A West That Never Was

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When I was a small boy, about equally obsessed with drawing, history, and comic books, I had a favorite artist. His name was Joe Maneely (1 hope I’ve spelled that right; it’s been a while since I scanned the big rack of comic books in Wolf’s toy store on Chicago’s South Side seeking his bravura signature) and his stock-in-trade was historical accuracy. He did Westerns for the most part, and his knowledge of nineteenth-century artifacts struck me as encyclopedic; his rumpled, unshaven cowboys all wore the right hats, swung the right lariats, sat in the right saddles, fired the right model Colts, with every screwhead and trigger guard and notched handle precisely rendered. Because of this, everything about his comics seemed to me superior to those my friends favored, filled with the adventures of Saturday-afternoon-serial cowboys in embroidered shirts and twenty-gallon hats. But for all their authenticity of setting and detail, even Maneely’s comics finally began to seem the same to me; the stories became predictable; the protagonists turned out to be as flat and unsubtle as the colors in which they were printed. I got older and turned to books.

In one sense, the director Michael Cimino is the Joe Maneely of the movies. His films— The Deer Hunter, Heavens Gate, Year of the Dragon —are often wonderful to look at and persuasive in their sense of time and place, but they are also peopled by men and women who bear little resemblance to the human beings the rest of us know. Maneely was just a journeyman, of course, interested only in bringing a little something extra to an audience that demanded very little. Cimino has far grander artistic pretensions and because of them and because of his muddled understanding of how the world works, his failures are infinitely more spectacular—and annoying.

Thanks to Steven Bach’s best-selling memoir, Final Cut , more people may now have read about the making of Cimino’s epic Western, Heaven’s Gate , than ever saw the film itself during its short, unhappy theatrical life. Bach was a senior vice-president at United Artists, and his book is a shrewd, amusing insider’s account of how one self-obsessed young auteur managed to inveigle United Artists into backing a major film that no executive of that studio ever saw before opening night, a film that turned out to be so long (three hours and thirty-nine minutes) and costly (thirty-six million dollars—five times its original budget) that it drove audiences out of theaters and United Artists itself virtually out of business. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the remains in 1981; Ted Turner recently gobbled them both up.)

It is curious that the best previous book on the making of a Hollywood movie, Picture , by Lillian Ross (1952), seems on the surface to tell precisely the opposite cautionary tale; its hero is an embattled director, John Huston, whose film, The Red Badge of Courage , is taken from him upon completion and systematically vitiated by studio executives interested only in the bottom line.

But in fact the two books—Bach’s and Ross’s—published thirty-three years apart, complement each other. The movies have always been a business, like any other. It was money that moved the MGM production head Dore Senary and his yes-men to curtail Huston’s independence, and it was money that moved Bach and his colleagues to indulge Cimino’s. “We were betting that Cimino would deliver a block-buster with ‘Art’ written all over it,” Bach writes, trying to explain his company’s willingness to meet the director’s most ludicrous demands—a specially fitted personal jeep for ten thousand dollars, for example, and four thousand on-location publicity stills of himself and his crew. None of this mattered, Bach continues, provided Heaven’s Gate fulfilled its promise as a “return to epic filmmaking and epic returns.”

United Artists executives might have seen how unlikely that promise was had they closely examined Cimino’s earlier films. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a Glint Eastwood film about a bank robbery, shows a nice feel for the look of roadside America—diners, used-car lots, seedy tourist cabins—but none for ordinary human beings; the only even marginally likable people in it are thieves, the opaque star and his fidgety, voluble sidekick, well played by Jeff Bridges. The Deer Hunter (1978) is an odd, schizophrenic film. The first half, a close-in look at the lives led by three young steelworkers in a dispiriting Pennsylvania industrial town, is grim but beautifully observed; when the protagonists go off to Vietnam, everything spins out of control. In order to be moved by anything that follows, one must first be willing to believe that Russian roulette was the national sport of both North and South Vietnam; that even during the fall of Saigon, hundreds of shrill Vietnamese took time out to huddle underground, placing bets on which of two participants would be the first to blow out his brains, and that these players volunteered for the game. The Deer Hunter is incoherent and implausible, and its evident racism is disturbing; every Asian in the film is inscrutable, callous, cruel. (Cimino’s most recent film, Year of the Dragon , a jumbled, overstaffed contemporary cop story set in Manhattan’s Chinatown, suffers similar flaws, among many others.)