Final Cut: The Making of Heaven’s Gate and the Unmaking of a Studio (Michael Epstein, 2004)
[note: review originally published 1Dec2008]
What is the difference between one of the greatest movies of all time and one of the greatest debacles of all time? When one of the interviewees in Final Cut discusses the options United Artists talked over when trying to figure out how to handle Michael Cimino after Heaven’s Gate had already gone off the charts, he says that the option UA decided on was the Apocalypse Now option; Coppola, like Cimino, was out of control during the filming of Apocalypse Now, whose budget and filming schedule had at one point been a beautiful dream, but that had gone off the rails early on. Coppola was allowed to do his thing, and Apocalypse Now was wisely hailed as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Then came Heaven’s Gate, two years later. To call it a disaster would be the understatement of understatements; it did the worst a picture can do, it destroyed a company. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight (and an ill-thought recut of Apocalypse Now that, for all intents and purposes, destroys the power and majesty of the original), Heaven’s Gate, or at least the longest version of it currently available, is, if anything, an even better movie than Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for an answer to why critical and public reception to amazing-but-vastly-overbudget movie B was so diametrically opposed to that of amazing-but-vastly-overbudget movie A, you’re going to be disappointed. But the shadow of Apocalypse Now certainly hangs over Michael Epstein’s absorbing documentary about Heaven’s Gate and the fall of United Artists.
It’s somewhat ironic, though probably appropriate, that Heaven’s Gate, the story of the Johnson County War—not exactly one of the proudest moments in American history—is still considered an unmitigated disaster by most Americans, but as Willem Dafoe mentions towards the end, is seen as one of the great American movies outside the U.S. (it ranks on the Guardian‘s thousand best movies list, and also makes the grade at the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? website, which polls reviewers around the globe, but is noticeably absent from the lists of any American critic whose thousand-best lists I’ve collected). Epstein’s film traces the making of Heaven’s Gate, stopping along the way to offer opinions on why it was that the critics tore it apart upon its release, very few of which have anything to do with the
quality of the movie itself. As overseas audiences (and a handful of Americans) have realized, this is because the movie itself, divorced from the politics and obsessive secrecy surrounding its filming, is as much a masterpiece as Cimino’s universally-lauded The Deer Hunter (in fact, one of the film’s hypotheses is that the critics felt that they had over-praised The Deer Hunter and toned reviews of Heaven’s Gate down even farther to compensate). What this documentary concludes is that politics killed Heaven’s Gate, and that the tragedy of Heaven’s Gate killed the age of the director; one has to wonder, drawing those two threads to their logical conclusions, whether MGM—who ended up buying out UA (and, as Willem Dafoe also mentions in the ending voiceover, the “destruction” of UA actually involved its stock falling half a point, which the company had recovered in very little time)—had a hand in any of the politics.
Probably biased, but fascinating. Well worth your time whether you’re a fan of Heaven’s Gate or not. (As for me, I’m one of those who would give my right arm to see the actual five-and-a-half-hour cut that probably no longer exists.) *** ½
The entire doco is currently on youtube; this is part one of eight.