Synopsis: Whereas most film critics consider The Godfather (1972) or The Godfather Part II (1974) to be the best movie from the 1970s, I contend that The Dear Hunter (1978) deserves that honor. After winning Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for his epic Vietnam War drama, Michael Cimino certainly deserved praise. However, his ego arguably got the best of him because his follow-up film, Heaven’s Gate (1980) failed to resonate with critics or moviegoers. In addition to returning an abysmal 10% of its production budget at the box office, the film resulted in the sale of the studio and made it harder for directors to work without overbearing studio involvement. Based on the pedigree of its filmmaker and its financial demise, Heaven’s Gate ranks as the #1 Top 10 Box Office Bust.
#1 Box Office Bust: Heaven’s Gate
Plot: A fictionalized version of the Johnson County War pitting cattle ranchers against immigrant farmers in 1890s Wyoming. Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) eschews his Harvard education and wealthy background to fight against the injustice suffered by poor farmer immigrants. [If this summary seems unnecessarily pretentious, that’s intentional because it’s a fair observation about the movie.]
Producers: Denis O’Dell, Charles Okun, Joann Corelli
Director: Michael Cimino
Writer: Michael Cimino
Actors: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt
Metacritic score: 57 (slightly positive reviews). Critics have viewed the movie much more favorably over time. Its initial score was around 35 (unfavorable) based on reviews from the version released in 1980.
BOX OFFICE NUMBERS*
|Movie||Release Date||Estimated Production Costs**||Opening Gross Ticket Sales||Theaters||Opening Gross / Theater||Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales|
|Heaven’s Gate||Nov 19, 1980||$44 million||$2.2 million||2,320||$940||$3.5MM|
* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com.
** Information provided by IMDb.
HEAVEN’S GATE: SET-UP
Relative to 1970s American cinema, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) rank as two of greatest films of the decade (if not of all-time). Director Francis Ford Coppola waited over 15 years to release The Godfather Part III (1990), which failed critically in comparison. Still, the third installment generated over $130 million at the box office with a production budget of $54 million. Based solely on its commercial success, the movie avoided T10B consideration despite the negative critical comparisons.
I haven’t seen the re-cut third installment of Coppola’s epic trilogy that was released recently to high praise. Despite its new title, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone can’t escape its past. Similarly, Heaven’s Gate (1980) can’t escape its past despite being re-cut at least three times. The film went from 5 hrs 25 mins (as shown to studio executives in June 1980) to 3 hrs 39 mins (original release in November 1980) to 2 hrs 29 mins (re-release in April 1981) to 3 hrs 36 mins (director’s final cut released in March 2013). With respect to this post, I consider the original release in November 1980 as the version deserving its status as T10B’s #1 Box Office Bust. After all, that’s the one that bombed at the box office.
Michael Cimino followed up his 1978 classic, The Dear Hunter, with Heaven’s Gate. Unlike Coppola, Cimino produced a dud by generating less than $4 million at the box office after spending more than $44 million of the studio’s money. In the process, Cimino financially destroyed United Artists (at least enough to cause the owner to sell the studio for pennies on the dollar). Furthermore, it gave other studios the conviction to restrict other overly ambitious directors (at least until the pendulum swung the other way based on the success of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron).
As previously mentioned, I consider The Deer Hunter to be the best movie made in the 1970s. Of note, I prefer the film for the acting, directing, cinematography, screenplay/story, and soundtrack. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher “More Cowbell” Walken). In addition, it received nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actor (Robert DeNiro) and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep). As such, my assessment isn’t completely off-base. Unfortunately, the film’s success (and greatness) may have contributed to the downfall of Cimino’s next effort.
HEAVEN’S GATE: DOWNFALL
When I started researching potential Top 10 Box Office Busts over four years ago, Heaven’s Gate became my odds-on favorite for the #1 spot. It had an accomplished filmmaker whose hubris (or search for perfection) led to significant cost overruns. In turn, the studio’s owner got out of the movie business when those costs couldn’t be recovered at the box office. The film got pulled from theaters after one week due to harsh critical reviews and poor attendance. Including ticket sales of the edited re-release, it earned less than 10% of its production budget at the box office. Still, I waited to write this post until I watched the entire movie. It took me four years, but I finally finished the movie, so I finally finished writing this post.
Causing some of the delay, it took me a while to find an unedited version of theatrical release of Heaven’s Gate that I could save on my DVR. I have spent at least $2,000/yr on cable TV / internet for the last 20 years, so clearly I must have been “economical” (i.e. cheap) in my mission. While my refusal to pay $10-20 for a DVD or extra channel might seem absurd, my brother-in-law serves as a counterbalance. Of note, he makes Scrooge seem like MacKenzie Scott trying to get rid of her ex-husband’s money as if it came directly from Midas himself. In case you missed the reference to Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, my wife’s brother redefines cheap. (Editor’s Note: I can check off another relative whose reference will not add to increased traffic.)
Despite my digression, the more relevant point is that I tried to watch Heaven’s Gate numerous (perhaps 10+) times over the last three years. For any insomniacs reading this post, watch the movie because it’s better than Sominex. As support for my assessment, I offer Roget Ebert’s review from 1981.
We begin with a fundamental question: Why is “Heaven’s Gate” so painful and unpleasant to look at? I’m not referring to its content, but to its actual visual texture: This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen. . . . There are clouds and billows of dirty yellow smoke in every shot . . . and when he runs out of smoke he gives us fog and such incredible amounts of dust that there are whole scenes where we can barely see anything. . . There’s not a single primary color in this movie, only dingy washed-out sepia tones.
I readily admit that I don’t have the same analytical eye of one of the most respected film critics of all-time. However, I can attest that “dingy washed-out sepia tones” are perfect for falling asleep when your mind is racing. Said differently, the movie is the equivalent of white noise when you want your mind to shut down. In comparison, I hate when I want to go to sleep and Shawshank Redemption (1995) or Scent of a Woman (1992) show up as available choices because sleep seems to become overrated compared to those epics.
HEAVEN’S GATE: ADDITIONAL DOWNFALL
In case you need additional support from critics at the time of the movie’s release, I offer the following comments.
From TV Guide:
This beautiful but notoriously disappointing film is one of the most overblown epic Westerns of any decade.
From Vincent Canby of The New York Times:
Nothing in the movie works properly. For all of the time and money that went into it, it’s jerry-built, a ship that slides straight to the bottom at its christening. Heaven’s Gate is something quite rare in movies these days – an unqualified disaster.
In case TV Guide and The New York Times (much less Roger Ebert) don’t provide the necessary support, I’ll offer a reference that anyone under 30 might appreciate. The Grunge.com apparently has its own Top 10 list and identified some of Ebert’s best all-time critiques. In reference to Ebert’s review of this movie, the site commented:
Roger Ebert’s take on Michael Cimino’s epic 1980 boondoggle Heaven’s Gate is almost as legendarily awesome as the film itself is legendarily terrible. Given carte blanche to make literally any movie he wanted to after the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino responded with one of the longest, most ridiculously unfocused, insanely incoherent films ever put together. The story of a bunch of American frontiersmen caught up in an evil Montana cattle rancher’s plot should have been pretty straightforward. It should have been a lot of things, like “watchable.” Instead, it became one of the most notorious flops of all time, barely grossing $3 million on a budget over ten times that.
Relative to all of the negative criticism about the movie, the claim that Heaven’s Gate seemed “watchable” resonates most with me. After all, I attempted to watch it at least 10 times over the last three years.
HEAVEN’S GATE: CONCLUSION
I initially identified Heaven’s Gate as T10B’s #1 Box Office Bust several years ago. Still, I waited because I hoped time might change my perception as if the filmmaker responsible for one of my favorite films might earn a pass for making a complete clunker. Time arguably heals all wounds, but not this one.
I could wait another 40 years, but the originally released Heaven’s Gate likely won’t become a failure-turned-classic like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Importantly, Frank Capra didn’t need to re-cut his Christmas epic, which simply may have been underappreciated immediately after our country survived (and won) World War II. By the way, any movie that has a long-term guaranteed spot on a network’s schedule (i.e. NBC at 8:00 pm on Christmas Eve) deserves “epic” status.
Instead, I view Cimino’s work as an ambitious attempt at surpassing greatness. Imagine if J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee wrote sequels to their masterpieces. Those efforts might have been as fruitless as Marshall Applewhite’s attempt to have his followers board a spaceship trailing Comet Hale-Bopp. In case that reference escapes you, this image might help.
If you still don’t get the reference, perhaps this image might help.
THE OTHER HEAVEN’S GATE
Comet Hale-Bopp is expected to return in around 2,350 years. If the spirits of those persuadable (and troubled) souls appear at that time, I’ll accept public ridicule of my ignorance. If they’re around, the odds are that I’ll be around as well to accept my penance. By then, Heaven’s Gate will have become a failure-turned-classic-turned-failure at least 10 times (i.e. as many times as I tried and failed to watch it).
As 2020 comes to an end, it seems fitting to end this post and countdown of T10B box office busts commenting that Heaven’s Gate unfortunately will be remembered by what it was versus what it could have been.