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Western Approaches

The Cream Will Rise to the Surface … Eventually!

You can’t separate the story of the film from the film. Thirty five years on more people have opinions than have actually seen it. I’ve had conversations (with friends) from 1981 to 2016 and I’ve rarely heard anyone (other than myself) praise the film. There are reasons why vested interests in the American film industry wanted the film to fail, but why the hostility in England? In 1981? In 2016 for crying out loud?

I went to see it in 1981 and thoroughly enjoyed it only to be told, at work the following day, that it was one of the worst films ever made by three people who hadn’t seen it. They were quite aggressive in their antipathy. Something strange was in the air. These were friends. We usually chatted amicably about rugby league and country music. They were adamant in their stance that I wasn’t going to be able to claim that I had seen a good film at the ABC Huddersfield (Since demolished and now a Sainsbury’s supermarket). I didn’t want to tell them I’d seen a good film. I wanted to tell them that I had seen a great film. They were having none of it. Never let ignorance of a subject stand in the way of a strongly held opinion.Why the strength of feeling?

It’s complicated. This is something of a simplification (I’m trying to keep it down to 1500 words).

Background factors:

  • The sixties had seen several of the big Hollywood studios taken over or merged into huge corporations or conglomerates. United Artists (the company which produced Heaven’s Gate) had been bought up by TransAmerica. By 1980 the relationship between the studio (famous for giving artists a great degree of creative freedom) and the parent company had become fraught. A box office bomb would suit the aims of TransAmerica without harming its commercial interests.
  • The difficulties between TransAmerica and United Artists had just seen the departure of all of the senior executives of the studio. They were so unhappy with the interference of the financial giant that they had left en masse to form Orion films.
  • This meant that United Artists was being run by relatively inexperienced executives who were very keen to establish their own reputations as well as building on the studio’s reputation for bold, independent film making that allowed full rein to the artistic vision of the film maker.
  • Michael Cimino had just collected 5 Oscars (including best film and best director) with The Deerhunter.
  • This made Cimino as many enemies as friends. A big section of the Hollywood establishment felt more than aggrieved that a young blood had stolen the awards from Jane Fonda’s Coming Home. They were looking for an opportunity to knock the new prince off his throne.
  • The 70s had been the era of the Hollywood auteur. The directors called the tune. There were a bunch of superb filmmakers around at the time and the freedom given to them resulted in a golden age of superb films.
  • Superb films are not necessarily what the corporate money men and bean counters want. Even box office success isn’t what they want, though it is a necessary factor. They wanted greater creative and editorial control of films. They were particularly unhappy that many of this golden age of film makers seemed to be politically left of centre.

I’m not saying that Heaven’s Gate was set up to fail but its failure allowed changes to be made that favoured the money men over visionary film makers.heavens-gateYou can largely divide films into those that please artists and those that please the accountants. Heaven’s Gate is the pivot where the see-saw swings. Prior to this movie the big films had been Annie Hall and Manhattan (both regarded as masterpieces but very much also rans at the box office) The Godfather films, The French Connection films and the new wave of Vietnam war based films (all politically charged, left leaning and very expensive to make, and potential bombs at the box office – now all regarded as brilliant films). Oddball films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Direct political history like All the President’s Men, socially aware films like Taxi Driver. In the second half of the seventies we see the future emerging in two names: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. These two didn’t only know how to put bums on seats, they also made films that allowed a whole new industry to take off: merchandising. Nobody I knew had an Annie Hall doll (though a few tried too copy her dress sense), there were no Deerhunter games or Lego sets. Jaws, Close Encounters and Star Wars changed the game.vlcsnap-2011-05-25-23h35m52s17Hollywood suddenly had some more directors out of the Walt Disney mould. What they did wouldn’t impress Michelangelo but they made exciting films that attracted the teenage dollar and pound both at the cinema and at the toy shop, the clothes shop, the dance floor, the burger bar.gate-2You can still see good films at the cinema but these days there are far more constraints on the film maker. The occasional masterpiece gets through and sometimes the best films get nominated for the industry prizes. All too often though I am reminded of the saying that a donkey is a racehorse designed by a committee. Film making has suffered since 1980 though strangely television, which is potentially subject to the same interferences, has improved beyond measure in terms of drama. Perhaps film’s loss was television’s gain.  

In 1980 and 1981 the independent minded film maker was, to a large extent, consigned to history and  the decisions over go-aheads, casting, script editing and direction went upstairs. It was a quiet revolution and the victims were those who wanted to make good films and those who wanted to watch them. The criminals (if that is what they were) were the corporate fat cats who can never get quite enough cream. The blame was dumped on Michael Cimino who had discovered that his supposed bosses at United Artists would pretty much foot any bill he sent them and  took advantage of this to make one of the most spectacular westerns ever made. The overspend was hyped in newspapers across America and Britain. There was a concerted media blitz to sensationalise and then ridicule the movie. It cost $35 million. By today’s standards this is small change. Even in 1981 it wan’t a huge amount. TransAmerica wrote it off the following week without so much as a blip on its spreadsheet. In cinematic and financial terms it was all small potatoes. By blowing up the story to sensational heights it allowed TransAmerica to get rid of its unwanted studio and place the blame elsewhere. It also allowed every other studio to crow quietly and take back artistic control.heavens-gate-walkenAll of that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how they managed to get away with it. To do so critics had to pan the film, the public had to stay away in large numbers, and those who went had to come away saying it was every bit as bad as they were told it was. The problem lies in just how good the film is. It’s a bit like taking the 1960s Real Madrid side and getting everyone to agree that they were actually rubbish.

It is impossible to watch this film without being impressed with the storytelling, the acting and above all the stunning attention taken to create two and a half hours of visually stunning cinematography. You can make every single frame into a poster worth of a frame of its own. The music is wonderful, the film has something to say to a 1980 audience and even more to say in 2016. Those who don’t like naturalistic sound and actors speaking the way the characters would speak will have some gripes. There are possible quibbles about whether some character relationships are fully drawn. But these are quibbles. What you cannot say on watching it is; this is a bad film. And yet that is exactly what happened.picture-32Conspiracy is perhaps the wrong word but there were as many people wanting this film to fail as to succeed and once Vincent Canby of the New York Times had  pointed his thumb downwards the crowd started roaring for Cimino and his movie to be thrown to the lions.

”Heaven’s Gate,” which opens today at the Cinema One, fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ”The Deer Hunter,” and the Devil has just come around to collect.”

The victims were many. United Artists was sold to MGM and essentially closed down as a producing studio, studio executives Steven Bach and David Field fell on their swords, Isabelle Huppert returned to France and rarely again worked on American films. Kris Kristofferson fell from top 3 box office draw to bit part player and Michael Cimino was largely finished as a serious film maker.

Some survived. It didn’t damage the careers of Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken or John Hurt.

Surprisingly the bad reviews stopped when the film reached mainland Europe. The French saw it immediately as a superb film. When it was re-released in souvenir DVD form (with a fabulous documentary telling the story of the film included) the praise was universal. For once in my life I was ahead of the crowd; by about 35 years. I knew in 1981 that I’d seen a very special film. In 2016 I no longer feel lonely.y1i1