Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate

A lot of people saw The Deer Hunter, it won several Academy Awards including a Best Picture Oscar and was the talk of 1978, for a variety of reasons. Heaven’s Gate would only win Razzie and Stinker Awards, and is often credited with sinking a movie studio.

This blog is a tale of a director and two films, drawing from the new book pictured below, and my own thoughts.

Charles Elton’s new bio, Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision.

Why is this book relevant since Michael Cimino died in 2016? He did take home two Oscars for The Deer Hunter, write and direct one of Clint Eastwood’s best films, and win awards for cutting edge television commercials.

Clint Eastwood and Michael Cimino on the set of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Cimino was a part of the wildest and most culturally shifting decade in American film, 1970s. He was an outsider who talked and pushed his way into the film business, and bullied his way into co-writing and directing two of the most influential films (for completely different reasons), is blamed for helping end the auteur period of Hollywood filmmaking, and the fall of United Artists.

The auteur is the creator and gives life to the film, it is their vision and the supervise the film. They do so with the power and breath of creative and financial decision-making. This was the opposite of the studio system, where only a few directors had the clout and independence to operate that way (DeMille, Hitchcock). In the 1970s, after the success of Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, M*A*S*H and The Last Picture Show, and later, Jaws, The French Connection, Five Easy Pieces, The Godfather and Klute, the race was on for studios to replicate the success by turning young filmmakers loose and giving them extraordinary freedom.

Elton’s book is a detailed look at the life and films of Michael Cimino, who arguably was an auteur for a short period of time. For the latter half of the 1970s, Cimino was a big deal. He did not come from a film school, nor did he work his way up through the Hollywood system, he came from New York’s advertising and art design world.

Once he arrived in L.A., Cimino made all the right moves and quickly entered the entertainment fast lane. Elton does a superb job of thoroughly researching Cimino’s roots and quickly discovers some serious character flaws, but they will help Cimino go from directing television commercials to Academy Award winning film director within a few short years.

Cimino arrived in Hollywood during the auteur period, with a reputation he earned and invented, quickly enlisting powerful representatives, who set him up as a future player. Elton repeatedly questions how much Cimino invented or tried to pass-off as truth, embellishments or outright falsehoods about his past and accomplishments. In the bosom of the Dream Factory, Cimino was Cimino’s creation. The line was blurred between fact and fiction. Cimino’s mysterious life is almost more interesting than his Hollywood career.

This truthfulness flexibility allowed Cimino to claim credit for the writing and ideas of others. Elton digs into the origins of Cimino’s films, challenging the contributions of Cimino with other contributors, particularly with respect to The Deer Hunter. Various aspects of the film are questioned, the origins of the Russian roulette story device and the wedding sequence in particular. According to Elton, Cimino passed himself off as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, when in fact that was not true.

Rober De Niro and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter.

Arriving in Hollywood, Cimino worked on the screenplay for Douglas Trumbull’s syfy thriller Silent Running (1972). This led to a rewrite of Magnum Force (1973) for Clint Eastwood. Next we wrote Thunderbolt and Lightfoot which Eastwood bought with Cimino as director. Eastwood, who produced his own films, held Cimino to a fast and efficient shooting schedule, something Cimino would rebel against in his next two films.

The Deer Hunter (1978) is rather a rather forgotten film these days. It is long, brooding and has a downbeat ending. Cimino enjoined a variety of story and script ideas into a screenplay rewrite that listed him as the sole author. That was later changed by the Writers Guild. Cimino fought his studios and producers to film at his own pace, add expensive locations and lengthened sequences, battled Southeast Asia weather and unpredictable Thai officials and refused to trim his 184 minute cut.

I watched this film again after more than 40 years and have a mixed appreciation for it. From whatever sources and input created it, the film certainly has a unique vision. It is often said that Cimino spent considerable money, but you generally see it on the screen. From his days of directing commercials, Cimino fills the screen and holds your attention.

The film is lush and grand, more in the richness of the characters and their deep sense of connectiveness. The steel town is a tight and traditional community, almost a family. The first hour of the film is essentially the wedding and the hunting sequences. Cimino spares no expense in setting up the reminder of the film through this event. The bonds and subtext of these relationships are established. For me, this hour could be trimmed and nothing would be lost. It’s exhausting and my attention wandered several times.

The film makes a jarring cut from these friends celebrating the end of their deer hunt to a battle in Vietnam where the De Niro character gruesomely kills a North Vietnamese soldier who had killed a group of villagers. From there, the three steel town friends are being held captive and expected to play Russian roulette until they die. The escape sets into motion the last of the film where the strength of their ties are tested.

This is a film of how ideals and human bonds are tested, some survive, some fractured, others forever changed.

Cimino and the studios battled over the film’s length, and the relationship between Cimino and the producers revealed how difficult he could be. As an auteur, he fought for his art, even though it wasn’t his money and the budget had been exceeded.

The photography by famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, is spectacular. He would work on Heaven’s Gate too. The interior scenes are lit and photographed with richness considering the dark environments.

Word of mouth and awards seemed vindicate Cimino, emboldened his future demands, and set him on a course with United Artist for mutual destruction with what became, Heaven’s Gate.

The original poster

The budget for Heaven’s Gate was originally $7.8 million and would top out at $40 million. Cimino fought the studio seemingly every inch of the way. His producer was his girlfriend/confidant, who he used as his barrier to keep studio executives at a distance. As tensions grew, the budget exploded and the shooting schedule lengthened, Cimino dared the studio to fire him. Along the way, the studio gave up the ability to hold Cimino responsible for cost overruns – a fatal error.

A revised poster, but people were talking about the film for the wrong reasons.

Cimino finally delivered a three hour and forty minute cut, which because of the premier deadline was the version shown – and skewered by the critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely that you might suspect that Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has come around to collect.” Roger Ebert wrote: “This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.”

Cimino was upset by the negative reviews and asked United Artists to immediately pull the film and allow him to re-edit it. He removed more than an hour of the running time by shortening, but not removing sequences. The film was re-released with a new marketing campaign, but the film was still a flop.

Thirty years later, Criterion Films rereleased Heaven’s Gate in Cimino’s cut, all three hours and forty minutes. Criterion had to search for the pieces cut from Cimino’s version, which did not exist anywhere. A major restoration was done to strip the original yellow tint in the release and clean up what time took away from the negative. The restoration is amazing. The green grass, blue sky and white caps look extraordinary, certainly not how the original looked. There is one interesting reoccurring visual, smoke or dust. Trains, boats, chimneys, open fires, burning houses, gunfights, dust from the wind. Besides being an interesting visual, characters literally disappear in these trails or clouds.

The film is based on the famous Johnson County War in Wyoming, a conflict between stockmen and immigrants, each trying to carve out success. The stockmen, with the blessing of the Governor and President Benjamin Harrison, hired a gang to kill 125 people. Kris Kristofferson plays the county lawman, who stands up the stockman and their hired gun, Christopher Walken. Both men are in love with the local madam, played by Isabelle Huppert. A love triangle.

“Go back where you came from,” is said in the film. Immigrants are a problem, “the only thing they are good at is making more immigrants.” This film is based in 1890. It could be made today, given the nasty views of immigrants, or at least some immigrants.

Kristofferson plays a college graduate in the prologue, a graying forty year old in the main film and an older man in the epilogue. Like Robert Redford in The Way We Were, Kristofferson has the physical looks to be able pull this off. Kristofferson was at the peak of his film career, although he continue to make films for more than 30 years.

Cimino in a taped interview says that he writes about characters. His films seem to be a suite of character stories that when connected make a film. Cimino writes long sequences about significant events involving his character. He reveals a lot about those characters and what’s important in their relationships. Cimino is about great detail, layers of information. In The Deer Hunter, the big sequences that the film hangs on, were the traditional wedding, and the first Russian roulette scene. In Heaven’s Gate, the graduation sequence and courtyard dance, and the roller skating sequences. These are long, detailed scenes, each with many, many extras, costumes, choreography, huge sets, complex lighting, and multiple cameras.

No one can argue that Cimino‘s films are visually impressive, he goes for authenticity and realism. He would spend whatever was necessary to convince the viewer that what they were seeing was real. More is not really more; it can be self-indulgent and wasteful. For me, the wedding in The Deer Hunter was excessive and slowed the story. The prologue and epilogue in Heaven’s Gate were unnecessary and added little if anything. Long processions of immigrants pushing their way along the trail could have been trimmed. Trucking an oversized train engine was expensive and a different model would have sufficed. Appealing to a fraction of a percent of the audience to be historically accurate is unnecessary. Cimino might not have trusted that he could otherwise deliver convincing scenes. I believe he could have, just like he pleased Eastwood and met his budget requirements.

Part of the relaunch. A love story now.

United Artists as a company actually turned a profit for the year, even though Heaven’s Gate was a huge write-off. The company was sold to the owner of MGM, who merged it into one company. Of the principals involved with the film, the executives at United Artists left or were fired. Joann Carelli continued to pop up as on Cimino’s films and never far from Cimino’s side. She had secretly married David Mansfield, who provided the music for the film, and owned the music rights to the songs that appeared in the film. The actors and crew moved on to other projects. For Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, the film was just a bump on the road.

Cimino never directed another huge film, although he did direct a few modest productions, but never had the power he previous wielded. He wrote or rewrote a few films as a screenwriter for hire, but Heaven’s Gate derailed his career.

The sad part of this saga was that United Artists, an artist-friendly company, essentially vanished after it was folded into MGM. During the 1960s and 1970s, UA was responsible for many classic films, including the James Bond franchise, a production deal with the Mirisch Corporation [Some Like It Hot (1959), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Magnificent Seven (1960), West Side Story (1961), Follow That Dream (1962 with Elvis Presley), The Great Escape (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), Hawaii (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and many more].

The other unfortunate result was the end of an era of daring and often personal vision filmmaking. In wrapping up the death of the auteur period, the careers of many notable directors saw reduced opportunities. Others prospered as they worked within the system under tighter studio controls and producers who carefully watched the bottom line. In prior decades, producers welded significant power as they were responsible to studios and film profitability. In the 1980s, the pendulum began to swing that direction again, in large part to massive flops like Heaven’s Gate, , At Long Last Love, Sorcerer, Moment By Moment, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Quintet, The Island, 1941, Daisy Miller, The Message, 1900, Sextette and Meteor. The early 1980s continued the trend: Honky Tonk Freeway, Krull, Ishtar, Shanghai Surprise, One From the Heart.

I guess Heaven’s Gate is a fitting end to the decade of the 1970s, known for self-indulgence and fun at any cost. We partied and shook off the heavy ideals and tragedy of the prior decade. Cimino embraced the cultural freedom of the decade, but sought to remind us of America at its most confusing times: Vietnam and the ugliness of our quest for freedom in the Wild West.

Elton gives us a remarkable read, but I’m not sure we learn what made Michael Cimino tick.


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