On the heels of his success with "The Deer Hunter" director Michael Cimino was officially "hot". For his next feature he would take on the well-worn Western genre with a movie about Wyoming's Johnson County War of the 1890s. Cimino assembled an all-star cast which included Cristopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke and others and set off for the wilds of Montana's Glacier National Park to capture what he was sure would be indelible images that would set the spirit soaring and underpin his epic tale of greed, pride and frontier fortitude.

Almost immediately the production fell behind schedule due to Cimino's, uh, let's be kind and say "attention to detail". This included tearing down and rebuilding entire sets for reasons that were never entirely clear to the crew and doing as many as 50 takes for some scenes. Another result of Cimino's obsessive behavior was that the $7.5 million budget ballooned to $44 million dollars, making it easily the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. Though the studio tired of Cimino's antics and considered replacing him at various points they never did and Cimino ultimately wound up delivering a movie that was 5 hours 25 minutes in length. United Artists forced him to edit it down for release but his edited version still wound up a corpulent 3 hours 39 minutes long. What's a studio to do? They released it on November 19, 1980.

After a week of empty theaters and scathing reviews the film was pulled, re-edited then re-released. Still, no one came. While the movie did manage to conjure up some amazing imagery any good vibes created by them were undermined by story telling that had all the energy of an empty room. The film wound up grossing around $3 million dollars - which qualifies it as one of the biggest bombs in movie history - and pulled United Artists down with it.

In the bigger picture Heaven's Gate almost single-handedly killed the Western as a popular form of film entertainment. It would take many years before the likes of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" would breath some new life into the genre. Another result of Cimino's excesses was that studios would no longer be willing to simply sign the checks and get out of the way. In the aftermath of Heaven's Gate the director would almost always have a studio rep standing over his shoulder. The film would also receive an "unacceptable" rating from the American Humane Association (AHA) due to several reports that came from the set alleging animal abuse. Those reports would lead the Screen Actor's Guild to authorize the AHA to monitor the use of animals in all subsequent films. A practice that continues to this day.

As for Cimino himself Heaven's Gate closed behind him. Almost overnight he went from Hollywood hotshot to untouchable. He would ultimately direct four more feature films although all of them were box office flops with is last, 1996's "The Sunchaser" earning $21,508 at the box office.

"Heaven's Gate". A film still in search of an audience.