I saw Michael Cimino’s original cut of Heaven’s Gate when it played for a week in New York in November of 1980. At the time, I thought it was a Godawful mess. I just watched it again in the new Criterion Blu-ray edtion. Thirty-two years later, removed from the controversy which surrounded its initial release, viewed from a perspective of greater maturity, it still strikes me as a Godawful mess.
It was shot on some beautiful locations and magnificently lit by by Vilmos Zigmond. Many of the images and sequences are breathtaking, though just as often the framing is ordinary or sloppy, with mushy zooms and tiresome telephoto views that take the edge off the compositions. The writing is self-indulgent, dramatically flaccid, frequently pretentious to an embarrassing degree.
The acting is surprisingly good, and in a few of the longer set pieces with minimal dialogue the film actually achieves the kind of elegiac or epic tone it aims for — in the roller-skating dance sequence, for example. There’s probably a decent two-hour film hidden in the footage somewhere, but no director capable of making such an inflated mess of a movie could have been expected to find it. He just wouldn’t know what to look for.