Think of this as a guide through each of Christopher Walken's films, starting with his first and moving forward. Each review will provide analysis, factoids and opinion on the ninety-plus films in his career.
Genre: Epic Historical Western
Walken in Short: He’s one of the leads, although he is a bit underdeveloped. You need to watch this for (1) his cold-blooded entrance and (2) his fiery, bloody, juggernaut, hail-of-bullets exit.
Director: Michael Cimino (chi-MEE-no)
Writer: Michael Cimino
Availability: It can be fairly readily found on VHS and DVD. Not on Blu-ray yet, though there is talk of Criterion putting something together. *
[*Editor’s Update: Crit. Coll. Blu-ray was just released!]
Duration: Originally the director’s cut had the film at 5 hours, 25 mins. The studio said, ‘UH-uh, you’re crazy, man. That is WAAAY too long.’ (I’m paraphrasing) And so he shortened it to 3 hours, 39 mins, which is what played at its premiere, and is also the version I watched. After the premiere though, an even shorter cut, at 2 hours, 29 minutes was created for general theatrical release. Nobody likes the short one. The wrong things were cut, it no longer makes sense, and it’s still SUCH a long movie.
[*Editor’s Update: 2014 – Steven Soderbergh did a brilliant job re-cutting the film into 108 minutes. Really. This cut, I think, may change some minds about the worth of this film. Watch it here.]
Similar Films – Any really long historical drama with strong themes of class struggle, immigration, frontier-life, and ethics. Try: Once Upon a Time in America, Dances With Wolves, Bertolucci’s 1900, Gone with the Wind, Far and Away, or Doctor Zhivago.
Actors Other Than Walken: Kris (Whistler in Blade) Kristofferson , Isabelle (the French lady in I Heart Huckabees) Huppert, Mickey (Marv in Sin City, also Homeboy) Rourke, John (Elephant Man) Hurt, Jeff (Lebowski) Bridges, Richard (He was Stan in Stephen King’s It) Masur, Geoffrey (Shoot the Sun Down) Lewis, Brad (The Prophecy III) Dourif, Terry (John Locke of Lost) O’Quinn. There’s so many! Okay, one more. The villain: Sam (Law & Order) Waterston.
Movie in a Sentence: The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (rich white businessmen, led by Waterston) are attempting to optimize their land and cattle holdings by “legally” slaughtering hundreds of Russian immigrants and whomever is in their way, but within that larger story is the fight between the stoic marshal (Kristofferson) intended to stop them, and the cruel mercenary (Walken) hired by the WSGA, and between them, goading them on, is the vociferous French prostitute (Huppert) who loves them both.
FUN FACT: ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is the name of the town’s community tent. It’s where the band plays and people roller-skate (which IS historically accurate btw), and it’s also where they meet to discuss their impending slaughter. The name is never said aloud and it is never referenced in the film!
MPAA Rating: It’s an ‘R’ – But listen: if you can get a 13 year-old kid to sit down and watch this movie about Montana in the 1870s, for a little under four hours, then I don’t think you should worry about it. It’s educational!
Granted, Huppert get naked quite a bit, some f-bombs are dropped, and there is some rape and bloody gore, but this is history, these things do happen and they deserve to be recognized in our cinematic dialogue.
Although actually, yeah, it is not really historically accurate. Though it is “based” on a true story, they change a whole mess of things around to make it more entertaining. For more info (and it is interesting stuff), you can check out “The Johnson County War“.
My Rating: 7 out of ten. That’s right, seven! The film is flawed, but the wounds aren’t fatal. ‘Tis but a scratch! Besides, so much of what people talk about when they publicly hate this movie has NOTHING to do with the movie itself.
Whose career was ruined, how much they spent to make it, how long it took, even how it did at the oh-so-holy Box Office, none of these things MATTER when you’re talking about the movie itself. It is about the story, how well it was told, and how you are affected by it. Everything else is Hollywood politics and back-stage soap opera malarkey. That’s right, I said malarkey. Seven.
Should You Watch? Yes. And not just because it is so FAMOUSLY awful. Because it isn’t. Awful, that is. Overlong, yes, sprawling, sure, unfocused, okay, but it was also gorgeous, epic in scope, and filled with talent. But also, I’m attracted to any movie that is so universally shat upon. And as usual, the critics’ contempt has more to do with showcasing the eloquence of their bile than with any objective reflection.
See also Gigli and Envy.
Walken Content: He has a substantial slice of the screen-time pie, and a whole buffet of great lines. This is necessary Walken. Whatever else you may think of the rest of the movie, it is definitely worth it for the amount of glorious Walken contained within. He’s so mean! And yet, he loves that wild prostitute and her heart of gold…
Walken Quote: Walken catches a boyish young man about to kill a cow that presumably doesn’t belong to him. Now understand that Walken’s been killing people all movie long for the same offense. (I can say “all movie long”, right?)
But for whatever reason, Walken sees this mustachioed guy in an engineer’s cap as too young to kill. Walken gripes: ‘Son of a bitch. Even the god-damned kids now.’ In a plaintive Russian accent the guy insists: ‘I’m not a kid. I’m a married man.’ Walken doesn’t even take his gun out when he answers calmly but with conviction:
“Get outta here before I blow your brains out, married man.” ~ Nate Champion (Walken)
This film is peppered with laconic and clever bad-asses talking tough and staring down the other guy. Walken has a bunch of these great don’t-mess-with-me lines. Kristofferson, too. And they both make quick work of whoever is foolish enough to try something.
In fact, they both so completely dominate their fights with other men, that they are like two sharks placed in a fish-tank along with precariously stacked tins of canned tuna. Sure it’s fun to watch them knock a pile over, but a serious fight between anything in that tank other than each other is just a little silly.
Other Actors, revisited: Even though there are many more I don’t mention, I want to emphasize how many great characters have a spot in this film.
Geoffrey Lewis is hilarious as a filthy, back-woods hunter who teaches Mickey Rourke how to catch a wolf by grabbing its tongue.
Richard Masur is the very Irish train station manager who first spills the beans about the WSGA’s nefarious scheme.
Sam Waterston is evil. Pure and simple.
Jeff Bridges runs a bar and cockfight arena. He fixes wounded chickens by spitting alcohol on them and blowing air gently on their chicken-bums. Weird, right? He’s so method.
John Hurt is the perpetually drunk poet planted among the WSGA. He hates what they’re doing, but can’t do anything about it, except drink more and spout poetry at inappropriate times.
Kris Kristofferson is the aging stoic lawman, torn between following orders and doing what’s right. And though he has a wife back East, he certainly loves a certain prostitute who just so happens to have a heart of gold.
Isabelle Huppert is stunningly beautiful in a very natural way, and she is suitably tempestuous for the role. Although at times she is incomprehensible, what-with hare theeck Fronsh ax-son. It’s okay, I forgive her.
Overall: I find that this is a beautifully shot, eloquently written, and colorfully populated film. Walken’s all over it, and there are numerous scenes of greatness. That’s the good part.
Here’s the bad. It spends a lot of time painting atmosphere and showing peripheral characters. While the main conflict, the triangle between Walken, Huppert, and Kris is missing something.
Perhaps that something resides only in the 5-and-a-half-hour version. It’d be a shame if it was left on the cutting-room floor to make room for, say, the roller skating scene.
Walken and Kris have a past. They were friends, or they were co-workers, roommates, neighbors, classmates, I don’t know. Same with Huppert and Kris. Stuff happened, and Cimino won’t tell us. And that lack of story keeps these characters at a distance from me.
That’s important to the story, their beginnings. And the fact that characters keep vaguely alluding to previous adventures is just annoying when we’re seeing everything but.
How did they first meet? How did they last see each other? How has their dynamic changed since? These are questions that wouldn’t necessarily need answering if this was a different kind of film, like, say: an action, or a comedy. But it is exactly that kind of film that gives those answers. It is a 3 and a 1/2 hour epic historical drama. They just spend time answering the wrong questions.
For example, they used their prologue on Kris’ college graduation from Harvard, when they should have been showing our leads back when they first met, or last saw each other, because then… (sigh)
But I digress. And give too much weight to what, in the end, are merely minor story kinks.
Ignore the haters; make up your own mind. Even with all its flaws, it isn’t even remotely the “unqualified disaster” that some would have you believe it to be.
And look at Walken here. Wrath incarnate. Don’t you want to see that? Course you do! He’s got a bench and a wall of fire!
So go ahead and watch Heaven’s Gate. I won’t tell the critics on you. Not even when you like it.