Very few films have been greeted with the critical scorn that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was greeted with in 1980. Perhaps spurned on by reports of production and cost overruns and Cimino’s own outrageous directorial demands, critics laid into the film with sharpened knives in a manner virtually unseen before or since. The film’s reputation was so eviscerated that it only managed to make approximately $3 million at the box office, barely mading a dent in its $44 million budget.
But in more recent years, Cimino’s epic western has undergone some reappraisal from some quarters of film scholarship and it is possible that a new 216-minute edit of the film may help with that reconsideration.
Cimino unveiled this new, digitally-restored version last night at the Venice Film Festival saying “Being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird occupation in and of itself.” Cimino, who had won an Oscar for directing The Deer Hunter before embarking on Heaven’s Gate, also received a lifetime achievement award from the festival.
Following a fraught, six-month location shoot in Montana during which the film’s budget almost quadrupled and he wound up earning the unflattering nickname “The Ayatollah.”, Cimino was able to cobble together for studio executives a rough cut of the film that ran approximately five hours and twenty-five minutes with Cimino stating that his final cut would probably run about fifteen minutes shorter. Eventually Cimino delivered a 219 minute cut which ran for one week in one theater in New York City in November 1980. A drastically recut, 149-minute version was released the following April, but it fared little better with critics and audiences.
It was Heaven’s Gate box office failure that forced studio United Artists, already reeling from the poor reception received by Cruising and Foxes earlier in the year, into bankruptcy.
Two years later, Los Angeles regional cable outlet Channel Z began airing Cimino’s 219-minute cut, advertising it as a “director’s cut,” the first time a movie had been presented as such. Subsequent home video releases of the film have all been the 219-minute version.
It is not known what changes Cimino has made to the film for this new version, but we will have a chance to find out shortly when Criterion releases the film on Blu-ray on November 20.