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on 30 November 2013
Let me start by saying that Heaven's Gate is a marvellous film, and in no way deserving of the critical mauling it got on its release. Director Michael Cimino was criticised for bloating the Johnson County War, a relatively minor albeit brutal footnote in American history, into a three-hour-plus behemoth, but to do so is to miss what Cimino was trying to achieve. The film plays out as a requiem to the American frontier, and a paean to the visceral beauty of the West. The huge budget and Cimino's attention to detail are up there on the screen, and it looks wonderful. As with all great films, it isn't so much the events depicted that draw us in as the journey we're taken on to get there.

Having read the reviews I was fearing there would be precious little plot amongst the cinematic eye-candy, but this is not the case at all. This is one of the most absorbing movies I have seen. Cimino takes his time setting up the story, and the slow-burning Kristofferson-Walken-Huppert love triangle serves to heighten the tension and sense of dread leading up to the climactic battle sequence. Leading man Kris Kristofferson turns in a quiet but mesmerising performance as marshall Jim Averill, backed up by a solid supporting cast. At three and a half hours running time, Heaven's Gate is a long and nuanced film that audiences at the time - at least in the US - were perhaps not ready for. It's no surprise that the film was warmly received in Europe, as its unconventional narrative structure and slow pacing had far more in common with the French New Wave than other Hollywood fare of the time.

On to the UK blu-ray release from Second Sight. This is the sort of film that the format was made for. DP Vilmos Zsigmond's widescreen panoramas look fantastic, with saturated blue skies and green fields. The HD transfer, whilst sharp and detailed, does show up the limitations of the source material, with grain and occasional scratches and sparklies present. Some sequences show reduced contrast and blooming of light areas into dark, as if they were shot with a soft-focus lens - the opening scenes at Harvard are a good case in point - but I assume this was intentional. For audio we get a choice of stereo PCM and DTS-MA 5.1. I watched with the 5.1 option selected (the disc defaults to the stereo track), and whilst it's not the most dynamic track around given the age of the film, it does a good job of balancing dialogue with background effects and music cues. Most of the action does come from the front and centre speakers - the rears could have been utilised to better effect on some of the busy outdoor scenes. HG has been criticised for having a muffled soundtrack and dialogue, and this is another reason why the film works so much better today. With the benefit of a decent surround system I was able to follow characters speaking over the loud background noise present in a few scenes - Caspar, Wyoming being a good example - but it's easy to see that cinema audio circa 1980 would have struggled to separate dialogue from the prominent background mix.

The Second Sight release comes with a DVD of bonus features, the most interesting of which is the "Final Cut" documentary detailing the film's disastrous debut and the resulting fallout on the Hollywood film industry. A few years later, studios were churning out high-concept audience-pleasing hits such as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, and producers - not directors - wielded creative control. I'll leave you to decide whether this is a good or bad thing.

One final observation - the UK version of the film has a couple of small cuts for animal cruelty scenes, amounting to about a minute of running time, but in my opinion this does not spoil the film in any way.

Overall this is a must-have blu-ray - it's great to see this most misunderstood classic of American cinema get the treatment it deserves on a Region B disc. (The US market has the Criterion Collection release, but it's expensive and as with all Criterion discs is locked to Region A.)
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#1 HALL OF FAMEon 22 December 2002
Michael Cimino's film would be held up as the archetypal Hollywood film that went vastly over-budget & failed to recoup the costs. Deemed a failure, jounalists gathered like vultures and books like The Final Cut (Stephen Bach) appeared- this would spell the end of New Hollywood- an era that had been ushered in with Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider would come to a close with this film- and Beatty's Reds (and perhaps Schrader's Lucas/Coppola produced Mishima). Art cinema would be off the menu- Bogdanovich & Coppola would have money problems, Scorsese would become a director for hire & Cimino would never recover. The High Concept would dominate the 80's- movies like Top Gun, Flashdance & Rambo would replace the possibilities offered up by auteurs like Cimino and Coppola. Our loss.
Heaven's Gate has dated wonderfully, this full-length 3hours 28 minutes version is much more satisfying than the edited take previously released (the 1980's would see many works cut to bits- such as Dune and Once Upon a Time in America). This is a far more satisfying Western than many that have followed it, such as Pale Rider, Dances with Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone & Ride with the Devil (but not Unforgiven or Dead Man). Cimino's epic ambition is all evident on-screen (photographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures a stunning world). As with Reds, you can see where the money went- a stunning recreation of an era in terms of art direction, design & costume.
This easily ranks next to Thunderbolt & Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter (whose epic vision was leading towards this epic-epic) and can a film with a cast including Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterson, Joseph Cotton & Brad Dourif be anything less than wonderful?
As Peter Biskind notes in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls- it could have been any of the late films of New Hollywood that broke the studio- Raging Bull, Reds, the projected 1983 version of Last Temptation of Christ, One from the Heart etc. Heaven's Gate has an appalling reputation, but in time I believe people will watch it and see that Cimino's vision is one of the great works of late 20th century American cinema.
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on 28 April 2012
So much has been written about this movie that the experience of actually watching it is unique: you find yourself trying to ignore the critics, and just lose yourself in, what is, a pretty special film. Yes, it damaged the director's reputation. Yes, it bankrupted the studio. Yes, it failed at the time to live up to the hype. And yet, leaving all that aside, we have as sumptuously a mounted western as you'll ever see, and a complex, fascinating story. For too long people have been unwilling to forgive the perfectionism that went into the production. What they're missing is a film which takes the time to set up a recreation of a true chain of events which ought to be remebered - for comparison, watch the much shorter, glossier Johnson County War. This is the real deal. Buy the full-length Director's Cut, not the truncated version. If you love Hollywood history, especially the 70s when this was devised and filmed, then this is right up there in terms of significance with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Not to say that Heaven's Gate isn't flawed. There are traces of self-indulgence - moments when we want a gritty West, not touches of David Lean. But we should remain thankful that one man persevered with his vision towards the end of a time when films like this were still being made.
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on 11 December 2013
This is the third time I've seen this film and the second time I've viewed the 216 minute version. The difference now is that the blu ray version shows off the wonderful cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond as never before. In terms of visual splendour this now rivals Barry Lyndon, Lawrence of Arabia et al. Sadly, this isn't, however, the masterpiece that they were/are. Nearly but not quite. Yes, some of the set pieces are stunning but, taken as a whole, it doesn't quite get there. My big complaint is the lack of subtitles. Okay, maybe I am going a bit Mutton Jeff in my old age but I would defy anyone to hear the dialogue in the crowd scenes. This kind of thing was quite fashionable at the time this film was made, Robert Altman being the main culprit. Call me an old fuddy duddy if you like but I kind of like hearing the script.
This grizzle aside Heaven's Gate is still worth seeing, if only for those breathtaking images and fabulous set pieces.
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on 19 March 2013
There's more written about the making of Heaven's Gate and what it was eventually blamed for causing in Hollywood than the actual film itself. I watched this after reading Steven Bach's book 'Final Cut' and it's a terrific companion piece to this, the full 3hr 39min cut of the film.

The positives are the film looks achingly beautiful. The Montana landscapes Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture are stunning. And the interiors and crowd scenes look like period paintings. The clean up by Criterion (under the supervision of Cimino) reveals verdant greens and bold blues. The cleaned up sound - including David Mansfield's wonderful score - works for the most part, but it does expose one of the films flaws. The dialogue is often hard to follow, lost in a mix of background noise. And when it is clear it's stilted, lacking impact. Apart from a standout scene in the film's Harvard prologue, the dialogue for most for most of the film is undramatic, dull even. This makes it hard to care for the main characters. And in a film this size there's surprisingly few, only three of them. So it's more noticeable that there's no one person to root for.

Another main flaw is the lack of narrative or dramatic drive in the film. We know from the first hour that the hired killers are due to arrive in Johnston County, and that they have a kill list of 125 names. But not much else actually happens before the climactic battle. They killers turn up, they kill. The settlers talk a lot, then some of them get killed. The lack of any real dramatic tension only contributes to the overall sense of nihilism that runs through the picture. As if watching a three hour countdown to an inevitable massacre, only to then have a possible victory stolen as the US Cavalry arrive to 'save' the killers. The antagonist gets killed in what looks like an afterthought, before a vague, almost surreal prologue ends the move.

Still, it's visionary, bold film-making. But Cimino's greatest strengths - beautiful visuals and compositions - are fatally wounded by his greatest weakness - poorly drawn characters in too slight a story.
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"Heavens Gate" stands like some long abandoned monolith to a strange long extinct race. Its beauty is undeniable but all understanding of its reason for existence gone. An enigma whose dark murky depths are hard to fathom. The film has gone down into legend for all the wrong reasons. Due to the directors grand vision the film went way over budget. On its initial release it was poorly reviewed and made a pittance. It led to the collapse of the prestigious United Artists studio and was a salutary lesson to the industry. Never was a director to have such control again and the shift went back to the studios. It is a lesson the studios still remember with clarity. Unfortunately the reputation of Michael Cimino was destroyed and he was never trusted by Hollywood afterwards.

The film is set around the Johnson County War of 1890 in Wyoming. A true historical event but not on the epic scale portrayed in the film. The area is being flooded by European immigrants some of whom have been killing cattle to live. This upsets the local cattle barons who hire regulators to dispose of the worst offenders. Within this framework we have a love story between a prostitute Ella Watson played by Isabelle Huppert, Nate Champion a cowboy enforcer played by Christopher Walken and a sympathetic lawman Jim Averill played by Kris Kristofferson. The story heads to a tragic and bloody climax.

Of the films characters, I have to say Walken as Champion is the most compelling. Kristofferson is a little stiff, but as Champion says of him "He has style", and he certainly does. An interesting cameo is thrown in by Joseph Cotten that old Welles favourite in one of his last roles. Jeff Bridges is excellent as ever as one of the immigrants. Mickey Rourke has an early appearence long before his recent resurgence in Aronofskys "The Wrestler". John Hurt also gives his usual impeccable performance as a friend of Jim from Harvard days. Overall a very strong cast.

Today the film has been viewed by some as a revisionist Western and has made some respected top film lists. For myself I liken it to indulging in a very rich chocolate truffle after Christmas. So indulgent that I question whether I really needed it. The film is beautiful to look at. The dancing scenes seem to go on forever. The strangely choreographed dancing in the Harvard scenes owes more to Busby Berkley than a Western and must have cost a fortune. But to what end? Undeniably beautiful but was it necessary to the story? The film stands like a beautiful folly. Lovely to look at but what point. In the final analysis I enjoyed revisiting this film and would recommend it to you, history and all. Like some lovely paintings it is a thing of rare beauty.
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VINE VOICEon 17 June 2011
I only saw this film once a quarter of a century ago, yet it's impact has never left me and I can still remember even now my reactions to it.I was mesmerised by the breadth and the sheer beauty of so much of the photography. I was astounded that an American studio could produce such a European film with it's slow pace and its unfocused plot. The lack of any strong characters felt like a flaw but I raged at the completely unnecessary ending on the yacht which seemed as though it was bolted on to give some kind of plot cohesion and which was entirely at odds with the style of the rest of the picture.It was also refreshing to see a western which made no pretence about the brutality and exploitation that so often was the unfortunate detritus of the American Dream.The western scenes and sets also had an authenticity which was entirely new to me and which prefigured the recent Deadwood series.The film was massively cut for the American audience and its my very real wish that in these days of Director's Cuts that Michael Cimino is given the opportunity of a fresh edit in the light of reflection - a cut which could turn this ill fated movie into the masterpiece it had the potential to become
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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2007
I only saw this film once a quarter of a century ago, yet it's impact has never left me and I can still remember even now my reactions to it.I was mesmerised by the breadth and the sheer beauty of so much of the photography. I was astounded that an American studio could produce such a European film with it's slow pace and its unfocused plot. The lack of any strong characters felt like a flaw but I raged at the completely unnecessary ending on the yacht which seemed as though it was bolted on to give some kind of plot cohesion and which was entirely at odds with the style of the rest of the picture.It was also refreshing to see a western which made no pretence about the brutality and exploitation that so often was the unfortunate detritus of the American Dream.The western scenes and sets also had an authenticity which was entirely new to me and which prefigured the recent Deadwood series.The film was massively cut for the American audience and its my very real wish that in these days of Director's Cuts that Michael Cimino is given the opportunity of a fresh edit in the light of reflection - a cut which could turn this ill fated movie into the masterpiece it had the potential to become
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 May 2015
Don't order this dvd. The sound is very bad and the dvd has no subtitles to remedy that.

Please note that this review is about the dvd from Second Sight. The super intelligent reviews team put this review together with reviews about the blu ray set from Criterion and also old vhs copies of the film...This review is about the dvd from second sight, where the sound when watched in a regular tv is awful. Many times the background sound is much louder than dialogues and you just can't understand what people are saying. The inexcusable lack of subtitles makes things worse.

The volume of the background sound when people are talking is, most of the time, as loud or louder than the dialogues. And if the sound is only ambience it sounds like those youtube videos with some sort of "metallic" noise.

If this is really a restored copy then they did a poor job because, besides the bad sound, the images are not that great. I have to change the setting of the dvd otherwise I would have washed out images. In addition, many times the image looks like when you reduce noise in iphoto and the likes: It is too artificial.

On the film itself, it seems to me that this film , like another reviewer wrote, is not underrated. It is simply bad. It is a confusing story poorly told and with many of the usual cliches in "cowboy/western" movies. The film tries to be realistic showing muddy streets, period costums etc but the personages talk just like they talked by the time of the film, that is, the early 1980s...

I watched this film in the cinema many, many years ago and forgot about it. I remember, vaguely, something about this film causing financial troubles to the studio and how the film was not understood or something like that. Now, after many years watching thousands of good films, I watched this film again. I didn't remember much of it. The only good thing i could say about the film is the "grandeur" of the scenes but that is lost in the poor remastering and also in the small screen of a tv. As a matter of fact, I couldn't watch the whole film and at some point started forwarding it.

I think this film is simply bad, not underrated. But even if you think the film is a masterpiece be aware that the sound is very bad and there are no subtitles to remedy the poor quality of the sound. Definetely not worth ordering.

P.S. I am going to try this film again. I thought it over and decided to order the blu ray from Criterion. It could be that the poor sound, which really annoyed me, was too distracting and I couldn't enjoy the film properly. I do have a vague good memory of this film, when I watched it in a cinema many years ago. Maybe it was just this poor dvd copy that made me dislike the film so much this time. Or maybe it is just that I was very young when I watched the film in a cinema and I was much less critical than I am today as I had, let's say, less viewing experience that time.

P.S 2. I've read this about the remastering of the Criterion blu ray disc : "The new 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered and restored at 24-bit from a 6-track magnetic mix, under the direct supervision of Cimino, with an emphasis on improving the audibility of dialog." Let me highlight something: 'with an emphasis on improving the audibility of the dialog". This is from bluray.com. So, Michael Cimino himself was concerned about the audibility of dialogs in the film, hence the "emphasis on improving the audibility of dialog". I also found out that Criterion's blu ray does have subtitles. I don' know if the remastering was the same but the Criterion set has subtitles so the quality of the sound will not be such an important issue anymore.
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on 5 June 2014
Having always been a fan and firm defender of this film, I felt I should add my recommendation for the restored 2-disc DVD edition, which I am proud to own.

Definitely worth a view, even by those who aren't aware of the film's history or those who don't like westerns. Looks great, the acting's great, and the script gives plenty of food for thought - trust me, the length and pace is not an issue. Also, the informative extras add another layer of awareness of the film's importance.

The only definite negative for me (and the reason why I can only give it 4 stars), is the sound quality. I don't know what happened in post-production, but the dialogue is really buried in the mix. Having to turn up the volume for the dialogue and then turn it down again for everything else can quickly become a tiresome distraction.
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