A Movie Flop Recreates the Western
By Mike Pizzolato
In 1980, Michael Cimino directed the vast, panoramic western movie of a conflict between Wyoming land barons and immigrants during the time of the Johnson County Wars in the 1890s.
The movie was 1980's Heaven's Gate, starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken. Cost overruns by an overbearing, perfection-seeking director and scathing critical reviews sank the film into insurmountable debt and bankrupted United Artists as it became one of the biggest bombs in movie history, ending a renaissance in film-making and changing the western movie forever from the dependable box office prospect it once was 1970's renaissance era to the more risky business venture it now is in today's blockbuster age.
More importantly, these changes forever changed how success is gauged in movies, taking film from the quality of storytelling measure it once had to the cash cow standard of success it now holds, at great cost to the classic western in cinema.
As the post-war generation came of age in the 1960s, the cultural revolution, the advent of television and an anti-trust court decision that went against the studios years earlier, along with a spate of savvy, film-school educated directors and entertainers were about to make the old studio system obsolete and usher in a new era.
When the 1963 epic Cleopatra with its colossal budget fared well at the box office but still lost big money, the time was ripe for change.
After the 1969 success of the new movie Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Boom directors wrested power from the studios, as illustrated when producer and star of the movie Warren Beatty signed a deal for 40% of the movie's gross. When the film dazzled the public with its creativity and inventiveness, a new wave in American movies was on.
A movie rebirth began that reflected the cultural changes of the time. Movies took on a new flair, influenced by overseas films and something called French New Wave. Now, a new style of film known in most circles as or New Hollywood was taking America by storm.
As movie critic Roger Ebert put it in his review of Bonnie and Clyde: "The movie opened like a slap in the face. American filmgoers had never seen anything like it..."
Directors were given the green light to film and budget their own movies while studio executives took a back seat. Character-driven and art-centric work as well as lively action films dominated the moviescape. Films with an independent style, yet often created by major studios, flourished critically and financially. Directors put their unique stamp on movies with new narrative techniques, on-location shootings, unresolved endings that provoked thought and snappy, real world dialogue the way everyday people talked.
Cinema also began to show a harsh, grim visual reality with gory, authentic-looking violence. In addition, sensuality and sex was openly reflected with full female nudity.
In westerns, directors like Sam Peckinpah brought to film a realism of story and character, as well as an entirely new violent persona. Gone were scenes where the injured or shot-up victim turned from the camera as he clutched his wound so as to spare the viewer from such a ghastly sight. Through the use of squibs (first used in Bonnie and Clyde), small explosives packed with stage blood under actors' clothes now seemed to rip like real bullets through bodies as wounds exploded in living Technicolor while recently developed hi-tech cameras recorded each drop and spurt of gore.
"Bloody Sam," as he was nicknamed, left a troubled legacy of damaged relations, personal demons and alcoholism that adversely affected his career, but his work in movies like The Wild Bunch and in modern Westerns like Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Junior Bonner, as well as his writing on TV Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and The Rifleman (which he created) greatly enhanced the western as a popular venue on film.
And to Sam, who had earned a B.A. in drama from Fresno State and a Masters from USC, he was just bringing truth and reality into his work.
"I don't hold with the Hollywood crap that show wars as being pretty and getting shot at fun," Peckinpah once told long-time Hollywood reporter Shirley Eder. "It's not. I just tell it the way it is."
Meanwhile in the 1970s, the New Hollywood era saw some of the most important western movies ever made, like The Shootist, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Magnificent Seven Ride, The Train Robbers, Chisum, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Joe Kidd, Rio Lobo, and Little Big Man.
Significantly, the era that produced unrestrained creative freedom in 1970s moviemaking had also created many of cinema's most extraordinary movies, such as The Graduate, Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The French Connection, Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, Catch-22, Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.
However, by 1980, Cimino's western tale, Heaven's Gate, was bogged down in cost overruns and studio executives were nervous with good reason. The director's unprecedented contract allowed him almost total control over the film, and his self-indulgence and obsession with perfection did the project in. Work fell behind schedule almost immediately, and he even demanded that entire sets be re-done and resized if they were only a few feet off measure. He installed expensive irrigation systems to make fields look greener to the camera, while his numerous retakes of the most insignificant scenes compounded the costly delays that had already bogged down filming.
After Heaven's Gate had been released to universal disdain from critics and to wide disinterest from the public, it was time to count the cost. The final tally was not pleasant: a film with a price tag upwards of $44 million had brought in a paltry $3.5 million in what is now universally regarded as the worst movie in cinematic history.
Cimino, an Oscar winner and rising star in the industry, was suddenly a has-been director with a reputation in shambles from which he would never recover. When the dust settled from this move flop along with another movie, Francis Ford Coppola's financially-disastrous One from the Heart two years later, not only had the Western genre gone down in flames but so had American New Wave.
Yet shortly before that, two films would change everything and lead moviedom into a new era. After Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975 became a huge summer movie hit and George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977 became the next one, studios began to reassert control. By the mid-1980s, studios had regained the production and promotion budgets and were also boosting commercial success with movie merchandise tie-ins while aiming for high-profit paydays we now call summer blockbusters.
Over time, corporations began to buy up studios, and the film school-educated, story-driven directors of New Hollywood eventually faded away, replaced by pragmatic, studio-trained ones with a corporate mentality and an eye on the box office. Similarly, there was no longer a Sam Peckinpah or John Ford out there cranking out westerns.
Consequently, the bar for success in today's movie making has changed. In today's Blockbuster Era, the quality of storytelling often takes a back seat to box office receipts, while the renowned, story-driven yet visually exciting westerns of the past seem gone forever. If a movie does not make money, it is considered a flop even if it is a well-told story.
Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), by nearly all accounts one of the best movies ever made, was far from a financial success after the lengthy film was heavily edited for the American market. But in that renaissance era, moviemakers had an eye for film and faith in the public's ability to appreciate quality work. Despite its weak showing at the box office, Once Upon a Time in the West was a movie masterpiece, a landmark film that influenced the tone and style of cinematic storytelling and led to the production of many more successful films.
Undoubtedly, studios are rightly concerned and cautious about making films, and financially successful films allow them to make more movies for us. It is true, of course, that a Heaven's Gate situation, when an obsessive director has too much control over a film, can sink an era and a genre with just one movie.
Nevertheless, the studios do not make enough western movies. Often they give up too easily for long stretches after a western fares poorly at the box office, despite intense interest in the genre from young and old fans alike. Sometimes the entire genre is left to shoulder the blame for an unpopular movie when a number of other cultural and economic factors may be at fault.
Most important of all, this raises an important question: isn't denying production of the next Once Upon a Time in the West almost as corrosive for cinema as allowing production of Heaven's Gate once was?
- Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Rock n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind. © 1998 Simon and Shuster Paperbacks.
- Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s, by David Zinman. © 1986 Crown Publishers, New York.
- Sam Peckinpah Interviews, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. © 2008 University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.
- The 100 Greatest Entertainers: 1950-2000, edited by Cynthia Grisolia. © 2000 Time, Inc. Home Entertainment .
- A HISTORY OF AMERICAN NEW WAVE CINEMA
- Roger Ebert - Bonnie and Clyde
Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.