Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate was adapted from Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists. It explained the demise of the film that took United Artists Production Company to its grave. In addition to the documentary, Michael Cimino’s original feature film, Heaven’s Gate, also was shown. Final Cut director Michael Epstein, Heaven’s Gate technical restoration director John Kirk, and author Steven Bach were at the Berlinale
You may ask, “Why show such an old film?” A great aspect about the Berlinale is a passion for the past in regard to the film industry. This is a fine judgment call from the originators of the festival as a statement about the industry: film has a valuable heritage with a respectable journey. For this reason, the film Heaven’s Gate needs special mention about its restoration process. As archivist-extraordinaire John Kirk climbed back onto the saddle with his expertise on this project, he says, “The restoration process of bringing this film out of the closet was amazingly painstaking, but I jumped at the chance to make the complete version of the film available to a new generation of audiences. It was difficult working with surviving picture and sound elements that ran the gamut from mint condition to barely useable. I feel that the film deserves a re-evaluation and all of the time and effort spent in its restoration has been worth it”.
The Film: Heaven’s Gate (1980)
This five-and-a-half-hour war epic directed by Academy Award winner Michael Cimino tells the story of the conflicts between new European immigrants and already settled cattle ranchers who formed the Cattle Ranchers Stockholders Association on the western frontier in Johnson County, Wyoming, in 1886. These feuds were known as the Johnson County Wars, which in reality were not violent events, so the reenactment in Cimino’s film is largely fictional. However, factual is the tragedy that many immigrants faced on the open frontier as they pursued the American Dream: owning their own land and being their own boss. This was the intriguing part of the film.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s grandious cinematography opens with scenes from a Harvard graduation where the sons of the rich celebrate their future success. Twenty years later we see the visuals of the most awesome cinematography of the Wyoming landscape. Every single frame works to sweep along the mountains and valleys, visualizing territory glowing in its majesty. As the cinematography has slowly captured your heart with the beauty of the western frontier, the narrative that tells the tragic conflict begins to unfold. A wealthy member of the establishment from the East, Harvard grad Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), is now the Marshall of Johnson County. After escaping from the poverty-stricken European homeland, multitudes of immigrants who came to America via Ellis Island continued their journey westward. The immigrants were allowed to claim a plot of land if they could work it, but so often it drove them to starvation. The only way to feed their families was to steal cattle that roamed the open range. Cattle barons made cattle rustling a hanging offense, because lost cattle were a loss in profit for them and their eastern banker friends, which gave rise to the Johnson County Wars: the rich fighting the poor. Eventually, the whole population of Sweetwater ends up on a death list coordinated by the cattle barons and hired killer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the town brothel, accepts payments of cattle for services, so obviously she is a target too. In spite of their cultural differences, the townspeople meet at the town hall, called Heaven’s Gate, and decide to unite against the wealthy ranchers and the government for their American Dream.
I can honestly say that the film was brilliant and has the markings of an American classic. It denotes a part of film history. As the film industry ebbs and flows and learns from mistakes, we, the movie-goers, still delight in the little things that make a film imperfect. In 1980, this film was definitely out there with its nudity, violence, terror and the lack of a good make-up artist. But, it had its endearing aspects too, with two incredibly joyful waltz and roller skating parties that seemed just to be waiting to draw you in from the sidelines. I admire Cimino’s attempts to address the story of the immigrant which, in many cases, was horrific. The imagery from this film has made me think more of what my Scandinavian grandparents might have experienced as they funneled through Ellis Island and moved out West. What an adventurous challenge that I will always respect.
The Documentary Film: Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (2004)
Renowned documentary film director Michael Epstein has produced an insightful accounting of the film Heaven’s Gate (directed by the academy award winner Michael Cimino) that was the catalyst which took film production company United Artists into bankruptcy. Epstein has a classy style of capturing the narrative to explore the story behind the story. Epstein takes his script and cues from Steven Bach, author of Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate the Film that Sank United Artists. At the time Heaven’s Gate was in production, Bach was the former senior vice president and head of worldwide production for United Artists. Aside from the director and producer, he was the only one to see the film’s evolution from beginning to end. Therefore, Bach has the first-hand story of how such a film could crash one of Hollywood’s major studios founded by actors in 1919. Epstein uses historical accounting, original film footage and numerous interviews to expose the why and the why not. Heaven’s Gate was a project plagued with extreme complexity that over-extended every level of decision-making. The account is captivating and food for thought, as one looks into a tragic story of real life, out of control. This is a must-see documentary for layman and professionals.