A scene in Michael Cimino’s epic Western, Heaven’s Gate (1980), always reminds me of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – the fall of the Twin Towers, man’s almost primitive need for contact in a time of extremis (extremis most of us could never imagine), his endless fight for survival.
Much has already been said and written of those final messages to loved ones from the victims of the 2001 attacks – what makes the messages unique, what makes them universal.
US film critic Roger Ebert, in his review of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), wrote that: “The more specific a film is, the more universal it becomes.” Brokeback wasn’t simply about gay cowboys. It was about yearning – for “something” else, something different. An entirely fulfilled new life. The more the movie “understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone” was how Ebert explained this storytelling effect. Similarly, the final words from victims in the Towers to loved ones were intensely personal but widely understood, stark in their desperation, bravery and yes, even serenity.
When hired killer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) meets his flame-scorched, smoke-filled, bullet-ridden end in Heaven’s Gate, he finds time to scribble a note, later read aloud by Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson, a stoic if enigmatic presence throughout) to Ella (a whorehouse madam, played by Isabelle Huppert). It’s a simple note really, including the words: “It don’t look as if there is much chance of my getting away. I hope they did not hurt Ella. The house is all fired. Goodbye, Ella and Jim, if I never see you again. Nathan D Champion.”
Not much chance of my getting away. If I never see you again …
Charles Elton, in recent biography Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and the Price of a Vision (Abrams Press), talks of the “final version” of the Heaven’s Gate script, and says Averill “finds himself on the other side of the law from old friend Nate Champion, who has become a vigilante for the Stock Growers Association”. The Association, as portrayed in Cimino’s film, hire a mob to systematically and “publicly wipe out”, shot or hung, an influx of immigrant settlers, alleged cattle rustlers, during the range conflict of the early 1890s known to history as the Johnson County War.
In early versions of the script, detailed by Elton, Champion worked for Averill. The real-life characters were very different people. But, despite how they are referred to in the movie, were Nate and Jim really “friends”? For me, what makes Nate’s final note even more poignant and powerful was that he and Jim were closer to sworn enemies.
Hired gun Nate is a man who seems to like the idea of civilization, and wallpaper, and, like Jim, he has a thing for hats and boots, and neck ties. But they competitively and combatively share Ella’s company and more, both drinking out of her fine china cups, and are firmly on opposite sides of the war, at least until Nate falls foul of the Association – the men who are “gobbling up the whole state” (Wyoming).
Or at least that’s how it all looks to me, viewing the “final” version of the film, after its disastrous initial release, its mauling by critics, its subsequent recut and re-release, its ragged reputation as the “movie that almost killed off a studio (United Artists)” and its eventual restoration. The 2012 Criterion Collection’s “full director’s cut” runs at 216 minutes. The version I most recently watched, available on Amazon Prime, runs 220, including the intermission. If you go down the Amazon route, you might smile at the film being described succinctly as: “Drama. Western. Ambitious. Gritty.”
The truth of Heaven’s Gate is that it is neither the “disaster” it was condemned to be, nor the perceived “masterpiece” of its resurrection. It is, though, a marvellously-detailed film, driven by a complete and committed artistic vision, creating ripples of significance beyond its time and specific setting. For cattle barons versus homesteaders read ruthless money-men versus desperate working families; individual hopes and dreams versus a military-industrial machine. In short, contemporary relevance, as it’s still a battle for survival out there.