I watched Heaven's Gate tonight. It was not an easy watch - my 82 year old Mom was singularly difficult to keep awake through the 216-minute runtime, and when she was awake, tended to loudly shout "boring" at the screen at various intervals, which made my wholehearted engagement somewhat challenging. The film is certainly not without its merits, though I would not advise anyone to rush to buy the DVD, if there are still decent rental shops in your area (or if there are other opportunities to see it).
Briefly, for the sake of my own clarity, I'll sketch the pros and cons of watching this film.
Heaven's Gate has stunning period authenticity in every frame. Whatever the hubris involved in Cimino's striving to capture the look of the west, the sets, costumes, and so forth are superbly crafted and believable (even if Oxford stands in for Harvard - see Robin Wood on that; it makes perfect sense).
There are beautifully photographed, painterly, striking compositions at every turn; the film has great visual poetry. Whatever one says about Cimino, the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is obviously one of the great masters of his craft.
The film boasts several lovingly-crafted set pieces - dances, musical performances, and so forth are staged with considerable period authenticity; people with a taste for visual spectacle and costume, or fond of mandolins and fiddles, will be rewarded amply.
There's a terrific cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges).
The film attempts to do something interesting and politically sophisticated with the western - it's a revisionist western, particularly interested in class loyalties and conflicts.
Unconventional narrative choices may prompt interesting reflections on classical narrative structure (cf. Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan; an admirer of the film, he writes about this aspect of the film at great length, and with great respect, though I suspect some of that may have been due to a contrarian streak).
Finally, the vast amount of fuss attendant on the film has long made me curious to see it, and makes me glad now that I've finally gotten it over with.
Period authenticity in Heaven's Gate does not extend to dialogue, character construction, or - if Wikipedia is to be trusted - actual historical verisimilitude; the film is interested in capturing details, not facts, and this only applies to images, not dialogue. The characters simply do not speak like people in the 19th century might be believed to (contrast it with Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil). Though I have nothing against cussing in movies, one three-minute exchange between Huppert and Kristofferson has a near-Deadwood level of profanity, with a fuck, shit, and a goddamn, none of which really jibe with my sense of how men and women spoke to each other back then. And much as I normally love Isabelle Huppert, her character - a spunky madam/ prostitute in love with both male protagonists - is singularly unbelievable. Worse, she seems to be aware of this as an actress; she's not quite as bad as Burt Reynolds in Uwe Boll's In The Name of the King - she doesn't walk through each scene looking like she feels trapped in a pile of shit - but she doesn't seem to try very hard to invest her character with any real emotion. Even the best role in the film - Chris Walken's character - is sadly underdeveloped; you're given enough information about him to actually be curious about him, but that curiosity doesn't ever really pay off.
The film has a frustratingly loose sense of narrative. There are two intersecting plots - one involving a love triangle, and the other a conflict between wealthy land barons and impoverished immigrants - but neither is handled in such a way as to really grip the viewer. One can suggest with Wood that Cimino is deliberately foiling narrative expectations and subverting conventions, but I'm really not convinced that he doesn't simply get bogged down in period details and images and lose sight of the story; the film meanders here and there, expends great chunks of time on its dances and other digressions, but there's not much suspense, considering the film makes clear that there will likely be a bloody conflagration at some point. You don't so much as build up to the payoff as wait for the film to get around to it. You can make a virtue of this vagueness if you like, but the fact remains that if you LIKE being compelled by a narrative, the film is not for you.
Because the film carries on at great length, its digressive, unfocussed nature really starts to call attention to itself, standing out in contrast to its epic size and the beauty of its images. If Cimino were a painter, and not a filmmaker, you might be able to spend a happy three-hours-thirty-six minutes with these images, but it's not so easy to do when you're busy trying to figure out what the story IS, or what certain scenes contribute to it.
There are various other oddities. A few lines of dialogue that were edited in in the panic to rescue the film, after its disastrous first run, are still present, and hover on the soundtrack without any clear speaker, sounding like exactly what they are - desperate late additions; perhaps these would have been better left out, since they mostly call attention to the difficulties the film had, without really resolving them. There are also a few moments where I actually got confused as to which character was where, or who was saying what line, or what the spatial relationship between locations was. I don't think that this was entirely my fault. One good instance: there's a scene where Isabelle Huppert takes leave of Walken, in his cabin outside town, to go to Kristofferson in town - what seems a long journey, which she undertakes on her own; then suddenly, when she's with Kristofferson, Walken walks in, as if he'd been following her five minutes behind. Since she doesn't immediately exclaim, "What the hell, are you stalking me?" - or whatever the 19th-century equivalent of "stalking" was - we can only assume the confusion we feel at this moment is due to inadequacies in the construction of the film. (Walken's cabin also seems to change location at one point, appearing not where one expects, but I'd have to revisit the film to make sure the fault is not merely in my own head).
The Criterion DVD also makes the strange choice not to subtitle the movie's abundant non-English dialogue. Presumably this is in response to critics like Roger Ebert complaining about the laborious subtitling of the German and Russian and so forth in previous versions, but Cimino should have stuck to his guns on this point. It sure appears that the film was INTENDED INITIALLY to be viewed with subtitles, since perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes worth of its dialogue is not in English; you get Russians yelling at other Russians in Russian, for instance, followed by a Russian reply, and you have no idea what the hell anyone is actually saying (unless you speak Russian). If seeing it with subtitles during such moments is how the film was originally meant to be seen, even if it drew some heat from critics, surely that's how we should be seeing it, no? I'm ill-prepared to comment further, since I don't KNOW what the non-English dialogue was, or whether it would have added to the experience of Heaven's Gate had I understood it. At the very least, though, it would have been nice if Criterion had provided two different subtitle options, so that we could choose the degree of translation we wanted.
By the way, the original theatrical cut was 219 minutes, and I've yet to determine what three minutes have been left out of the current version, though there's mention somewhere about a "mooning" scene that I didn't notice tonight.
Finally, one gathers that the film, even in the director approved cut, is still an "unfinished" film, that Cimino himself has mixed feelings about. His original vision was apparently a five hour long movie, which, to my knowledge, was never publicly screened; what was released theatrically was something that he hurriedly assembled under studio pressure, as a deadline loomed. That might help explain a great deal of what's missing from the film (gripping narrative, character development); what we're seeing is actually a sketch towards a film that was never, and never will be, completed.
And while there is a lot that IS interesting about Heaven's Gate, ultimately I have to say that that's just as well, because I don't think I could take five hours of this movie; the last feeling in the world it inspires is that it should be longer. I'm glad I saw it, but even gladder that I will never have to see it again (Robin Wood apparently saw it at least eight times, in two different versions; that's some dedicated film scholarship). There are many, many other films out there; if I want to earn contrarian/ revisionist cred by launching a defense of a neglected or unfairly savaged film, I think I'll pick a movie more enjoyable to watch than this one.