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Western films, from silent to today

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate (1980) poster Kris Kristofferson is James Averill, a lawman in Johnson County, Wyoming, an area being flooded by immigrants attracted by cheap land they can homestead.

Problem is, they’re having trouble feeding their families, and some of them resort to stealing and butchering cows to keep from starving.

The Wyoming Cattleman’s Association and its cattle baron membership is fed up with the thievery and the law’s slow response. Supposedly with government approval, they plan to hire 50 paid assassins to eliminate 125 individuals on a death list.

Averill, a Harvard graduate, catches wind of the plan and alerts the immigrants to the looming threat. And that threat becomes personal when he realizes one of the names on the death list is his lover, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), who runs a whorehouse and accepts stolen cattle as payment for her services.

She has a second beau, Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), a younger man who is an immigrant himself but still does the association’s deadly bidding. Champion wants to marry Ella; Averill wants her to flee the territory.

Neither gets their way before association leader Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Maj. Walcott show up with their band of hired killers, eager to collect $50 per immigrant they turn into a corpse.

They run into a more determined foe than they expect.


At the time of its release, Heaven’s Gate was the most expensive film ever made and one of Hollywood’s biggest flops ever. Nearly everything about the film — especially the three and a half hour runtime — was eviscerated by critics.

The film’s failure even prompted the sale of United Artists. Director Michael Cimino, coming off an Academy Award win for “Deer Hunter” (1978), became known as the man who brought down an entire studio with his excesses.

There probably were excesses. But most of the criticism of the film is undeserved. Cimino serves up a touching love story, a powerful indictment of how the rich will try to run roughshod over the poor, and one of the most powerful, realistic large-scale battle scenes put on film to that point. He just tells his story in a way viewers weren’t and still aren’t accustomed to.

So settle in when you have the time and watch closely. You might not enjoy everything about the film — the ending always struck me as a bit unsatisfying. But you’re sure to find something to appreciate. You’ve never seen a Western like it before. And you’re not likely to see another made on such a grand scale.

Directed by:
Michael Cimino

Kris Kristofferson … James Averill
Christopher Walken … Nathan D. Champion
John Hurt … William C. Irvine
Sam Waterston … Frank Canton
Brad Dourif … Mr. Eggleston
Isabelle Huppert … Ella Watson
Joseph Cotton … The Reverend Doctor
Jeff Bridges .. John L. Bridges
Ronnie Hawkins … Maj. Wolcott
Paul Koslo … Mayor Charlie Lezak
Geoffrey Lewis … Trapper Fred
Richard Masur … Cully
Rosie Vela … Beautiful girl
Mary Catherine Wright .. Nell

Runtime: 219 min.

Memorable lines:

Cully: “I’ll tell you something, Jim. If the rich could hire others to do their dyin’ for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.”
Wolcott, of the immigrants: “Wolcott: They’re an ignorant, degraded gang of paupers. Their only stock in trade consists of having large numbers of ragged kids.”
Billy Irvine: “A hundred names. On a list. More or less. Just some of these immigrants they’re going to kill off.”
Jim Averill: “Even they can’t get away with a thing like that.”
Billy: “Well, in principle, everything can be done.”

Frank Canton: “You attempt to upset every effort we make to protect our property and that of your own class.”
Jim Averill: “You’re not in my class, Canton. You never will be. You’d have to die first and be born again.”

John L. Bridges: “It’s gettin’ dangerous to be poor in this country.”
James Averill: “It always was.”

James Averill: “Seems balls are getting scarce as hen’s teeth in the army.”
Officer: “You know what I really dislike about you, Jim. You’re a rich man with a good name. You only pretend to be poor.”

Ella Watson: “Do you think a woman can love two men?”
James Averill: “Sure you can. Why not three? But it sure as hell isn’t convenient.”

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