Due to the sheer length of Hevean’s Gate (1980) I have decided to watch it in two parts, just over the hour mark tonight (8/11/14) and I feel that I should hold back until I have seen beyond the Johnson County War horses ride off into town. My initial thoughts are that Michael Cimino for all he is now known for, almost bankrupting a studio by blowing his budget, his film truncated for theatrical release he has produced (only looking at the first half of the directors cut) a masterpiece that is the scale of a David Lean, cover vast stretches of even just one state, the emotional depth of a George Stevens and the romanticism of Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). If that is even possible for a man who only a few years before caused uproar with The Deer Hunter (1978) has taken on a dark page in his countries own past, as it turned on the immigrants who tried to make a life for themselves, as the Americans years before once did. I can’t wait to see how the town react to the state and even country whose middle class army turn on the people who make the country so rich.
I could only wait a single night to complete this epic of a film, putting the label to shame when applied to The Big Country (1958) somewhat. I could see the length issue, needing to bring it in to theatrical release friendly length, which would only hinder the film. Noticing scenes which could be cut back, none entirely removed. Everything is in there for a purpose, prolonged to enjoy the spectacle of their integration with American’s who here are living alongside one another in peace. An issue that has become a hot topic in the UK with the borders within the EU for free movement the influx of people from all over Europe, which is having an effect on the fabric of the nation, its politics and infrastructure. I’m just glad we have moved on even from the 1950’s and the comments of Enoch Powell wanting to pay each immigrant to leave. That’s was progress when compared to the extremes which the US government went to in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 with immigrant causing “near anarchy”. This conflict between the towns people enabled by the President versus the immigrants is the backdrop for this dusty dramatic epic.
Beginning in 1870 when two friends are graduating from university it seems that the possibilities are endless for James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Englishman Billy Irvine (John Hurt) in a sequence that is full of great promise for all the young men and the adoring women who join them in dance and celebration. We can see the beginning of something special for James and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) which’s brought to an abrupt close with cut to twenty years later and the shooting of an immigrant from a shadowy figure from behind a sheet, the figure – Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), of authority is looming in, wanting to control if not quell the bubbling situation of fear that is brewing out in Johnson County 1890.
We can see the speed of development in the country, as we cut to not a boom town, but a booming metropolis of a busy main street, horses pulling trailers, men in shops kitting themselves out in the latest suits and guns. It’s still very much a mans world. It doesn’t quite fit for James/Jim who quickly leaves for his homestead where we find Ella waiting for him. He has all he needs, a sheriffs job and a woman who makes him happy, what more does he want. The fear of a list of 125 names made up by cattle men who fear the influx of new Europeans. His friend Billy‘s revealed to be a weak man of only clever words and ideals that get him nowhere in the West kept alive only by his class that.
Before the conflict begins we’re treated to over an hour getting to know the people of the county that have shaped it, reminding us of the fabric the growing country then and now. Something that is the foundation of most countries that is sometimes forgotten. It’s a rich tapestry of scenes that are woven together to give us an image of a cohesive community that ultimately stand-up and fight the cattle men. Ignoring the law that was behind this influx of men is long coasts riding over the countryside with guns in hand, ready to deliver justice.
With all the grand imagery that is the overwhelming factor that makes this film so enjoyable and rewarding. We see a lot of dust in the air, brought up by the wheels on the ground, the sub seeping through the windows. Visually its splendid to watch, taking us to a dirty rough and ready. It falls down on the characterisation, the old friends only have a few scenes together. Cimino is doing what I do when documenting my work, he “milks it” squeezing everything out of his scenes, allowing them to play out. A lot is going on, it’s hard to see where any cuts were made for this final directors cut. We could easily have a documentary cut of the film seeing a historical account of the conflict rather than that characters. The only characters that are really focused is within the love triangle which’s tolerated and not tested. Jeff Bridges is given a few scenes as John L. Bridges who protects Ella more than anything. The ending is probably my only major fault that never really says anything, asking more questions, whose the girl who sits before a very much hurt James who cannot seem to move on. Maybe this ambiguity that has allowed such respect to build up around this film that is unique from any other in the Western genre.
If we take only one thing away from this controversial landmark film it is the visual detail, the love devotion that goes into every scene, every frame even. We should forget about the controversy behind the film, the massive budget, the incredible number of takes. However it does mark the end of an era in Hollywood film-making, the loss of directorial control, the creative reins have been now pulled in considerably. We still get the rare film that from Terrence Mallick and Scorsese which has their stamp all over it. Now we have films that are generated out of successful franchises, reboots and superhero universes that are proven to make a massive box-office return. The studio has won out, thank god for the indie film.
I originally dismissed McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) on the basis that I could hardly hear the actors talking, the action was slow and the soundtrack was much the same too. Then as I learnt more about the film, the director, the 1970’s and revisionist westerns I had to return and find out what it was really about, instead of being shallow and dismissive. Finding something I have found before with other director such as Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who left their mark on the then dying genre. Breathing new life into it, for however short a time it was. McCabe & Mrs Miller feels as modern as Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) (which I really should watch again). The tone and look of the film more realistic with Robert Altman in the chair, than most of my favourite westerns. The men and women in turn of the century America talking about modern issues, such as how to trim facial hair or to a buy out of property.
What begins as a lone man (John McCabe/ Warren Beatty) wanting to start out on his own a new brothel in an old mining town. He arrives complete with his own reputation that precedes him, a killer of a politician, someone to be feared or respected. He knows what he wants. He main weapons are really charm, cunning and little business acumen. All that he really needs. The townspeople led by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) welcome him and his new venture, a sure winner in a town populated of mainly men. Yet its not overtly adult, there are excited men, at the site of prostitutes in this mountain town, they are a welcome addition. Life just goes on.
Things are going along smoothly for McCabe until he encounters Constance Miller (Julie Christie) a professional Madam who knows a good thing when she see’s it, joining up with McCabe, they form a casual relationship, which on-screen is confused, we never know what they are, they share a bed, the profits, yet its never overtly dealt with, it’s private and confused, like life I guess. She shakes up the business, bringing a different class of prostitutes with her, something the clients will really like and pay good money for.
For a film set in a “whore house” we don’t really see any sex, we know it happens upstairs, it’s just a part of the fabric, so why show it? Things start to fall apart for McCabe with the arrival of two men wanting to buy him out, what could be a profitable venture for him goes ever so wrong, his bravado gets the better of him, and later it gets him.
Only two years into a new century, the ways of the old west, the “whore house” is still a nice venture, yet ways of doing business are changing, to McCabe’s misfortune treating it as a game and little else. He has something pretty good and doesn’t want to part with it. An independent man, who can support himself, proud of his empire, to give it up so easy is not his way. A way that is becoming more cut-throat.
The finale is not what I expected, the atmosphere shifts from a happy mining town, to one greedy for development and change. A quiet gun fight in the snow, are we seeing a legendary gunfighter take up his gun once more, or a man fighting for his life. Whilst Miller, a woman strong on the surface seems to give into addiction, something rarely seen in westerns, simply glossed over, everyone is having problems. The final shootout has more cunning here, unlike the poorly remade fight in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which felt hollow, there was no cunning or wanting to survive, unlike here in the heavy snow that made the stakes even for both men. As the old west was dying, so had the men who wouldn’t change with it.
I’m glad I finally revisited this gem, that pleased me on many levels, the lighting which was far more accurate, as I have worked with myself, reflecting more the time, left very much in the dark. Whilst the sound quality was poor, I soon adjusted and paid even more attention, adding another layer to this modern classic. Which would be far less without Leonard Cohen‘s soundtrack which swept us off to a bygone era when life was simpler yet so much harder. Coming across as bittersweet as Bob Dylan‘s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), demonstrating a real change in tone in the 70’s for the genre, using contemporary music for the soundtrack.
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) (templeofschlock.blogspot.co.uk)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) (cinepinion.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Films of Warren Beatty-“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) (mark-markmywords.blogspot.co.uk)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (mymoviemusings.wordpress.com)