The 1980 American epic Western film “Heaven’s Gate” is generally considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Ironically, it was directed by Michael Cimino who, two years previous, was one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 American epic war drama film “The Deer Hunter”, which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979. And it wasn’t just a flop.
“Heaven’s Gate” opened to poor reviews and earned $3.5 million domestically…from an estimated $44 million budget. It even eventually contributed to the near collapse of its studio, United Artists and effectively destroyed the reputation of Cimino. The high budget was due to Cimino having an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed it about four times over its planned budget. Worst of all, the film’s financial problems and United Artists’ consequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films. As you can guess this has caused an upheaval from moviegoers as studios focus on keeping to safe choices and little chance of truly innovative stories that don’t just keep audiences entertained but stick outside the norm. However, there is good news.
As time has progressed, a number of substantial assessments have become more nuanced. In fact, in some cases, these assessments have become more positive and now some critics have described “Heaven’s Gate” as a “modern masterpiece”. Some found the 1980 re-edit, after poor press screenings, being characterized as “one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history.”
So what can one take from this? On one hand, such a movie at the time caused a rift that kept directors from being truly innovative and original…and in some cases it is still that way. But on another hand, this film, once deemed one of the worst films ever made, is now considered a classic. Directors have stuck up for it and defended it. So perhaps what to take away is that the subjective nature of film is a brutal beast. It allows a general audience to see one thing and requires that each person observe for themselves what to make of a film. Perception requires observation. Not just a lesson for finding great cinema, but a lesson most of the world should keep in mind in general. So guess the film wasn’t all that bad…it got a random guy like me thinking.