Heaven’s Gate (1980): Soderbergh’s “Butchers Cut”

Heavens GateBy: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –

Have you ever watched a film and thought “With a little tightening here, some rearranging there, and an artistic decision or two made differently, this would be a masterpiece?”  Steven Soderbergh certainly has, but he can actually do something about it.  When Spike Jonze ran into an impasse with Her, he had buddy Soderbergh slap together a 90 minute cut, which gave him some ideas on how to effectively shorten his film by nearly half an hour.  Now Soderbergh’s done it again with the infamously bloated Michael Cimino disasterpiece Heaven’s Gate, cutting the 216 minute film to a brisk 108.  Watch it now before he inevitably has to take it down.

Heaven’s Gate is about a new lawman (Kris Kristofferson) who finds himself plopped down in a conflict between wealthy ranchers and the immigrants they’d like to drive off their land, as well as a love triangle with a vivacious French prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) and one of the ranchers’ hired hitmen (Christopher Walken).


Of course Jeff Bridges is in it, but that’s not him.

A Toast

I won’t add to Oberst’s stellar review of the original, although I did like it a bit more than he did (but we both, and the rest of the world minus one Michael Cimino, think it’s too damn long).  However, I can say Soderbergh’s cut of Heaven’s Gate is still a gorgeously shot, muscularly acted Western with plenty to say about the immigrant experience and the dirty business of the making of America.

Here I’m more interested in praising Soderbergh’s editing, and the film that emerges from it.  He literally cuts it in half, so gone are the protracted 20 minute-plus dancing and roller skating scenes, of course, as well as most of the rather boring love triangle.

Oddly enough, that love triangle is much more effective even with much less time devoted to it, because Walken’s character is much less morally ambiguous.  Honestly, I don’t know if this is necessarily a full improvement (it involves sacrificing most of that iconic slow-burning murder scene at the beginning), but it recasts Walken as an almost noble, tragic figure, and one much more worthy of loving.


Even if dude does look like a lady

I was also ambivalent about the lack of music (David Mansfield’s score is one of the highlights of the original), but when things begin to get more intense the lack of traditional music ramps up that intensity significantly.

The last massive change was in the protracted, boring college scene Cimino opens his film with.  At first, I thought it had been cut entirely, but (FILM NERD SPOILERS, I guess) Soderbergh instead chooses to put it at the end of the film, overlaid with Mansfield’s Heaven’s Gate theme.  After the jarring, cynical, and incredibly impactful end of the climactic battle, this jumps backwards to a more idealistic, happy time, when Kristofferson left college, ready to change the world.  The irony is devastating.

Beer Two

The quality of the copy on Soderbergh’s site isn’t great, but that’s to be expected.  Also, to be fair to Cimino, Soderbergh also excises a fair amount of what made his film memorable to focus on the plot.  Some of the contemplative shots of wide Western vistas and small character moments could certainly have been kept in, and I’d say that hurrying the pace actually saps the power from my two favorite scenes of the original; Walken’s first killing, a scene which builds like a prairie storm on the horizon before striking with electric force, and the long, brutal, hope-destroying cabin shoot-out near the end.



Steven Soderbergh’s stripped-down vision of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate isn’t the definitive version of the film by any means, but it is a fascinating filmmaking exercise, and shows us how a little more reining in by a second talented filmmaking voice might have delivered the masterpiece Cimino was striving for.


Drinking Game

Take a Drink: whenever an immigrant is abused

Take a Drink: whenever Kristofferson is a badass

Do a Shot: Saa-LAP!

Take a Drink: every time John Hurt does (which is pretty much all he does)

Take a Drink: whenever you notice a scene missing from the original cut

Do a Shot: Man, Walken sure looks like a cross-dressing woman, doesn’t he?

About Henry J. Fromage

Movieboozer is a humor website and drinking games are intended for entertainment purposes only, please drink responsibly.

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