‘Heaven’s Gate’ at 40: A Misunderstood Magnum Opus

Heaven's Gate

On 10 September 1981, a big-budget Hollywood Western was released in the UK to a glowing review from the late critic Philip French. He called it “a damn good western in the politically disenchanted vein of McCabe and Mrs Miller.” With this verdict, French saw the truth of the matter better than popular American critics Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby. They were all beyond scathing in their early reviews, expressing total contempt for the new movie.

That movie was Heaven’s Gate.

Heaven’s Gate isn’t just a film title, it’s has become a synonym for failure, narcissism, self-indulgence and career destruction. This odious reputation couldn’t have been forced upon a less deserving movie. Philip French’s enthusiasm all those years ago tells us that to understand and appreciate a film so righteously critical of the very concept of The United States of America, you need to be a foreigner.

Heaven’s Gate is the greatest political statement ever released by a major American studio. At its core, this Marxist Western is the story of two men; Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt). The men are good friends, educated together at Harvard and destined for conflict.

A lesser movie would have one remain good and the other go bad, but this film is far more thoughtful and insightful. Instead, we see two men cast onto opposing sides of an oncoming slaughter because one has political convictions strong enough to separate himself from his own social class, while the other is content to live in his own gilded cell.

Averill retreats from wealth and privilege to become the marshal of Johnson County, Wyoming (then a youthful frontier state). He is a man of liberal convictions. He wants to protect the rights of the disadvantaged, particularly the impoverished Eastern European migrant community who are suffering from constant racist attacks, backbreaking work, and starvation.

Irvine instead allies himself with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of capitalist supermen, the sort that tend to be revered in American popular culture. We quickly learn that this association wants to kill 125 of the migrants without trial, due process, or hesitation. The association blames them for stealing their cattle.

This accusation is accurate, but the stealing is more than justified. The migrants are starving to death. Irvine voices his concern with the death list in an association meeting, asking that the plan be rejected. When his concerns are ignored, Irvine stumbles away to drink.

We then come across the smartest element of the film’s story. Irvine stays with the capitalist killers despite his vocal opposition to their plans. When Averill quizzes him as to his loyalty, his old friend’s response is simple and inevitable; “I’m a victim of our class.”

Irvine is a wealthy man. He could join Averill’s side, put his money against the association, stand up for his principles and fight back against the powers that be, but he doesn’t. He stays, locked in his institutional cage, paralysed by his own privilege. For the rest of the movie, Billy continues to criticise the association as he follows them on their killing spree, jabbing at its leadership with pithy comments and obvious disgust. This achieves nothing.

No contemporary Western feels as relevant to the current global political situation as this one.

Irvine’s character is devastatingly accurate. His nearest modern-day equivalent is the Twitter-active middle-aged, wealthy, liberal business executive. The sort of character who occasionally deigns to ineffectually speak out against racism, sexism, and the climate crisis as his obscene tax-free profits continue to pile up high and heavy against the cast-iron door of his bank vault. Likewise, it isn’t hard to picture what Frank Clanton (Sam Waterston), the film’s chief villain, would be up to if he lived in 2021. This man is a privileged, uber-wealthy nerd, obsessed with law and order, murdering anarchists and casual sadism. If he existed today, he’d probably be the host of a popular political podcast.

What sets Heaven’s Gate apart from all other movies about the myth of the American dream is its argument that violence, discrimination and privilege are not individual character traits but institutional components of American life. The constant recurring theme is that societal structure traps us and cages us. Irvine admits that he is a victim of his class, but Averill can’t bring himself to do the same. Director Michael Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond do it for him through their gorgeous use of mis-en-scène and lighting.

In a train sequence that introduces us to the older Averill, the marshal’s face is illuminated by golden rays of light that are split apart by the bars on the train window. The resulting image is of a man who has been cosmically blessed but trapped in his own lavish prison. Averill is the only passenger inside the train because he’s the only one rich enough to afford the ticket. All the migrants have to make the journey on the train’s roof. This is a purely visual expression of Averill’s wealth separating him from the people he wants to protect.

The theme of institutional violence is highlighted by the fact that this movie’s president legitimises the capitalist-fascist’s violent purge but remains faceless and nameless. Cimino’s point is that the president’s name, party and personality are all unimportant. As the legal head of an institution designed to protect the privileged and facilitate the cold-blooded quelling of any unrest, the president’s support for the murderous association is guaranteed.

The apparently more level-headed Joe Biden may have replaced the inflammatory Donald Trump as US President, but America’s problems remain the same. The institution matters more than the individual. Only an exceptionally brave American movie would dare to make that point, and Heaven’s Gate fits that bill.

The movie’s ending is particularly perfect. After a nauseatingly bloody battle, the Stock Growers Association stand on the verge of defeat… until they are saved by the US Cavalry. The institutional structure of American society has protected them, just as they always knew it would. With the migrant population all but annihilated, Averill finds himself alive and practically unblemished.

He chooses to do what any wealthy person would do; he retreats back into his life of privilege. The surviving migrants have nowhere left to go, but Jim has a yacht off the coast of Rhode Island. He abandons his politics and goes back to a life of effortless complacency. The movie’s final image sees an older Averill, silent and broken, standing on the deck of his luxury boat holding his head in his hands.

He finally knows that there was nothing he could do to help them.

Words by Frank Evans

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