- Historic Sites
A West That Never Was
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
Nonetheless, The Deer Hunter snagged five Academy Awards. And it made money. And so when Cimino’s agent circulated his screenplay for a big Western among LJA executives, they snapped it up. Despite the final film’s extraordinary length, the story line of Heaven’s Gate is almost skeletal. In 1892 the powerful Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association resolves to end rustling by hiring an army of gunslingers to invade Johnson County and kill most of the homesteaders living there. (They can do this with impunity because the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison himself, has secretly blessed the project in advance.) The homesteaders are virtually all Eastern European immigrants, unable to speak English and so poor that their wives and daughters must pull the family plows; they depend on butchering the occasional stray just to survive. Their sole defender is Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), an incorruptible, Harvardeducated marshal. Love interest is supplied by Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a beautiful local madam with whom both Averill and an Association killer named Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) are in love. When Ella is gang-raped on orders from the cattle barons, Champion goes over to the settlers’ side and is shot to death by his former employers. In a deafening climactic battle that alone consumes almost half an hour, settlers and invaders finally shoot it out. Scores die, and when things begin to look bad for the outnumbered cattlemen, the cavalry rides to their rescue. Big capital has triumphed; the immigrants are dispossessed: “It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country,” one says; “It always was,” Averill replies.
“It all amounted to a modest episode of legalized genocide,” Bach writes, “with strong class and racial overtones.” It was “historical revisionism of a kind popular in the sixties and seventies, ‘setting the record straight,’ with moralistic appeal to all who shared liberal or even radical notions about civil rights, American involvement in Vietnam, the entire grab bag of causes that self-righteously animated a generation of which we all were a … part.” In short, there was a ready-made audience out there, eager to believe this version of the past—and buy tickets.
Film-makers are no more required to stick to what really happened in history than are novelists. The best we can hope for is that they attempt to stay faithful to the spirit of the past, or that when they decide to turn it on its head—as, say, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Berger, and Arthur Penn sometimes do—they first understand what they are doing and maybe even let us in on the joke.
Film-makers are no more required to stick to the historical facts than novelists are. But when they decide not to, they should at least let us in on the joke.
Michael Cimino assured interviewers that Heaven’s Gate was a “portrait of a period … the way it really was,” an “honest film.” In fact, it is a profoundly dishonest one; Heaven’s Gate betrays both the letter and the spirit of history. The Wyoming Stock Growers did recruit an army of thugs and send it into Johnson County to impose lynch law, but almost everything else in the film is a lie:
President Harrison never approved the invasion in advance.
Jim Averill was a saloonkeeper, not a marshal; he had never been near Harvard, and he was lynched three years before the invasion, after a squabble over land.
Ella Watson, his lover, was not raped but lynched alongside him; she was known locally as “Cattle Kate” because she accepted livestock in lieu of cash for her favors. (Her death did prompt a memorable Police Gazette headline: BLASPHEMING BORDER BEAUTY BARBAROUSLY BOOSTED BRANCHWARD .)
Nate Champion never worked for the Stock Growers; in fact, his name headed their hit list because he had helped found a rival group of small ranchers.
The angry citizens who stopped the invaders were not European immigrants at all but a mixed crew of cowboys and settlers, small ranchers and townspeople, with names like Elias Snider, Red Angus, the Reverend Martin Rader, and Arapahoe Brown (a leader of the county defenders, whom Cimino unaccountably transformed into a giggling rapist-for-hire in the pay of the Association; it sometimes seems a shame that descendants can’t sue for defamation of ancestor).
There was no real battle. The army arrived before much damage could be done. Precisely one man died, a hired gunman who shot himself in the knee and later developed gangrene.
Finally, the whole business was a humiliating defeat for the stockmen, not a victory; they did manage to escape prosecution, but their power steadily dissipated thereafter.
Steven Bach is very good at delineating most of the things that went wrong with Heaven’s Gate : ”… the sheer weight of the thing, the luxuriant wastefulness, the overbearing sound, the relentlessness of its self-importance, its self-love.” But he dismisses its faithlessness to history as “irrelevant to the potential of the drama.” In this, at least, I think he is wrong. For by discarding the genuine context of his story, Michael Cimino had to fall back on his own meager and eccentric imaginings to create a West that never was. Audiences could not believe in it in part because it was literally unbelievable.