Heaven's Gate is a 1980 American epic Western film portraying a fictional dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. The film is based loosely (but very inaccurately) on the Johnson County War. The cast includes Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, David Mansfield, Richard Masur, Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and, in his first film role (uncredited), Willem Dafoe.
There were major setbacks in the film's production due to cost and time overruns, negative press, and rumors about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It is generally considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made. It opened to poor reviews and earned less than $3 million domestically (from an estimated budget of $44 million), eventually contributing to the near collapse of its studio, United Artists, and effectively destroying the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979. Cimino had an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed it about four times over its planned budget. The movie's financial problems and United Artists' consequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films.
As time has progressed, a number of substantial assessments have become more nuanced and in some cases more positive, and now some critics have described Heaven's Gate as a "modern masterpiece" whose original 1980 editing was characterized as "one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history."
In 1870, two young men, Jim Averill and Billy Irvine, are graduating from Harvard College. The Reverend Doctor speaks to the graduates on the association of "the cultivated mind with the uncultivated," and the importance of "the education of a nation." Irvine, brilliant but obviously intoxicated, follows this with his opposing, irreverent views. A celebration is then held after which the male students serenade the women present, including Averill's girlfriend.
Twenty years later, Averill is passing through the booming town of Casper, Wyoming, on his way north to Johnson County where he is now a marshal. Poor European immigrants new to the region are in conflict with wealthy, establishedcattle barons organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association; the newcomers sometimes steal their cattle for food. Nate Champion – Averill's friend and an enforcer for the stockmen – kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a formal board meeting, the head of the Association, Frank Canton, tells members, including a drunk Irvine, of plans to kill 125 named settlers, or "thieves and anarchists" as Canton calls them. Irvine leaves the meeting and encounters Averill, telling him of the Association's "death list". As Averill leaves, he exchanges bitter words with Canton and punches him. That night, Canton begins recruiting men to kill the targeted settlers.
Ella Watson, a Johnson County bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes, is infatuated with both Averill and Champion. Averill and Watson skate in a crowd, then dance alone, in an enormous roller skating rink called "Heaven's Gate", which has been built by local entrepreneur John L. Bridges. Averill gets a copy of the Association's death list from a baseball-playing U.S. Army captain and later reads the names aloud to the settlers, who are thrown into terrified turmoil. Cully, a station master also a friend of Averill's, sees the train with Canton's posse heading north and rides off to warn the settlers, but is murdered en route. Later, a group of men come to Watson's bordello and rape her. All but one are shot and killed by Averill. Champion, realizing that his landowner bosses seek to eliminate Watson, goes to Canton's camp and shoots the remaining rapist, then refuses to participate in the slaughter.
Canton and his men encounter one of Champion's friends, Trapper, leaving a cabin. Canton tells Trapper that he has only a minute to warn Champion and his friend Nick that Canton and his men are waiting outside. Trapper runs back to the cabin to warn the two men and then Trapper emerges from the cabin, is shot, and a gun battle ensues. Attempting to save Champion, Watson arrives in her wagon and shoots one of the hired guns before escaping on horseback. Champion and Nick are trapped inside before Nick is shot and killed. Canton's men push a burning wagon towards the cabin and set it on fire, trapping Champion. Champion writes a last note to Ella. Champion emerges from the burning cabin, shooting at Canton's men before being gunned down. Watson warns the settlers of Canton's approach at another huge, chaotic gathering at the "Heaven's Gate" rink. The agitated settlers decide to fight back, with Bridges leading the attack on Canton's gang. With the hired invaders now surrounded, both sides suffer casualties (including a drunken, poetic Irvine) as Canton leaves to bring help. Watson and Averill return to Champion's charred and smoking cabin and discover his body along with a handwritten letter documenting his last minutes alive.
The next day, Averill reluctantly joins the settlers, with their cobbled-together siege machines and explosive charges, in an attack against Canton's men and their own makeshift fortifications. Again both sides suffer heavy casualties before the U.S. Army, with Canton in the lead, arrives to stop the fighting and save the remaining besieged mercenaries. Later, at Watson's cabin, Bridges, Watson and Averill prepare to leave for good, but are ambushed by Canton and two others who shoot and kill Bridges and Watson. After killing Canton and his men, a grief-stricken Averill holds Watson's body in his arms.
About a decade later in the new century, a well-dressed, beardless, but older-looking Averill walks the deck of his yacht off Newport, Rhode Island. He goes below, where an attractive middle-aged woman is sleeping in a luxurious boudoir. Averill watches her, saying nothing. The woman, his old Harvard girlfriend (perhaps now his wife), awakens and asks him for a cigarette. Silently he complies. Then, as he prepares to go back topside, he pauses at the door and quietly looks at her. She doesn't notice his stare. But his chin trembles with emotion, as though he realizes that, for all his wealth and class, he has lost so very, very much in those bloody events in Wyoming. Then, wordlessly, he returns to the deck as the yacht steams onward.
- Kris Kristofferson as James Averill
- Christopher Walken as Nathan D. "Nate" Champion
- Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson
- Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges
- John Hurt as William C. "Billy" Irvine
- Sam Waterston as Frank Canton
- Brad Dourif as Mr. Eggleston
- Joseph Cotten as The Reverend Doctor
- Paul Koslo as Mayor Charlie Lezak
- Geoffrey Lewis as Trapper Fred
- Richard Masur as Cully
- Ronnie Hawkins as Major Wolcott
- Terry O'Quinn as Captain Minardi
- Mickey Rourke as Nick Ray
- Tom Noonan as Jake
- Roseanne Vela as Beautiful girl
- Willem Dafoe (uncredited)