Heaven's Gate (1980)

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Released 8-Aug-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Western Booklet
Theatrical Trailer-2.35:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0 (1:13)
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1980
Running Time 209:52 (Case: 229)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (115:22) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Michael Cimino
Studio
Distributor

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Kris Kristofferson
Christopher Walken
John Hurt
Sam Waterston
Brad Dourif
Isabelle Huppert
Joseph Cotten
Jeff Bridges
Case DV-4
RPI $36.95 Music David Mansfield


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Auto Pan & Scan Encoded English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
German for the Hearing Impaired
Swedish
Norwegian
Danish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Well, here is a film steeped in infamy! Man, we must have all heard the stories about just how bad Heaven's Gate is! Described by some as the worst film ever made, a claim that would be hard to sustain in the face of such gems as Plan 9 From Outer Space (or indeed any effort from Ed Wood), this film was so unmercilessly mauled by the critics that it was pulled from theatres just three days after its release. It was eventually re-released after having its length trimmed from a gargantuan 220 minutes to a more modest 149 minutes, but even that was not enough to save what was by then being hailed as the ultimate turkey. In fact, so much of a turkey that it is hard to imagine exactly what would inspire MGM Home Entertainment to actually release it on DVD. Still, they have and we can all now judge for ourselves exactly how good the film is.

    Well, good is perhaps not a word that can be applied in this instance. Whilst it is by no means the worst film ever made, there is no denying that there is plenty wrong with it and the fact that it was mauled by the critics is entirely understandable. But then again, this is a classic example of a writer/director getting serious delusions of grandeur based upon one excellent film. In a career that started out with plenty of promise, Heaven's Gate proved to be such a disaster that Michael Cimino virtually disappeared from the industry. His debut film, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, was a pretty decent film with some promise, promise that was undeniably realised in the magnificent follow-up - The Deer Hunter. But then those delusions set in and the follow-up was this languid, bloated excuse for a film. In the twenty years since this hit the theatres (very briefly of course), Michael Cimino has directed just five films, and none of those are likely to approach anything near classic status. Indeed, most (nay, all) are probably already in the well-and-truly-forgotten bin. And yet, Heaven's Gate itself has the rudiments of a very good film, had the director just had the good sense to restrict his vision to a hundred minute or so film. The material was simply not enough to sustain a three and a half hour epic - an epic that features plenty of filler, as well as just enough unnecessary nudity to prevent actual unconsciousness amongst the male viewers (the female viewers have to make do with Kris Kristofferson taking his shirt off on a couple of occasions).

    The story is a very simple one, and is another attempt to demonstrate the falsity of the great American claim of being the land of the free and the home of the brave. This clearly shows the United States as the land of the oppressed and the home of the cowardly. It begins at Yale University where two friends, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and William Irvine (John Hurt) are about to graduate into the wide world. Many years later, their paths are to cross again but in very different circumstances. No longer the elite rich and privileged of an American class system trying its darndest to emulate all the trappings of the English class system, they meet on opposite sides of a dispute in Wyoming. It is 1870 and the American Midwest is groaning under the influx of immigrants from Europe. Times are tough and food is scarce and these immigrants are creating resentment amongst the wealthy cattle ranchers as they are perceived to be rustling cattle to feed their families, so much so that the Stockmen's Association has formulated a death list of 125 names of immigrants in Johnson County who are to be eliminated - with the full knowledge and approval of the government of the territory of Wyoming as well as the Federal Government. William Irvine is a drunken member of the privileged elite that makes up the bulk of the Stockmen's Association, and whilst appalled at the prospect of what is going to happen, does little positive to stop it. Ranged against the Stockmen's Association is none other than James Averill, who just so happens to be the Marshall for Johnson County. Just to spice things up a little further, one of James' good friends is Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who just so happens to be a hired gun for the Stockmen's Association. James also happens to be in love with local madam (and sometime whore) Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) - who happens to be on that death list. She also happens to be in love with Nate Champion too. And so it is that we eventually get to the Johnson County War - the battle between the hired guns of the Stockmen's Association and those on the death list, and their friends and families.

    The story is actually a good one in précis form but by the time Michael Cimino had finished playing around with it, it had become a magnum opus that simply was too over-bloated to sustain the length of film envisaged. The result was so much filler that the film gets bogged down in it. Indeed, you have to suffer twenty minutes of irrelevant rot before we even start to get an inkling of what the heck is going on (the scenes at Yale are so utterly irrelevant to the film as a whole that it is not even funny that it was included in the final cut of the film). Even after we progress as far as Casper, Wyoming, there is so much irrelevant exposition that goes nowhere and takes a heck of a long time doing so that I would hazard a guess that most of the audience would have walked out by the end of the first hour. Indeed, any self-respecting editor with any sense of film-making would have excised all of the first hour and would have told the director to re-shoot some salient stuff lasting no more than five minutes to establish the connections between James and William, and so on. Even when the film does start to progress forward in some sort of kangaroo fashion, other scenes (such as in Heaven's Gate - a sort of a communal meeting place) leave the viewer completely befuddled as to why they are included. Had they have had someone like Walt Disney on hand for the editing process, I could well imagine that a good two hours of superfluous rubbish would have been excised from the film, leaving us with a very palatable 90 minute film. Believe me when I say that this director's vision was sadly misguided at the very best.

    But then there is the question of the realisation of the director's misguided vision on screen. You might just have gathered from the main cast listing that this is very much in serious B-grade mode throughout, and you would be very right indeed. This is B-grade movie making at its finest. Oodles of passable acting, such word used quite loosely, that staggers from drawn-out silent scene to drawn-out silent scene with all the conviction of a political debate. John Hurt would be the best name actor here and he plays his drunken spoilt brat routine so over-the-top that it is excruciating to watch. I could well imagine that when the script required him to be thumped, his fellow actors probably did so with relish. The rest just hang it all together in some sort of loose collective that simply aids the languid approach adopted by the director. About the only time the film lifts itself out of C-grade mediocrity is when the Director of Photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, is allowed loose with the magnificent Wyoming (well actually Montana) scenery. There is really some nice cinematography here - pity it is wasted on this film. Staggeringly, the film did actually cop an Oscar nomination in 1981 - for Art Direction. It did not win, but it does illustrate that from a production point of view, there is not much awry with the film. However, it should be noted that often the quality of the art direction and cinematography is buried under the director's infatuation with the use of smoke as well as having light streaming in through windows.

    Basically this is a risible piece of rubbish. However, the infuriating aspect of the whole film is that it is one of those extremely rare instances where you can actually sit there and point out the huge chunks that could have been excised from the film, as well as point out where scenes could have been shot differently to move the film along in a more coherent manner. It is uncanny how easy it is, making it all the more incredible that everyone connected with the film seemed to be unable to see it. In real terms, this is a potentially excellent film that has been murdered by the self-indulgent excesses of a director whose delusion of grandeur has perhaps never been excelled (although Jan De Bont could claim an honourable effort to do so with a couple of his films). Basically, this is a film to avoid at all costs other than the one view everyone should make of the film just to see how misguided it really is. Not the worst film ever made, but definitely not one you would seriously want to watch more than once. I know I don't want to see it again, making me wonder why the heck I actually bought the DVD.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Well, obviously MGM have decided the film is not much cop as they don't seem to have gone out of their way with the quality of the video transfer. Okay, given the fact that basically everyone would have happily tossed all the original negatives out years ago, and therefore a pristine source negative would not be available, we would be expecting some problems here. However, this goes way beyond what is expected in terms of problems. For a start, those tell-tale reel change markings indicate that this is mastered from a theatrical print of the film. Bad move number one. The fact that the film is riddled with all sorts of dirt, scratches and blue blotches would indicate that not only was it a theatrical print, but also that it was a well-used theatrical print. Bad move number two. Bad move number three is of course that this is therefore a completely unrestored transfer. The good news (yes, there is some) is that it is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and that, despite the indication on the cover to the contrary, it is 16x9 enhanced.

    The really bad news is that the transfer shows every tired aspect of the source material in abundance. Just about everything that could go wrong here has gone wrong. You start with the fact that the film was apparently softly focused for some reason. That might be fine on the indistinct big screen, but under the intense scrutiny of the digital domain it comes over as a serious detriment to the fundamental of actually being watchable. At times, this displays some quite serious softness of image and indeed at one point (124:15) almost a complete lack of focus. Naturally enough, the softness of image does no good at all to the detail that should be apparent in that great cinematography and good set design. Since the base detail is nothing to rave about, obviously the shadow detail also is not much worth bothering about either. For the record though, it is not that great (notably so at 5:20). There seems to be a fundamental consistency of slight grain throughout the transfer, and this combined with soft images and that penchant for sunlight streaming through windows means that this is not a clear transfer in any way, shape or form. Thankfully there does not appear to be any low level noise in the transfer, but the overall effect is of a transfer of source material that is dying for want of a restoration and a transfer that basically makes over three and half hours of eye-straining watching.

    And if you think the basics of the video transfer sound very average (or worse), then you ought to see the colours on offer! Noticeable is the variability of the colours between the different reels making up the source material, with some reels bordering on being a sepia-toned effort whilst others almost display something approximating bright colour. The wide range in the colour is exemplified by a short segment starting around 84:00, where the colour suddenly drops out completely to something very akin to sepia tones of the ilk of those associated with the silent era, and continuing through to 85:50, where all of a sudden we get the colour back. This really is one of the ropiest colour transfers I have seen, especially for a film made in the 1980s. As you can guess, this is not a vibrant transfer in any way and about the only positive is that at times the undersaturated, dusty look actually does marginally suit the action on screen. All colours lack a serious depth of tone and you would be hard pressed to find any even short sequence with any decent saturation of colour, let alone anything coming remotely close to over saturation.

    Surprisingly, there are no significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer, although there is some consistent loss of resolution in pan shots. Equally surprisingly, there are no significant significant film-to-video artefacts in the transfer. There was some aliasing in the carriage at 27:28, but that was about the extent of the noticeable stuff. Perhaps the average transfer rate in the very low 3 Mbps range simply does not allow enough detail to enable these sorts of artefacts to become an issue. Whatever the reason, the absence is well and truly made up for the by the huge display of film artefacts on offer in the transfer. Apart from those rather obvious black reel change markings, we get plenty of scratches, plenty of dirt marks and plenty of assorted colour blobs. At one point (88:40) there was such a snowstorm of artefacts that I had difficulty deciding whether they were film artefacts or whether it was an intended snow or rain storm! Basically this looks like a VHS tape much of the time.

    Since we are talking about one of the longest films to be made in the 1980s, RSDL formatting is an essential for the DVD. Now that is all well and good, but where would you expect to find the layer change placed? How about the intermission that occurs at the 122:25 mark? That would seem to be a good place, wouldn't it? Obviously not if you are mastering this DVD - it gets plonked smack bang in the middle of a scene at 115:22 - just as Nate starts to open the door to his cabin to let Ella in. Given the low transfer rate here, my basic math seems to indicate that a layer change in the intermission would have been possible, so why on earth put it where it is? Even if it could not, how about placing it during one of those extended scenes where nothing much happens? Would have been less noticeable.

    At some point of time during this extended trip through purgatory, you might find yourself checking out the cover of the DVD. You might just therefore notice that amongst the subtitle options stated on the cover is a German option. Don't bother looking for it on the actual DVD though - it is not there. What we do have is the five other options listed, of which I checked out the English for the Hearing Impaired effort. Despite the presence of dialogue in a multitude of European languages, we get no translation of these, leaving us all in the dark as to what is being said - quite important when fights break out and so on. In the English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles, these sequences are simply shown as (emigrant talking) or something similar that is truly useful. When the actual English dialogue is subtitled, they are not bad but do miss out on a bit of stuff.

    And to round off the disappointments, the woefully inadequate booklet included with the DVD would indicate that there are 48 chapters on the DVD. Funny that, my player says there are only 24 of them. 24 chapter points in a three and a half hour film? Woefully inadequate.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    If you check out the DVD cover again, you will note that it refers to a single soundtrack on the DVD - being an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. So you might be a little surprised when you find the German Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack on the DVD. Oh dear! Three clangers and counting in the proof reading department.... to which you can add the feature run time being incorrect. For the record, I stuck with the English soundtrack here.

    Unfortunately, I might well have listened to the German soundtrack at times, for the dialogue does wander all over the place in terms of being easy to understand. There are plenty of sequences where it is anything but. It almost sounds at times as if it was filmed with the intent of doing ADR work later, then everyone forgot to do the ADR work. There does not appear to be any audio sync issues with the transfer.

    The original score comes from David Mansfield and this is by far and away the best bit of the film. Indeed, the music at times is clearly far too superior for the film. Some of the jigs that get played here are really good and it is to be regretted that the German soundtrack was not ditched in favour of an isolated music score. I enjoyed the music score a lot more than the film.

    The soundtrack might well be flagged as a 5.1 effort, but it really is little more than 2.0 stereo overall. Even when there is scope for the old LFE channel to burst into action, such as thundering horse riding en masse or the explosions during the climactic battle scenes, it does so more with a whimper than a bang. It is during these scenes that you notice the lack of serious bass enhancement, for otherwise this is a really dialogue-driven film. Well actually, no it is not - it is more like a silence-driven film for about half of it. Either way, it does not need much from the bass channel, which is precisely what it gets. The surround channel use is not exactly stellar either, but that would also come as no surprise. Really and truly, this is a very average soundtrack that sadly underutilises the capability of the 5.1 format.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    I take it that you would not be expecting much in the way of extras on a DVD where the film runs for three and a half hours? Good, because we don't get much.

Menu

    Okay theming but with no enhancement of any kind apart from the 16x9 variety.

Theatrical Trailer (1:13)

    One of the longest films of the 1980s and it gets one of the shortest trailers! Presented in an aspect ratio 2.35:1, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is not pretty at all, with poorish colour and plenty of film artefacts. It also cops a bit of telecine wobble. Not a great advertisement for the film, but then again what would have been?

Booklet

    A short two page effort that really is not worth the effort.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    It would appear that there is nothing significantly different between the Region 1 and Region 4 releases, other than the fact that the 4% speed up of the PAL formatting means we have less film to suffer.... oh, and the Region 1 release is not 16x9 enhanced.

Summary

    Heaven's Gate is by no means the worst film ever made. What it is is a classic example of a writer/director having monumental delusions of grandeur, such that they completely and utterly sink the film. There are the makings of a good film in the story somewhere, but Michael Cimino completely failed to find them and saddled everyone with this effort that makes some of Robert Redford's languid efforts look positively hyperactive. Having flawed the film to start with with the screenplay, Michael Cimino then inflicted some artistic choices on the film that really make sure that this is an impressively difficult film to watch and enjoy. If you have never seen the film, then I would perhaps suggest that you give it a rental just to see how lousy choices can utterly destroy the rudiments of a good film. I would not under any circumstance recommend anyone actually buy the DVD. Even if the film was passable, the video transfer is anything but and the audio transfer is sadly underwhelming. Eminently avoidable, and a prime candidate for re-release at budget price within the next year or so.

    One final word of warning - if you do watch the film, make sure you stop playback before the end of the credits. If you let the copyright notices start, you cannot stop them, you cannot jump past them, you cannot fast forward through them and you cannot jump back to the menu. Only physical ejecting of the DVD itself stops this sucker. Well, at least on my Pioneer you cannot.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Tuesday, November 13, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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