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A West That Never Was

July 2024
6min read

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.)

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.

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