FRUIT OF THE POISONOUS TREE
The DEER HUNTER is a tale that focuses upon character, specifically the love story between two men: the war is a means to propel the characters towards resolution. But here at HEAVEN’S GATE, Cimino is concerned with the war first, the grand sweeping epic that deconstructs American Mythology; the characters of Averill, Nate, and Ella exist as secondary elements, as a means to reflect upon the injustices and frustrations of the main theme.
The plot of HEAVEN’S GATE is based very loosely upon the true account of the Johnson County War in 1892. But Cimino is only tangentially interested with historicity (like THE DEER HUNTER, this is not a film based on fact but based on theme) so he makes dramatic changes to the characters and plot. However, he is very interested in making a real world of three dimensions for the tale to inhabit, of birthing a dirty and sodden reflection of the American West which is atypical in historical dramas or genre films. The plot involves the Association, a morally bankrupt organization that has the backing of the US President and his Cabinet which becomes a doppelganger of the US Government itself. This organization hires a cadre of criminals to execute without warrant or trial 125 immigrants named on a Death List. These citizens are accused of stealing cattle and procuring and settling land that is needed to propagate the Association’s big business opportunities. Cimino shows two distinct scenes of local immigrants stealing or possessing the Association’s cattle but the reason is quite obvious: they are poor and starving. What Cimino quite rightly points out in the narrative (and Averill mentions more than once) is that there is a lawful remedy for the Association. It’s called the Rule of Law. But the Association has its own ideas about Law and decides that vigilante Justice is the quickest and most economical Final Solution.
James Averill is a rich man playing at being poor and Nate Champion is a poor man playing at being rich. This is a story of outsiders, of people struggling to attain equal rights, to become something more, to struggle against the situation they are born into. This is the gateway to salvation (not starvation) where immigrants risk everything to come to America, the Land of (In)Opportunity. Averill is a wealthy man who comes to Johnson County as a Sheriff, to fight against injustice, to stand up for the rights of the poor immigrants. He is a good practical man who is respected but he has another life: he has a home elsewhere. This is explained through a photograph of his Harvard days that he keeps by his bedside, as he smiles next to a beautiful young lady beside a tree. (Which is a visual cue for the entire conflict: from the mock battle in the first act at Harvard twenty years before to the slaughter in the final act. Here Cimino joins the past and present, in one simple image, metaphor and reality are superimposed). Though Averill may have the best of intentions (and he does) he remains an outsider to the community, arguing against an armed conflict that cannot be won. It is revealed that he at one time belonged to the Association but he was banned because he stood up against their unethical practices.
Billy is a minor character who is a friend of Averill’s but still belongs to the Association, but he also stands against their decision to execute immigrants for stealing cattle. Billy doesn't quit, he follows along in a drunken haze, never participation and offering only a tepid voice of irony and sarcasm. Billy is also an outsider to this country: he’s English and therefore a neutral observer (because that war has already been fought and won by our county). He acts like a cipher of reason and subverts the events with barbed humorous insights condemning this travesty without actively participating. It’s no coincidence that Billy is shot in the jaw during the final battle while taking a slug of whisky: once again spoken truth is obscured and irrelevant and makes no difference to this Final Solution.
Nate Champion is an immigrant himself who now works as a hit-man for the Association. He is raised above the impoverished community and has made a place for himself, saved money and brought civilization to the wild. He executes farmers who steal his company’s cattle without warrant to charge, arrest, or trial. He is a specter of Death riding the range. Cimino aggravates (in a good way) our expectations by revealing Nate as a complex human being, a man who is not a cold blooded killer but one who struggles to become something more than his caste. Though he murders a man in his first scene, he spares another young boy in another. He curses at the wagon trains of immigrants to go back to where they’re from (a modern American sentiment) though he’s one himself.
Ella is also an outsider in her own community: she is a Madame of the local brothel. Cimino relies on the typical Hollywood cliché of the beautiful hooker with a good heart but this doesn't seem to upset the narrative. Excellently portrayed by Isabella Huppert, she also becomes a complex persona and not a trite characterization. She provides a service for the community and takes money and cattle as payment: unfortunately, much of the cattle are stolen property. The men would rather fuck than feed their families it seems. But she is largely irrelevant to the story until the halfway point of the film when Averill and Champion both visit her. Not only do they know her but they are friends with each other, or were close at one time. They both love her and Champion asks for her hand in marriage while Averill only wants her hand, her physical body, to remove her from the danger.
DEATH OF A NATION
This affair is only one variable of the whole equation. Ella agrees to marry Nate because she wants to stay at Heaven’s Gate, to be a part of the community of her peers and not a stranger in Averill’s strange land. When Nate takes her to his home (which sits outside of the town, isolated) it is wallpapered. He says this brings civilization to the wilderness and she smiles touchingly. So in a later scene when the building is on fire, the call-back is important: the fire curling and blackening civilization: the wilderness (or chaos) has won. Ella is a reactive person and joins the entire community (she warns them too) in the final battle.
In a typical story, this love affair would generate the fuel for conflict and would be important to resolve but here Cimino focuses upon a much greater theme. This anarchic narrative structure baffles many viewers who would prefer to be spoon-fed exposition, to be given every narrative link in an orderly fashion to reach some understanding of the linear story. But Cimino deconstructs the typical Western melodrama by revealing these character interactions much later in the film because the story is not about their love triangle: it is about the (still)Birth of a Nation and its impact, as these characters become victims of a corrupt notion, avatars of a repressed and impotent society. It is the Rule of law that levels the playing field and when it is manipulated by the powerful few (the 1% in modern terms) then Justice can never prevail and oppression is the norm.
Cimino’s use of circular motion fulfills at least two important functions for his theme of a class conflict. First, it ties together the privileged graduation celebration and the mock battle in the first act and the Immigrants roller skating dance and very real battle later in the film. This contrast between the rich and wealthy dancing to a classic waltz for entertainment, to come together and join in community, is exactly like the citizens of Heaven’s Gate who join together around their own folk music. This juxtaposition alludes to the elite and poor being not so much different after all. The use of The Blue Danube also hints of the European influence upon the upper class, that they are (or are children of) immigrants into this great Melting Pot. The fact is that the only true American is the Native American Indian, and they are not overtly represented in this narrative. So the circular motion of each dance thematically overlaps to become one, tying together two disparate social classes into one shared school of thought and emotion. The two battle scenes (the mock scene were Averill climbs the tree and grabs the bouquet) and the brutal conflict upon the windswept and bloodstained field (were Averill never reaches the tree) are also circular, possibly representing the corruption of society, of group conformity spiraling out of control. The motion also agglutinates the battle and dance, violence and entertainment as one movement, a prescient audience desire that often confuses the two, confounding both meanings. After all, this is a movie about war and people go to the movies to be entertained (at least viscerally or superficially). I believe this post-modern reading of the film stretches Cimino’s intent but struck me as visually and emotionally acute.
The title of the film denotes a Christian belief concerning the entrance to the ethereal realm of Heaven, an allusion that here in the United States is the gateway to a better life. But the reality of the gritty narrative seems pessimistic and pejorative, that this allusion is nothing but an amoral illusion. God is either absent or dead and the nearly powerless victims are left alone to fend for themselves. Bu the immigrants come to the New World with the best of intentions and work ethic, to raise families and own their own parcel of land, to gain a modicum of equality and political power. Since it’s self-evident (though not explicitly stated) that the town was named by the immigrants, the title of the film is full of hope and promise. Cimino subverts the original intent and offers a cynical reading: HEAVEN’S GATE is often the name of cemeteries too.
The original one-sheet poster (see above) is also very interesting in what it depicts or, more precisely, what it redacts. The film is advertised as a passionate romance between Kris Kristofferson (as James Averill) and Isabella Huppert (as Ella) that reflects and encompasses their patriotism (which comes a close second). The story does indeed mirror their relationship and their patriotic fervor but not in a melodramatic way: the tragedy of their romance is contrasted against their (and our) national tragedy. Also, the All-American love story that the poster wants to promote is actually exposed upon viewing the film to be a sordid extra-marital affair, subverting the message from romantic ideal to polemic concerning patriarchal authority and entitlement. Then there’s the ghost of Nate Champion haunting the frame, a monochrome spirit imposed over the US flag. Note the three stars of the flag to hint at the lover’s triangle. Again, the image promotes a story that is but a shade to the film’s true narrative, revealing a love story that isn't even mentioned until the half-way point of a nearly 3 1/2 hour film! Does this represent the fracture between Cimino’s intent and the studio’s vague understanding of his vision? This could help to explain the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of HEAVEN’S GATE upon initial release. It’s like expecting to see Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO and being shown Godard’s WEEK END instead. Both are masterfully constructed but for competing purposes, and audience expectations are set quite differently. The poster can also be read as the joining of two cultures or social strata, Averill the wealthy and Ella the poor, with the obvious Capitalist dominance of the privileged protagonist in the composition, towering above the meek and nearly powerless.
The final act depicts Averill arguing against an armed battle with the Association and their hired guns. He seems to be as frustrated as the townsfolk but here he is powerless, as his station as Sheriff is now an empty philosophy. He can do nothing but leave because, as I stated before, Averill has a home to return to. He cannot even save Ella from the coming storm because she is already home, an outsider now subsumed into this microcosm. Her intention is also one of revenge, of anger in discovering Nate murdered.
Averill does indeed join the final battle which revolves around a large tree, analogous to the tree at Harvard during his youthful idealistic days. Cimino once again displays a circular motif as the battle goes round and around like clockwork, as if metaphorically this is a conflict that will last forever. The people and places may change but the war is always the same. Averill is able to bring his education to bear and help build wheeled fortifications as shields to advance and attack. He is able to help the immigrants go on the offensive. And they almost win a Pyrrhic victory.
Suddenly the cavalry arrives to save the day, the American flag snapping in the cold hard wind. But the soldiers are not here to save the victims: they arrive to save the criminals. The government does end this cowardly charade but fails to right the wrongs, to see that the guilty are held accountable. It supports the status quo.
Cimino begins and ends the film with James Averill. He is full of lightening energy in the opening shot as he races through the maze-like streets of Harvard to attend his graduation. He is brimming with reconstructive anticipation towards a better and brighter future, not just for himself but the country. As the pretty women look on, Averill wins the bouquet during the mock battle scene as he climbs the tree, playfully pummeled and beaten by his adversaries. His bloody nose is a badge of courage and victory. Then Cimino cuts to twenty years later and the road map of frustration and violence has been written upon his face. Averill has experienced the real world but still holds on to his ideals. The final shot of Averill upon his yacht floating upon a calm sea has the feel of a funeral barge. As if the proceeding lifetime was nothing but a fever dream, unreal, and he has only ever existed in this purgatory of quiet desperation.
James Averill has suffered the death of his passion and ideology. Is the fruit of his labor corrupted by the poisonous tree?
Final Grade: (A+)