South of 'Heaven': Steven Soderbergh Cuts an Epic Bomb in Half

The 'retired' film director posts his own shorter re-edited version of 'Heaven's Gate' on his web site

April 28, 2014 9:30 AM ET
Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Heaven's Gate is one of the most notorious cinematic bombs of all time. A 1980 Western about an armed conflict in Wyoming between rich cattlemen and poor farmers, made for a then-astronomical $44 million, it not only destroyed the career of director Michael Cimino (a rising star on the strength of The Deer Hunter) — this marathon-length epic basically put studio United Artists out of business and ended the auteur-driven '70s golden age of Hollywood. Now director Steven Soderbergh has decided to fix it.

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The film was originally released with a running time of over three and a half hours (219 minutes, to be exact); since then, it's been re-edited by various people, including Cimino himself, at various lengths. But last week, director Steven Soderbergh released "Heaven's Gate: The Butcher's Cut" on his own website (which also includes T-shirts and Polaroids for sale, plus year-by-year lists of every movie, TV show, book, and play he's consumed). 

Soderbergh's explanatory note (credited to Mary Ann Bernard, the pseudonym he uses when he's editing) says, "As a dedicated cinema fan, I was obsessed with Heaven's Gate from the moment it was announced in early 1979…unfortunately, history has show[n] that on occasion a fan can become so obsessed they turn violent toward the object of their obsession, which is what happened to me during the holiday break of 2006. This is the result."

"The Butcher's Cut" slices out more than half of Cimino's original version, and if the result isn't a masterpiece, the 108-minute cut makes a case for parts of Heaven's Gate being a forgotten gem. Aside from moving faster throughout, this version truncates the ending (removing the final ambush on Ella and the epilogue on the yacht) and moves the prologue (at Harvard's 1870 graduation) to the end, rendering it more poignant when we know of all the bloodshed that will follow it.

Soderbergh is unafraid to retain languorous sequences of scene-setting, including an odd but memorable musical number at a roller rink. But what stands out in this shorter version are some memorable performances, including Kris Kristofferson as a principled lawman, Jeff Bridges as the roller-rink owner, and especially, a shockingly young Christopher Walken as an enforcer with divided loyalties and unusual line readings.

Soderbergh's final word? The title card that reads "I acknowledge that what I have done with this film is both immoral and illegal."

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