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‘Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision’ by Charles Elton (review)

Written by Charles Elton
Published by Abrams Books


Interesting, if flawed book that makes a noble effort to defend filmmaker Michael Cimino, who is widely believed to have basically bankrupted the studio United Artists due to hubris and ego during the making of his notorious Western, Heaven’s Gate.

Author Charles Elton does his best to detail Cimino’s upbringing in the early chapters, but the filmmaker was prone to exaggeration and fabrication, so even Elton admits that despite interviewing childhood friends he was only able to paint a hazy portrait.

Cimino’s time as a celebrated and in-demand commercial director is covered, followed by his segue into screenwriting and his directorial debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

That film – starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges – was a job for hire for Cimino but it accomplished the goal of getting his foot into the feature-filmmaking door, which he parlayed into making the extremely troubled but ultimately Oscar-winning Vietnam film, The Deer Hunter.

Cimino immediately moved on to Heaven’s Gate, the production of which made The Deer Hunter’s look like a walk in the park.

The budget ballooned, with simple scenes such as lead actor Kris Kristofferson walking down the street leading to Cimino hiring hundreds of extras, which of course required major expenses in hair, makeup, costumes, catering, etc.

Elton doesn’t justify Cimino’s behavior at all times, but he does acknowledge that much of the cast and crew enjoyed working with him on the film – for a while. But after months and months of filming in remote Montana locations, it got really old.

Elton rightly claims that the director’s cut of Gate is a bit of a mess, but also one of the great American Westerns. He also takes strides to point out that behind the scenes studio politics had as much to do with United Artists bankruptcy as anything else.

The story of Heaven’s Gate was already covered in the 1985 Steven Bach book, Final Cut. Elton obviously has no love for Bach or his book; he rather often accuses him of inaccuracy.

(On a personal note, I spoke with a crew member a few years ago who worked on the entirety of the Heaven’s Gate shoot and he had a much more positive view of the book’s accuracy).

Regardless, Cimino was persona non grata in Hollywood for years, but was able to make a few more films.  He was actually slated to direct FOOTLOOSE, which, with his ballet background and interest in exploring the lead character’s blue collar roots (á la The Deer Hunter), isn’t as absurd as it might sound.

Like a lot of recent film books, this does at times read like a very long magazine article, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I do take issue with the typos and factual errors, however (Clint Eastwood did not direct the original The Beguiled, for example).

I think this book would be best appreciated by students of film who aren’t as familiar with Cimino or the Heaven’s Gate affair. But I’d recommend Final Cut as a counterpoint.



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