I have heard that Erich von Stroheim was such a stickler for detail that, when he had extras in Prussian uniforms in one of his films, he insisted that they wear authentic Prussian Army skivvies. This is a classic example of violating the prime principle of movie-making: Put your money up on the screen. If it ain’t in the shot, it doesn’t exist. If those Prussian soldiers had dropped trou, then the accurate underwear would have been justified. But they didn’t, and it was a waste of money.
Michael Cimino, coming off his monster critical and financial and Oscar-winning hit The Deer Hunter, chose to make this as his next project. It ended up costing $36 million, four times the original budget. It brought in $3 million at the box office. It came within a hair of bankrupting United Artists.
At one point Cimino decided that the western street scene that had been built on location in Montana (the whole movie was shot on location, every scene, which is much more expensive than shooting in a studio) was too narrow. He said the whole thing had to be torn down and re-built. It was pointed out to him that they could merely tear down one side of the street and re-build it farther away, but that wasn’t good enough. Having recently been named an auteur and with a head swollen to the size of the Hindenberg, he insisted the whole thing had to go. So they did it. Cost: about one million dollars. He might as well have burned the money for all the effect it had on the final product.
And that was just one of many, many follies this out-of-control asshole committed during filming. Since 1980 Cimino has made only four films, all of them commercial flops. The last one, Sunchaser, made a whopping $30,000 at the B.O. That was eighteen years ago. The mystery to me is why anyone would give him the money to make anything.
So, there’s the horrible history. The reviews were unanimously awful. What about the movie today? It seems there has been a movement of late to rehabilitate it as a misunderstood work of genius. There have been showings in the last few years and it has been favorably received by a lot of people. I watched it trying to remember if I had ever actually seen it. And I just can’t remember it. No scene from it has surfaced in my memory. So I’m coming to it not only fresh, but a virgin.
First, it’s not as bad as the initial reviews indicated … with a reservation. What most critics saw was a severely shortened version, at 149 minutes. The premiere, at 219 minutes, was a disaster, but the new cut was said to be almost incoherent in story terms. (Cimino’s working cut was 325 minutes!) There have been several different versions since then, and I think we saw the 219-minute version. It must certainly be better than the other one.
Second … this cut is slow. Very slow. There are long silences between Kris Kristopherson and Isabelle Huppert, and many other extraneous scenes. I think ten minutes of that could easily have been cut with no other effect than to move it along. It would also have been easy to remove another five or ten minutes. So a happy medium between what I just saw and the butchered second edit would have worked better, in my opinion.
Third … well, the “historical” story is mostly bullshit. I’ve been on the record as not demanding 100% accuracy in period movies, but this was way beyond my limits. I guess what triggers my aversion is when someone takes an actual historical character and alters him or her way beyond recognition. In this case the worst offense is against the good name of Ellen Watson (called “Ella” here). She was neither a whoremonger nor a cattle thief, though she was hung by the murdering cattlemen’s association for the latter. All the other characters are similarly screwed with. And there was no huge influx of Ukrainian sodbusters as depicted here.
The best thing I can say about it is that it’s lovely to look at … when you can see anything, that is. This has to be the dustiest, smokiest, foggiest movie ever made. Sometimes that adds to the atmosphere, sometimes it just obscures everything. Oddly enough, the best scenes involve dancing. At the beginning there is a lovely waltz around a tree at Harvard, and in the middle more dancing in a roller rink in Wyoming called … Heaven’s Gate. Other than that, it’s not really very good.