drama has gone down in film history as “one of Hollywood’s greatest fiascos”: a big-budget ($36 million) flop which nearly “ruined United Artists.” Although he posits that anyone watching will believe “he or she could have done a better editing job”, Peary simultaneously doubts that this bloated film is even salvageable. Director Michael Cimino’s narcissistic tendency to linger too long on each of his scenes was hinted at in the interminable opening wedding sequence of his otherwise powerful Vietnam-era drama The Deer Hunter (1978); here, however, that tendency is impossibly out-of-control. It’s a rare instance when I can’t finish a title listed in Peary’s book, but Heaven’s Gate was a notable exception.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, but only for its notoriety.


  • Controversial Film
  • Historically Relevant


One thought on “Heaven’s Gate (1980)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, mainly due to its ‘notorious’ history in cinema but legitimately for the film’s impressive production design and Zgismond’s photography.

    Well, I finally saw this mammoth film – one I have actively avoided for years. I realized I would have to watch it eventually but the decision to see it was an impulsive one. Our campus library has a media office I recently discovered. Though DVDs are available there, its blu-ray section is in its infant stage; they are slowly beefing up those titles. I couldn’t help but notice that, although there are many no-brainer-must classics already in a blu-ray edition, they have not yet been acquired by the media office. They do have ‘Heaven’s Gate’, of all things, available (!). I figured…if I was going to watch ‘HG’, I may as well watch it in the best version possible (blu-ray).

    The good news is that I don’t think the film is the disaster we’ve all been told it is. It is quite definitely flawed but it also has quite a bit in it that makes it very watchable, if still long (longer than it needs to be). One could watch the film for Zgismond’s photography alone – in blu-ray, it’s simply astounding what the DP pulled off. The film also benefits from very strong production design. This is a film with a very large historical vision, and it is allowed to convey that vision believably in just about every detail. I really do believe I was in this place, fully feeling its reality without feeling it was necessarily manufactured.

    The less-than-good news is its flaws. The film doesn’t necessarily require great acting (although Kristofferson is much better than expected) but the actors are only periodically given interesting things to say. Much of the dialogue feels pedestrian. Pacing is also an issue – though, quite honestly, I can’t say the film was boring me at any point (well, once it got past the opening segment at Harvard, that is). What a blessing a solid co-writer would have been here!

    From what I can tell, there seems to be some gaps in logic – particularly when it comes to the various outbreaks of attack and slaughter. For example, at one point it seems the immigrants are minutes away from being attacked, but then the setting shifts to the group of them having public debate about the imminent attack and they don’t seem to be in any imnmediate danger. There are several instances where threat and action have been decided upon but the follow-through on both is inexplicably delayed.

    The film’s final hour is its best, since that’s where things are in full dramatic-action swing, for the most part (even if, once again, there’s a noticeably odd attack-delay issue).

    I would think it’s instructive for ffs to learn the unique place that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has in film history: why its production was allowed to go out of control; why the film was received the way it was; why it’s important to not pay too much attention to critics, etc.

    I was anticipating that the film would simply be a total slog that I had to force myself through. That wasn’t the case. In fact, much of the film’s overall theme
    continues to resonate powerfully today.

    Sidebar – NY Times article on the film’s revival and re-evaluation:


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