Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

A classic story of might over right suppressed for decades

Movie magic: Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert in a scene from Heaven's Gate

One of the greatest films ever made will open at the Queen's Film Theatre tomorrow. It will run for three nights only. You'd be advised to book now. This is a genuine masterpiece which may not come this way again.

For most of the 32 years since its release, Heaven's Gate has been seen as a disaster. It lost millions, more or less ended director Michael Cimino's career and bankrupted United Artists.

One of the reasons critics had a skewed view of the making of the movie is that the movie had a skewed view of the making of America.

It didn't so much challenge the standard myth of the way the West had been won as offer an account which scarcely overlapped with the official version.

Ten years earlier, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue had portrayed episodes of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

Their release came in the same year as publication of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of Native Americans in the 19th Century, told from the victims' point of view.

The works reflected an upsurge in Native American civil rights agitation – rather in the way that Alex Haley's 1976 novel and TV series Roots echoed African Americans' growing insistence on respect for the African component of their heritage.

The New York Times declared that Soldier Blue "must be numbered among the most significant, the most brutal and liberating, the most honest American films ever made." Roots sold 1.5 million copies in its first seven months.

But Heaven's Gate couldn't be projected as an expression of regret for wrongs done in the past. Its brutal truth couldn't be used as key to liberation from guilt.

This was about the shaping of modern America through the clash of the classes within it – not a way of looking at things that the elite which emerged from the events could be comfortable with.

Reviews from the heaviest hitters of the period were savage. Pauline Kael, of the New Yorker, reckoned it, "a movie you want to deface... the work of a poseur who got found out". Robert Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, declared it "a study in wretched excess, incompetently photographed and edited".

The film closed after three days in a single cinema in New York. Worldwide, it made only two million dollars of the $36m it had cost to make.

Hardly anybody in the industry stood up for Cimino. By all accounts, he was an impossible man to work with.

More important was a fear that the financial catastrophe would choke off funds for investment in future ambitious productions. It turned out there was ground for this apprehension.

In recent years, Heaven's Gate has been partially rehabilitated. The swing in critical appraisal has been due in no small measure to the advocacy of Philip French, who retired a fortnight ago after 50 years as film critic of the Observer.

At the heart of the film is the Johnston County War in Wyoming in the 1890s, where cattle barons claimed ownership of hundreds of thousands of acres, which they has seized by force, on which they grazed millions of steers and which also contained deposits of coal and methane.

Determined to drive out homesteaders whom they saw as obstacles to expansion, they formed an army of hired guns and rode into the county carrying a death-list that included the leaders of Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stockgrowers Association, the Johnson County sheriff, his deputies and three county commissioners, a newspaper editor and a gunfighter who had sided with the farmers.

Into this fraught situation arrives Sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), who, with university friend Billy (John Hurt) and bar-owner John (Jeff Bridges), takes up the farmers' cause. In scenes to watch through your fingers, Cimino shows close-up the blood-splattered reality of the war which ensued. The film is beautifully written, wonderfully well-acted, exquisitely photographed – the eye aches to linger on scenes perfectly lit with available light.

Its lavish set-pieces are intricately choreographed and utterly breathtaking.

But it premiered two weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan, promising "a new dawn in America".

A film showing the suppression of the 99% by the 1% as a feature of the US in its formation was certain to be swamped in hostility.

Now the ideological pendulum has swung back a little. Heaven's Gate can be seen as offering an original, illuminating and thought-proving perspective on a period long favoured by movie-makers, a towering masterpiece suppressed for decades – just as the history of the Johnston County War had been suppressed.

Well worth going along to see.

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