Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Heaven's Gate (1980)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Heaven's Gate (1980)

In pretentious, overindulgent, auteur writer/director Michael Cimino's expensive 'boondoggle' film and revisionistic epic western that bankrupted United Artists studio - it told about the Johnson County Wars between starving Eastern European immigrant farmers arriving on the frontier, and mercenaries hired by the cattlemen in the 1890s. After Cimino's success two years earlier with the Best Picture winning The Deer Hunter (1978) (with a total of five Oscars), the studio gave him a financial blank-check and unprecedented creative control. Cimino spent $44 million dollars - about 5 times over budget, on the film that soon became a major box-office flop with only $3.5 million in revenue.

The ponderous (at 3 hours and 39 minutes) and flawed film (with beautiful cinematography and art direction, but often muffled dialogue) included abundant nudity, violence throughout, undeveloped characters in a love triangle, a cock fight, a country-western roller-skating dance sequence, and a lengthy series of fierce and bloody Johnson County battles at film's end.

When the film was initially released in November of 1980, it was in theaters about a week - and savaged by reviews, so Cimino pulled the film, removed about an hour from the director's cut, and re-released it back into theaters in the spring, when it made only about $1.5 million in additional box office revenue.

After many years of reflection, Cimino's over-budget, under-rated silver-screen epic has been re-evaluated as one of the era's most indelible and beautiful works of filmic art, with stunning camera work from legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, great actors (Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, French actress Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, and Sam Waterston, plus more), and a stirring true-to-life story of the Johnson County Wars.

  • in the opening set-piece prologue, swirling couples danced to Strauss' Blue Danube waltz on the Harvard College lawn (in Cambridge, MS) following graduation in 1870 - especially the couple of privileged James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and his beautiful admirer (Roseanne Vela); the graduates listened to Jim's upper-class, conservative orator friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt)
  • twenty years later in the early 1890s, the scene shifted to the frontier, where the gorgeous cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond showcased panoramic views of Wyoming frontier landscapes; his camera captured the beauty of a passenger train that was loaded up with Central and Eastern European immigrants coming westward to seek their fortunes by farming
  • poor immigrant Michael Kovach (Aivars Smits) was brutally killed as a suspected rustler and illegal butcherer of cattle (necessary to feed his starving family) - leaving a round shotgun blast hole in a sheet; the killer was viewed through the hole - mercenary bounty-hunter Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) - he had been commissioned as a mercenary or "enforcer" working for various cattlemen (who regularly suspected immigrants of rustling) of the Stockgrowers Association; as he rode along the long, endless line of migrants streaming toward Casper, WY, he swore: "Stupid. Goddamn ignorant bastards. Go back to where you came from!"
  • by now, the Harvard-educated James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) had become a Sheriff out west, and was serving as the US Federal Marshal of Johnson County (Wyoming); he was returning by passenger train to Johnson County from St. Louis, bringing a beautiful new Arabian horse and carriage for his girlfriend; at the last train stop in Casper, Wyoming, he disembarked along with thousands of immigrants who were riding atop the train
  • Averill spoke to his friend - the Irish train station master Cully (Richard Masur), conversing about the objectionable overcrowding of the town and surrounding area, and the growing violence against immigrants who were butchering steers: ("A citizen steals to keep his family from starvin,' and they threaten him off or kill him"); Averill also learned about a hired group of gunslingers: ("a big mob from all over the northwest") brought in to eliminate the immigrant threat, subsidized by the local Wyoming Stockgrowers Association (a group of rich cattle ranchers and barons) that objected to the rapid influx of settlers
  • a nearby board meeting of the Association in town - a 'gentlemen's club' - was headed up by villainous and evil Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), who was preparing to gather together a posse of hired mercenaries to hunt down immigrants that only "pretend to be farmers"; to a large group of well-dressed community leaders, Canton expressed his distaste for the law-breaking migrants who were stealing cattle: "We know many of them to be thieves and anarchists openly preying on our ranges"; in the gathered group, US Cavalry Major Wolcott (Ronnie Hawkins) added his support for the radical plan to rid the county of migrants: "They're an ignorant, degraded gang of paupers. Their only stock in trade consists of having large numbers of ragged kids"; Canton took it upon himself to establish vigilante law against the "thieves and anarchists": "Unenforced law is an invitation to anarchy. Consequently, the Stockgrowers' Association will now and publicly wipe out these thieves and anarchists"

Stockgrowers Association Head Frank Canton (Sam Waterston)

US Cavalry Major Wolcott (Ronnie Hawkins)

Billy Irvine's (John Hurt) Objection to the Association's Plan
  • 50 gunmen were recruited and promised $5 a day and $50 a head for every cattle thief that was shot or hanged; Canton's plan was clear-cut: "We will go to Johnson County, we will depose the incompetent civil authority there, and we will keep possession of the town until we can take charge of the courts"; he also added that the names of 125 small farmers had been compiled on a 'death list' to be targeted
  • in the audience was Sheriff Averill's friend from Harvard, Billy Irvine, stood up and objected to the horrific plan: "Gentlemen, to kill 125 people, all at one time. Well, that'll only further prejudice public opinion against ourselves. So I'm going to move that we stop , right here"; Canton reiterated that he had the full support of the top echelon of leaders in the US government beginning with the state's governor: "He asserted in the most positive terms his wholehearted support, as well as that of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the President of these United States. If we fail, the flag of the United States fails"; a roll-call voice vote of all the members in the room agreed to Canton's campaign
  • moments later in the pool table area of the gentlemen's club, Billy informed Sheriff Averill (who had been blackballed from the Association long ago, but was "trespassing") about the Association's deadly plans with a "death list"; Averill confronted Canton and entered into an altercation with him - warning him (and his bounty hunters) to stay out of Johnson County; they exchanged punches with each other
  • that evening, Canton spoke to a gathering of men outside the train station: "We plan to publicly wipe out 125 thieves, anarchists and outlaws," and was recruiting for 25 more men to fulfill his plan; they would be paid $5/day plus expenses and $50 for every thief and anarchist shot or hung
  • Sheriff Averill drove his carriage to the small town of Sweetwater (in Johnson County) during construction of the growing town; he arrived as the locals were betting on a cock fight; Averill lived in a hotel managed by John Bridges (Jeff Bridges), a local entrepreneur who had built the roller skating rink known as "Heaven's Gate," and was troubled by the increasing violence toward the town's immigrants; when Averill informed him about the 125 names on the "death list," Bridges reacted: "That's almost everybody in the county. How can people declare war on a whole county?...It's gettin' dangerous to be poor in this country"
  • Averill found romance on the Western frontier of Wyoming with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a young Johnson County bordello madam from Quebec; after Sheriff Averill arrived back home, Ella served him pie for breakfast while stripping down at the table; she tempted him to hungrily follow her as she ran naked to the bedroom; afterwards, he gave her birthday presents - a horse and a carriage rig; shortly after she received the gifts, they rode to a beautiful mountain stream where she went skinny-dipping in the refreshing water before they picnicked together and she talked about their future
Bordello Madam Ella Watson In a Romance With Sheriff Averill - Skinny-Dipping
  • in the Heaven's Gate dance hall during a roller-skating sequence, a young skating fiddler boy named John DeCory (David Mansfield, the film's music composer) (credited as a Skating Violinist) stirred up the audience by playing his violin-fiddle while joining everyone in circling the ring
  • tensions quickly developed in a love triangle in the town of Sweetwater between Ella and her two deadly lovers: Sheriff Jim Averill and Nathan Champion (who was one of Ella's paying customers); Averill was notifed that Champion was murdering migrants in Sweetwater; Averill confronted Champion over his love of Ella and told him: "It's gettin' dangerous here and I want Ella to leave"
The Love Triangle

Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) with Ella

Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert)

Sheriff Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson)
  • Averill became shocked when he was made aware that Ella had been placed on the 'death list' for accepting cattle as payment for her hookers ("she takes stolen cattle in payment for carnal pleasures"); Averill took out his frustrations by punching out Champion (found in the company of Ella), and then told Ella: "The association's got a death list. And your name's on it"; Ella tried to come between them and stop their feuding, when Champion admitted that he had asked Ella to marry him, and vowed to protect her: "I'm not gonna let anythin' happen to you. I never have before"
  • Ella spoke to Averill privately and contrasted the difference between the two men: ("You buy me things. He asked me to marry him"); Champion tried to divide Ella from Averill: "Jim ain't your friend, Ella. He ain't nobody's friend. He'll quit anybody if it suits him"; at his cabin, Champion showed off his wallpaper to Ella as a way "to civilize the wilderness"
  • Averill's train-station master friend Cully in Casper attempted to ride on horseback to warn the settlers that they were about to be attacked by a posse of cattlemen and gunslingers led by Canton, that was heading their way on a train with the death warrants, but he was murdered in the countryside before his warnings could be delivered
  • the migrants assembled for a community meeting inside the "Heaven's Gate" skating arena where Sheriff Averill warned: "There's an armed mob of paid men about to invade your county. With the open threat to destroy the lives and property of your friends. The Stockgrowers' Association has the names of some of you people on the list. 125 names" - and he began reading the names
  • meanwhile, in a shocking scene after Ella returned home from Champion's cabin, she found three Association men awaiting her arrival; her prostitutes in the upstairs had been beaten (or killed?), and she was forcibly raped by the men for her role in accepting stolen cattle ("cash or cattle") as payment for her prostitutes; Averill came upon the scene and sought revenge by shooting and killing all but one of the rapists; when Champion rode up a few moments later, Averill reprimanded Champion for his wrongful association with Canton: "Maybe you understand better the kind of people you're workin' for now. The tragedy, Nate, is you people were in the right - legally. But they just threw that away"
  • an angered Champion rode off and entered Canton's camp tent where he shot the remaining rapist Morrison (Jack Conley) in the forehead - and then - with a change of heart - defied Canton's murderous plans: ("You'd better have a guaranteed warrant for every name on that list...You people make me sick!")

Nathan Champion Challenging Canton: "You'd better have a guaranteed warrant for every name on that list"

Villainous Frank Canton
  • when Canton wouldn't back down to Champion: "Let's not have any last-minute sentimentalism about killing a few thieves and anarchists," Champion challenged him to demonstrate that he could still kill a man; Canton replied by bragging about his ancestry and asserting that the killing of the immigrants was sanctioned by the President himself: "My grandfather was the Secretary of War to Harrison. His brother was a Governor of the State of New York. My brother-in-law is the Secretary of State. And, to you, I represent the full authority of the Government of the United States and the President"; Champion wasn't interested: "F--k him too!"; Canton demanded total lawful obedience from Champion: "You were hired to enforce the law. We are the law"; to prove himself, Canton rushed outside to follow after Champion and to demonstrate his steely resolve, he brutally and cold-bloodedly pulled the trigger of his gun aimed at the head of a captured immigrant helplessly tied to a wagon-wheel
  • back in Ella's place, she and Averill spoke about her "inconvenient" love for two men; Averill became upset when Ella wouldn't heed his warnings to leave town, rationalizing that she would have to give up everything: ("Everything I have in the world is here. I can't just walk out and leave it"); he wished she would save herself and not worry about her things; he called her a "dumb whore"; to assure him of her love, Ella implied that she was Averill's girlfriend and told him: "I never cheated on you. I always made Nate pay," but he remained upset with her for not following his advice to leave, for 'playing' both of them, and for capitulating to Nate's proposal of a respectable marriage: "Well, you take it all. Both of you. It's more your country than mine anyway. Goodbye, Ella"; he returned to his room in town and got drunk
  • in his room, when the drunken Averill refused to be pressured by a group of merchants and storekeepers led by Mayor Lezak (Paul Koslo) to assist the Association in rounding up the migrants legally ("to offer to help turn in the people on the list"), Averill was fired as Sheriff; he refused to be fired, but then quit voluntarily
  • meanwhile in a fiery death scene, Champion (who had been singled out by the Association) was killed in a barrage of gunfire by evil leader Canton's hired guns, and suffered a 'last-stand' death outside his interior wall-papered frontier cabin (set on fire) as he emerged with guns blazing from the cabin; Champion had hastily hand-written a farewell note to Ella - knowing that he would die

Mr. Eggleston (Brad Dourif)
Migrants Assembled With Arms to Fight Back
  • at another community meeting of migrants in the roller rink, pharmacist Mr. Eggleston (Brad Dourif), the head of the Chamber of Commerce, inspired and urged the people to fight back as a militia; Ella arrived and also warned of Canton's impending plan of slaughter ("They're already here!"); the settlers gathered together to arm themselves with shotguns and pitchforks and ride off to confront the Association directly
  • Ella raced over to Averill's upstairs accommodations and told him of Champion's death; he reacted with indifference: ("I'm not responsible. He knew what was comin' and he made his own decision. And so did you"), and he remained in town, while Ella went to ride with the migrants
  • during the final two-day bloody showdown (the last 30 minutes of the film) between the immigrants and the mercenaries hired by Canton and the Association, there were heavy casualties on both sides leading to a stalemate; Canton departed to seek support from the US Army, leaving the command of the gunslingers to ex-Civil War Major Wolcott (Ronnie Walker)

Ella Riding With the Migrants

Migrants Circling Canton's Men

Canton and His Men Firing Back at Attacking Migrants
  • meanwhile, during a visit to Champion's charred and smoking cabin, Ella and Averill (who had decided to join the migrants) discovered Champion's corpse and his last words in the letter to Ella: ("It don't look as if there's much chance of my getting away. I hope they did not hurt Ella. The house is all fired. Goodbye, Ella and Jim, if I never see you again. Nathan D Champion")
  • more intense fighting again erupted, as Averill taught the immigrants the use of a very effective Roman offensive maneuver (the use of mobile or wheeled barricades assembled with horse-drawn carts and logs), plus the hurling of sticks of dynamite to break through the Association's defenses - the tide of battle was beginning to turn in the migrants' favor, when the US Army (led by Canton) arrived to interrupt the field of battle and end the "anarchy" in Johnson County after the slaughter was essentially over; Averill realized that the arrest of the Association's mercenaries by the military was merely a means to rescue them: ("Rescuin' was what you're doin'"), and to protect them from future criminal and legal charges
The Settlers' Use of Wheeled Defensive Barricades
  • at Ella's cabin with John Bridges, Sheriff Averill and Ella were dressed in their finest clothes, ready to leave town and Johnson County; as they prepared to leave in a carriage, they were victims of a shocking, surprise ambush by Canton and his men; both Ella and John Bridges were lethally wounded; Sheriff Averill shot back and killed Canton and his men, but his lost love Ella died in his arms (wearing a beautiful white dress)

Before Ambush (l to r): Bridges, Ella, and Sheriff at Ella's Cabin

Ella Dying in Sheriff Averill's Arms
  • in the final almost wordless, despairing coda or epilogue about a decade later, Averill now appeared miserable and unemotional, quietly lost and adrift in his recollections (about his lost love with Ella and the genocidal massacre) as a rich yacht captain living on his steamer off Newport, Rhode Island in 1903 with his middle-aged wife (his waltz partner in the opening scene at Harvard, and the woman in the framed picture he kept with him); the film's last words were her request of him: "I'd like a cigarette" - and he obliged her

Harvard Grad in 1870 - James Averill (Kris Kristofferson)

The Harvard College Lawn Whirling Waltz - 1870

Immigrant Train Bringing Migrants to the Western Frontier in the 1890s

Killing of Suspected Cattle Thief - Immigrant Michael Kovach by Mercenary Bounty Hunter Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken)

Endless Line of Immigrants Streaming By Foot into Casper, Wyoming

Sheriff Jim Averill 20 Years Later in Casper, WY with Train's Station Master Cully (Richard Masur)

The Bustling Western Town of Casper, Wyoming

Averill Confronting Canton in Club About "Death List"

Averill's Friend John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) in Sweetwater

Bordello Madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), Averill's Girlfriend in Sweetwater

Ella Receiving Sheriff's Gift of Horse and Carriage

Fiddler Boy John DeCory (David Mansfield) During Roller-Skating Dance Scene in Heaven's Gate Dance Hall

Sheriff Averill Confronting Champion Over the Killings and The Love of Ella

Station Master Cully Murdered in the Countryside While Attempting to Deliver a Warning to Settlers

In Heaven's Gate, Sheriff Averill Warned Settlers of Upcoming Johnson County Wars

The Rape of Ella by Canton's Men for Accepting Cattle as Payment for Her Prostitutes

Averill's Rescue of Ella and Repudiation of Champion

Averill's "Goodbye" To Ella Over Nate

Death of Nathan Champion by Canton's Men Outside His Torched Cabin

Champion's Dying Farewell Letter to Ella Discovered Later

Arrival of Canton with US Army Troops to Arrest Mercenaries

Epilogue in 1903: Sheriff Averill With Waltz Partner on Private Steamer Yacht


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