Yes, it is long; yes, it sank a studio; yes, by comparison to the magisterial The Deer Hunter, it was an unsuccessful and sometimes exhaustingly meandering narrative.
Does this make Heaven's Gate an irredeemably bad movie?
I saw Heaven's Gate many years ago and happily maintain my opinion that, even in its massacred form, it is a fine and elegiac piece of cinema. For me the single greatest flaw in it is the sound recording: I don't know how much of that can be blamed on Cimino, but the unclear dialogue is perhaps the only thing that really stops this being a better film.
In today's Guardian Geoffrey Macnab makes an ambivalent case for reconsidering the film, on the back of a restored version being screened at the National Film Theatre, London on Sunday. Do note, however, that this restoration - by MGM/United Artists archivist John Kirk - should not be taken as a perfect re-visioning of the film. Partly, this is because the original studio United Artists destroyed much of the 200 hours of footage shot by director Michael Cimino, and consequently there was a limited range of material available to be reintegrated. Furthermore, Kirk was commissioned to the project by studio executive Bingham Ray who lost his job soon after the commission began, thus leaving Kirk largely unsupported within the MGM/UA system. And, unsurprisingly, given the ferocious attacks made on Cimino and his reputation in the wake of the initial dismissal of HG, Cimino himself refused to be involved in the restoration.
In the wake of the original debacle, former head of United Artists, Steven Bach, whose job became untenable due to the severe losses the film incurred, produced a fascinating text entitled Final Cut that chronicled the spiraling and troubled production of HG. (Sadly, this seems to be only available as a remainder/secondhand text). Based on that book, documentary-maker Michael Epstein has put together Final Cut: the Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate. Yet this too has suffered from the seemingly never-ending attacks on HG: Macnab reports that MGM have set such exhorbitant costs on using clips from the film for the documentary that Epstein cannot afford to show the film outside the festival circuit. And the planned-for DVD project that would release HG with his documentary has been scrapped.
I think this ongoing dismissal and undermining of HG is rather saddening. And despite all the attacks, what is even more frustrating is that the film IS available in the USA, but not in the UK. My old video tape is rather tired now, but I still treasure it. And any film with the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Isabelle Huppert in it is always worth the price of admission.