Ten Word or Less Review – Worst movie ever isn’t worst movie ever.
Hollywood is a perpetually pregnant animal. A mother that produces an endless supply of pups for the world to gawk at, admire and make goo goo noises over. Like most mothers it loves its pups and gives varying amounts of affection to each. Some pups get more love than others but she generally wants them all to grow up, do well and make bank. But every once in a while a bastard pup is born, and the Hollywood mother hates it. For reasons varied and far the mother shuns this bad pup, kicking it in the face and away from the rest of the litter so that the jackals of the press can devour the abomination and keep whatever contaminates it away from the rest of the pack. This happened as recently as last year with the maligned John Carter. Mother Disney allowed the press to speculate the film straight into the cinematic grave as a misguided disaster no one should ever attempt to repeat. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was another example of a film being attacked by the dogs of entertainment reporting before anyone had seen frame one. Why?
What these films share in common are typically runaway budgets and out of control egos. Their makers have gone rogue, abandoned the chain of command and indulge in every whim no matter how far fetched. The most storied example of this in the modern era is Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western which was conceived to be nothing less than the greatest movie ever made and became the poster child for a cinematic age at deaths door. Upon winning Oscars for his classic The Deer Hunter, Cimino was given the means, the money and the discretion to make Heaven’s Gate in any manner he saw fit. What was supposed to be a star studded, award winning, $20 million epic masterpiece became a career killing monstrosity with a budget that topped out at $44 million. To spend that much money in 1980, on an effects free western no less, was a recipe not for just disaster, but the apocalypse. To provide some perspective, the effects laden adventure classic The Empire Strikes Back came out the same year with a cost $32 million. With that very high budget it created an entire galaxy far, far away. Spaceships, monsters and entire worlds were created. For the $44 million Cimino recklessly spent he gave the studio lots of wooden sets rebuilt again and again, actors riding around on horses and lots of cocaine.
With the dye cast and the infamy of Heaven’s Gate already secured, the movie was eventually delivered to an icy reception of cynical, voracious critics whose knives were sharpened to a fine point. Cimino’s endeavor came in at a run time of just over 3 1/2 hours, pared down from his original length of over 5. Half way through the screening when intermission hit it was clear to many that Gate would not be spared. This limping animal of a movie would not escape the wrath which had been built up against it. The screening was a disaster, reviewers were scathing and catty and the film ran for just a week. It was pulled from distribution and re-edited down to a more manageable 2 1/2 hour length. This did nothing to save it. When the jackals were done with the carcass of Heaven’s Gate it had earned less than $4 million and was loudly lambasted as the worst film ever made. It was held up as an example why the director driven age of the 70’s had to end. Directorial indulgence had run amok and produced this massive waste of time and money which could never be allowed to happen again. The age of corporate filmmaking was on its way.
For years Heaven’s Gate sat there, a poster boy for wretched excess and ego gone insane. It’s reputation fermenting like bad cheese until a funny thing happened. People started looking at Heaven’s Gate again, divorced from of all the baggage and cynicism and thought to themselves, this isn’t that bad. Some revisionist have even gone so far as to rip the label of disaster of its maligned brow and relabel it a masterpiece. It’s reached a level of stature at this point that Criterion, long the savior of foreign film glories and obscure masterpieces, has gone so far to release a shiny new Blu-Ray remastering of this long hated epic. And after years of procrastinating, I finally sat down with this storied disaster. What I found isn’t the worst movie ever made, nor the best. As is the case when too many people are making too many declarative statements in an attempt to have themselves heard, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The plot built into this nefarious movie is a simple one. Using the events of the Johnson County War as a reference for fiction, Cimino constructs what sounds like a fairly standard western. It’s 1890, America is expanding west and the wealthy fat cats of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association decide it’s their right to take the land belonging to the largely Russian/German/Slavic immigrants of Johnson County. Painting the immigrants as anarchists and thieves, the Association gets government approval to create a death list of 125 people, essentially all the men in Johnson County, who are targeted for assassination by a band of hired mercenaries. In the middle of all this is Jim, (Kris Kristorferson) the town Marshall with old ties to the money men plotting the downfall of his town and little way to stop the impending slaughter. Jim routinely shacks up with Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the bordello madam he comes to learn is also on the death list. Also involved is Nate (Christoper Walken), a hired hand of the Association who kills for money, and also shacks up with Ella when Jim isn’t around. It’a all very ripe fodder for a melodramatic western and on paper it looks and sounds promising, but Cimino isn’t terribly interested in this story and he takes eternities to slowly dole the narrative out.
Gate is indulgent and bloated and much too long. It has almost no narrative tension and could easily have been a straight ahead romance flavored western that a more traditional storyteller could have delivered without so much fuss. Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann could have churned out a classic with this idea easily. To demonstrate the prolonged nature of everything, the romantic triangle that holds up the plot isn’t even fully known to the audience until the movie is half over. But despite the endlessly prolonged story, Gate is an immaculate film to simply look at and admire for the craft on display.
Taken apart from the whole, there are sequences which dazzle the eye and the spirit. You could lift these moments out of the film, show them to an audience and arouse no end of curiosity for the rest of the picture. The opening Harvard graduate sequence is amazing. The massive hordes of people Cimino moves through his fake towns are impressive. A sequence set in Heaven’s Gate, the title a reference to the town hall of Johnson County, involving a roller skating fiddle player could be watched effortlessly, again and again. The movie’s downfall is simply Cimino’s inability to see the forest through the trees, and the blow. He seems so adamant to make each sequence a full, living, breathing work of art that he all but forgets that he has a narrative he should be tending to. The first 110 minutes of Gate, its entire gorgeous first half, is little more than a first act. It’s 30-40 minutes of story, if that, padded out with voluptuous cinematography and editorial razzmatazz. This endless feeling of procrastinating no doubt led to so many venomous responses in 1980.
Cimino’s obsession with everything but the story extends into his cast and screenplay as well. No one member of the cast can be pointed at or singled out for being particularly great or terrible, they’re all a mild shade of grey, playing implied characters and half formed parts. It feels like an attempt to transcend the good guy/bad guy dynamic but the screenplay doesn’t get very far with it. The sheer size of the movie overwhelms the characters and were left with a population of people we’re vaguely interested in, but not concerned about. Aside from Krisofferson, Huppert and Walken, Cimino fills his movie with a whose who of known character actors, old and new at the time. John Hurt, Brad Douriff, Sam Waterson, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and Joseph Cotton all show up to be swallowed by the scenery. These supporting characters too often feel superfluous and malformed as characters. A better screenplay should have been written to better utilize the massive amount of talent walking around. Instead we get John Hurt playing regretful and drunken in every scene, Mickey Rourke covered in grime, a look he adopted for real later in life, Sam Waterson being two dimensionally evil and Jeff Bridges just kind of there.
This may all sound arduous to some and overly dull, maybe it is, but terrible it’s not. Gate establishes some sense of momentum in it’s back half and you can see Cimino always striving to make something truly astounding. It’s obvious he wants his film mentioned in the same breath as Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And by shooting over 1 million feet of film he purposefully surpassed the madness that was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But the filmmaker and his movie are a victim of unchecked arrogance, ambition and unforgiving circumstance. The wrecklessness he displayed, the lack of discipline and contempt for structure all clearly helped court the disaster which fell upon him. The God’s of Hollywood will tolerate much, but the epic wasting of money because of unchecked ego is the fastest way to find yourself under a bus, where Cimino quickly found himself. He would direct just four more films, all failures, over the next 16 years.
Under few conditions would a film like Heaven’s Gate ever have been successful. To languorous, not enough happening. But things were compounded to the level of epic fail by a press that smelled blood and a studio that was furious. The world outside had radically changed as well. The quiet and observed age of 70’s age filmmaking was quickly passing into history as blockbuster mentality quickly took hold. Once the studios learned they could make hundreds of millions of dollars instead of tens of millions, all bets were off. There was no audience for this type of movie anymore, they were all being swept into a galaxy far, far away.
Free of lingering resentment and biased opinions, Heaven’s Gate is now free to exist as simply a movie. It will always carry it’s sordid history with it but no one should hold that against it at this far removed juncture. It’s an immaculately designed piece of movie making which has few rivals in regards to appearance and presentation. It’s hamstrung by stodgy plotting and a run time which is grossly overlong, but such sins seem minor compared to the routine wrecks modern audiences willingly submit themselves to. Calling Heaven’s Gate the worst film ever is folly because in comparison there have been scores of movies released in just the last two months which far exceed it in terms of negligence and decrepitude. I think a far more suitable label for it would be ‘The Most Talked About Boring Movie Ever Made.”