James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
The film that nearly ruined United Artists and threw the career of Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino seriously off track is an excessive, but surprisingly nuanced and often beautiful work of art. A magnificent folly
Cimino came to his third film as Hollywood's new golden boy after the glorious success of The Deer Hunter. Like the previous film, Heaven's Gate is an epic story of Eastern Europeans in America who find themselves embroiled in an incomprehensible, violent struggle. It is also, like The Deer Hunter, a film that plays fast and loose with the historical facts. Cimino builds his story around the Johnson County war, an obscure conflict that took place in Wyoming in 1892 in which immigrant settlers were targeted by a group of conservative, upper-class East Coast businessmen known as the Association. Into this scene comes Harvard-educated Marshal Averill (Kristofferson) who sides with the immigrants against his old college buddy Irvine (Hurt). The action builds to a dramatic, bloody confrontation between the two sides that on its own, in Cimino's original cut, lasted for more than one and a half hours.
This complex, confused and confusing film fell victim to its vastly overblown budget. With Cimino's vision and ego out of control, the production ultimately brought its studio, United Artists, to its knees and all but destroyed Cimino's career.
Beneath the hype and the excess is a beautiful, moving, at times surprisingly subtle film that hovers precariously somewhere between greatness and folly.
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