Posts Tagged ‘Michael Cimino’

‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’ – An Exhumation

15/09/2013

1492PosterWhenever anyone asks me what my favourite film of all time is, I find it impossible to give a single definitive answer.  However, I usually mention Ridley Scott’s forgotten Columbus epic, 1492: Conquest of Paradise.  Released in October 1992 as part of the 500th Anniversary of the Genoese navigator making landfall in the Caribbean, it was dismissed by most critics and tanked at the US box office, making a measly $7million against a production budget of approximately $40million.  It eventually recovered roughly $50million on its worldwide release, but the producers would still have been left with large black hole in their accounts after marketing costs.

The film well and truly had the wind taken out of its sails right from the beginning.  There was a public backlash against the Columbus 500th Anniversary celebration, particularly from the Native American community who saw him as the instigator of the next 400 years of genocide against them.  Two other Columbus films were released around the same time: a dismally unfunny and puerile Carry On Columbus, which nailed the lid on the Carry On series’ coffin for good, and the just plain dismissal Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which was produced by the Salkind family and has rightly earned a place as one of the most universally awful films of all time.

My personal voyage with 1492

I first saw 1492 on television a few years after its cinema release when I was about 15 with my father.  It received a glowing review in our household’s television guide, Radio Times, (although I seem to remember it was given the full five stars, not the four in the linked review).  Aside from that, I came to the film with no preconceptions or baggage whatsoever and was able to enjoy it for what it truly is.  I had always loved watching films but took no deeper interest in them once the end credits rolled.  However, 1492 changed all that for me.

I had learned about Columbus in school, but never taken any special interest in him.  I had never seen a film adaptation of his life, but considered the tale to be relatively straightforward.  The Radio Times review rightly warns viewers “looking for an old-style adventure to look elsewhere, for this is a dark and brooding piece about colonial exploitation.”

“Dark, bloody and brooding” describes it perfectly.  The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are portrayed in full and while all other film versions have ended with Columbus’ triumphant return from his first voyage, 1492 continues to show the next ten years of his life with his attempts to set up a colony on Hispaniola resulting in the slaughter of the native Indians, civil war and natural disaster.

Columbus’ life ends in poverty and obscurity with fellow-Italian voyager Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered the American mainland c. 1500, taking credit for the new continent’s entire discovery; lock, stock and barrel.  The final screen crawl provides a glimmer of optimism as it informs us that Columbus’ final voyage in 1502 with his son, Fernando, saw them land in Panama where the Indians revealed to them the existence of the Pacific Ocean (thus dispelling the myth that Columbus went to his grave believing that the land he had discovered was the east coast of Asia) and Fernando’s biography of his father restored the name of Columbus to its place in history.

Gérard Depardieu plays the lead role of Columbus.  Although he seems like an odd choice of casting in terms of his thick French accent (some additional voice coaching and post production dialogue rerecording would have helped), but as Empire’s review puts it, “he’s the stand-out – loping around like a particularly charismatic sore-headed bear, and playing triumph, passion and crushing disappointment with equal Gallic aplomb.”

Adrian Biddle’s cinematography (in what looks like natural lighting as per Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) gives the film a European Art House look while Scott uses even more smoke and wind machines than usual, and emphasises key moments with languid slow-motion and zoom shots.

Canadian rent-a-bad-guy Michael Wincott plays Don Adrian de Moxica (probably based on the real-life Adrian de Mojica who did lead a revolt against Columbus on Hispaniola) and gives the most memorable performance of his career.  Previously starring as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he is slimmed down to skeletal proportions, his famous raspy-60-Malboro-Reds-a-day voice has an authentic Spanish accent to it and he turns in a brilliant performance showing contempt both for the commoner Columbus and racist hatred of the Indians, conveying insane evil while staying the right side of hyperbole and ham.  Look out for his almost as dastardly sidekick, Guevara, played by a pre-Mummy/baldness Arnold Vosloo.

The most outstanding element of the film though is Vangelis’ score.  The first time I watched the film, the music did not register with me at all.  I have my father to thank for rewinding the tape so we could listen to the final theme that accompanies the end credits again.  The triumphant “Conquest of Paradise” is quite simply one of the best pieces of music I have ever heard (and that includes all output by Manic Street Preachers, Joy Division and The Verve!) and I can (quite literally) listen to it all day.  The Spanish chants and tribal drums on “Hispanola” make it as good a track as any to wage war and the jungle murmurs of “Moxica And The Horse” (which makes a surprise appearance in Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller, Collateral) is as good a track as any to stalk your foe.

Only half the tracks on the official soundtrack feature in the film and “Hispanola” lurches into a dreadful rock-out organ solo halfway through which was mercifully exercised from the film.  If you search Google, you should be able to find “The Complete Score” which restore gems such as “Porto Palos”, “Departure” and “Return”, albeit with less than perfect sound quality and inclusive of Foley sound effects and snippets of dialogue.  I hope one day an official complete soundtrack album is released.

I had never heard of Ridley Scott nor seen any of his other films; although I was later to learn that he helmed the bona-fide cinematic classics Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise.  After seeing these three films following 1492, Scott became my favourite director of all time and I was really rooting for him prior to the release of Gladiator in 2000 after nearly a decade of critical and commercial flops with 1492, White Squall and G. I. Jane; the first two getting far less critical praise and box office receipts than they deserved.

1492 was a life-changing film for me because it presents a familiar subject in a very unusual way and does not pander to audience expectations.  Whether this is historically accurate or not, Columbus is portrayed as a man who is all too human with strengths as well as weakness, but essentially of good intentions.

Reaction

When I researched the reaction to the film on the Internet, I discovered what a critical and commercial disaster it had been when it was first released.  It currently holds a score of 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, although the public have been slightly kinder and it averages 6.3 on IMDb.

While reviews were mixed-to-negative, between them, the critics seemed to disagree on practically every element of the film as to whether it was a strength or weakness: the casting of Depardieu and his performance, Biddle’s photography, Wincott as the bad guy, Vangelis’ score; everything.  Scott since commented following a viewing of 1492 on Laser Disc that he thought it was “a pretty good film, but not what people were expecting.”

Another charge levelled at the film is that it was heavily cut prior to release.  While Scott has mentioned that in hindsight his initial three hour cut was his preferred version, if you take the time to read an early draft of Roselyn Bosch’s script as I have, it is clear that charges of “pre-release panic cutting” are nonsense.  The largest removal from the script to the final film is the portrayal of Columbus’ final voyage to the New World with Fernando and even then some of the scenes have clearly been merged into the final shooting script so they occur earlier in Columbus’ life.  They are also a number of sensible omissions where the violence lurches into bad taste or the character beats wander into cliché.

Following the success of Gladiator, 1492 was given a DVD release in 2001, predictably containing the marketing line, “From the director of Gladiator”.  When I saw the film on DVD on my father’s then-state-of-the-art Toshiba widescreen, I fell in love with it all over again.  Aside from a few “nicks and cuts” on the film, the picture and sound transfer was superb and the film “flowed” better than ever before.

So far, a Blu Ray version has not been released in the US or the UK, but French and German editions exist.  I recently watched the German edition.  The picture quality is amazing: all imperfections present on the VHS and DVD releases have been removed and the beauty of the cinematography and art direction can shine through.  The sound quality is generally good, although there is some distortion in some of the sound effects, particularly the sea waves.  The original English audio is in place, the text of the opening and end credits are in English, as is the opening screen crawl.  Rather annoyingly, however, the end credit crawl is in German with no English subtitles!

A New Life

The critics’ reviews have not improved significantly with 1492‘s DVD and Blu Ray releases; one reviewer writing in a UK national online newspaper about three years ago published a rather scornful review mocking the historicity and the tone of the film.  (I’m not linking to the review because quite simply I do not want you to read it since it is chocked full of factual errors and childish comments from a critic who clearly does not like to watch films so much as deliberately poke holes in them!)

However, as I recently posted about Michael Cimino’s epic Western Heaven’s Gate – a critical and commercial disaster on its initial release in 1980 – the passage of time can be kind to films previous considered box office poison, and with the baggage removed the film’s true merits can be reassessed and properly appreciated

So with this in mind, I am going to forward this post to the director, the producer, the studio and the score composer’s record company and suggest that the film be given a fully restored and re-cut Blu Ray edition for film’s 25th Anniversary.

Sir Ridley Scott
Scott Free Productions (UK)

42 – 44 Beak Street
London
W1F 9RH

Ilan Goldman
Légende

5 rue Lincoln
75008 Paris
France
Email: legende@legende.fr

Paramount Studio
Contact Form

Warner Music Group
Contact Form

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’

06/09/2013

Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8

I post the videos for Michael Epstein’s superb documentary from 2004, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which is based on former United Artists studio executive Steven Bach’s book, Final Cut: Art, Money and EGO in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the Film That Sank United Artists.

Production

Upon release and for thirty years afterwards, Michael Cimino’s epic western Heaven’s Gate has been shorthand for “cinematic disaster of the very first, second and third orders”.  Following the enormous critical and commercial success of The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, United Artists handed Cimino an $11.5million cheque and allowed him to make his dream picture.

Heaven’s Gate is an epic Western loosely based on the Johnson County War of 1892, with a plot that takes its protagonists Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) from their Harvard graduation to the untamed wilderness of Wyoming to fight a cartel of ruthless cattle barons lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson), who have hired ruthless bounty hunter Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and are determined to wipe out every male Russian immigrant in the county for cattle rustling.  Meanwhile Averill and Champion vie for the affections of French prostitute Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) who runs a bordello in barrens.

What followed has gone down in Hollywood folklore for all the wrong reasons.  Cimino spent the next two years engaging in what the critic Leslie Halliwell described as “self abuse” and the production spiralled out of control, making Francis Ford Coppola’s experiences on Apocalypse Now seem like a low-key art house project.

The original $11.5million budget ballooned to between $35million and $50million and stories flooded the film press during production that Cimino had all but lost his mind by tearing down and rebuilding sets and shooting endless takes.  One story has it that he ordered the set of an entire town to be taken down and rebuilt because he wanted the main street to be six feet wider; he would not accept the crew’s suggestion simply to knock down one side of the set and rebuild it further away from the other.  And the scene where Jim Averill played by Kris Kristofferson is awoken from a drunken stupor by a group of townsfolk and angrily cracks his bullwhip at them took upwards of 50 takes before Cimino was happy.

There were also stories of widespread drug use on set by the cast and crew as well as cruelty to animals.  The American Humane Association has blacklisted the film and it is alleged that real horse and cattle entrails were used in certain scenes and the cockfight scene actually did result in two birds ripping each other apart on set with the cameras rolling.

After months of editing, Cimino finally delivered a cut to studio that was five and half hours long; one executive commented that the climatic shoot out at end between the cattle barons and the immigrants was longer than the entire running time of many “normal” films!

Reception

Cimino eventually had “final cut” on the film and a three and a half hour version was premiered in November 1980 so that it was eligible for nomination at the following year’s academy awards, but the New York critics panned it to smithereens.  Writing for The New York Times, the usually polite and restrained Vincent Canby described it as akin to “a forced, four hour walking tour of one’s own living room” and that “it fails so completely, you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil in return for the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect” before sealing its fate as “an unqualified disaster”.

A story from the film’s New York premiere had it that Cimino wondered aloud why no one was drinking champagne during the interval.  “That’s because they hate the movie, Michael”, came the reply.

When audiences failed to turn up for the first week of release in New York, Cimino panicked.  In a rash move that conceded that the critics were right in their condemnation of the film, Cimino sent an open letter to UA President Andy Albeck by way of full-page adverts Variety and The Hollywood Reporter requesting that the film be pulled from release and re-edited before it went on nationwide release.  UA granted his request and there then followed another frantic five months of editing.  The film re-emerged a leaner, cleaner 165 minutes.  It was different, but it wasn’t better.  Along with the excess of the original version, Cimino had also removed much of its epic scope and character development while the plot made little sense.  The re-released version fared no better at the box office and died a high-profile death.  The domestic box office from its original theatrical run was a mere $3.5million.

Eventually, art director Tambi Larsen took the Heaven Gate’s sole Academy Award nomination, but the film featured prominently at the 1981 Golden Raspberry Awards being nominated for Worst Film, Director, Musical Score and Actor (Kristofferson); “winning” for Worst Director.

Post-Mortem

The film’s failure destroyed UA and it was bought out by MGM shortly afterwards.  Cimino’s career was left in tatters.  Since Heaven’s Gate he has directed a mere four feature-length films; all of them low budget thrillers and indie-pics, with the last one, The Sunchaser, released in 1996.  Although all were brought in on time and on budget, none of them made any money.  Cimino also managed to get himself fired from the helm of Kevin Bacon’s breakout hit, Footloose.  Go figure…

For many years, critics’ and audiences’ opinions remained steadfastly unchanged.  In a recent poll, readers of Empire voted Heaven’s Gate the sixth worst film of all time, while writing in The Guardian in 2008, film critic Joe Queenan had the following to say:

I am firmly in the camp that believes that Heaven’s Gate is the worst movie ever made.  For my money, none of these other films can hold a candle to Michael Cimino’s 1980 apocalyptic disaster.  This is a movie that destroyed the director’s career.  This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business.  This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl.  This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that defies belief.

A friend of mine, now deceased, was working for the public relations company handling Heaven’s Gate when it was released.  He told me that when the 220-minute extravaganza debuted at the Toronto film festival, the reaction was so thermonuclear that the stars and the film-maker had to immediately be flown back to Hollywood, perhaps out of fear for their lives.  No one at the studio wanted to go out and greet them upon their return; no one wanted to be seen in that particular hearse.  My friend eventually agreed to man the limo that would meet the children of the damned on the airport tarmac and whisk them to safety, but only provided he was given free use of the vehicle for the next three days.  After he dropped off the halt and the lame at suitable safe houses and hiding places, he went to Mexico for the weekend.  Nothing like this ever happened when Showgirls or Gigli or Ishtar or Xanadu or Glitter or Cleopatra were released.  Nothing like this happened when The Hottie and the Nottie dropped dead the day it was released.  Heaven’s Gate was so bad that people literally had to be bribed to go meet the survivors. Proving that, in living memory, giants of bad taste once ruled the earth.  Giants.  By comparison with the titans who brought you Heaven’s Gate, Paris Hilton is a rank amateur.

Empire’s DVD review is rather more even-handed, awarding the film three stars out of five and stating:

The film itself… is gorgeous, tranquil, and terribly slow, with shades of Terrence Mallick’s floaty dreams.  For much of the endless running time, the narrative remains wispy and indistinct as Cimino searches for the melancholy vagueness of life.  It has the looks of a Western, but the naturalism of Euro-art.  There is no doubting the stunning creativity at work, including strong performances from unshowy talents like Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and John Hurt, but it also frustrates with its languid disregard for story.  Cimino lacks Mallick’s ability to ignite images with meaning, here they remain just eloquent images, stark and beautiful like as the spinning wonder of the roller-skating rink, but over-priced sideshows in a little story.

The final eruption of violence, when the cattle-baron’s private-army push to eradicate the lowly farmers carries the chilling edge of tragedy, but it is an emotion not fully won.  This is an extraordinary piece of fateful art, but its imperfections are as loud as its reputation.

Opinion

I have seen both the full and edited versions of Heaven’s Gate on television and VHS some years ago and broadly agree with Empire’s DVD review as well as Michael Souter’s opinion in his excellent book The Worst Movies Of All Time: or, What Were They Thinking? There is no genuine example of incompetence on the screen that makes you stare in shock and disbelief as in a real turkey like Gigli or Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.  The performances are generally good (although Walken is miscast and Huppert makes for an improbable French madam in the American wilderness) and the scope and passion of Cimino’s vision is clear for all to see.

Yet the $50million price tag is simply not on screen due to Cimino’s gratuitous waste leaving most of the production on the cutting room floor (and indeed on the set’s rubbish heap!), while the vintage steam locomotive that was sourced and shipped at enormous cost is on screen for mere minutes.  The screenplay is reduced to a “motiveless mess” with the characters’ incentives and back stories are left untold.  Who are these people?  Why should we care about them?  Why does Averill only half-heartedly help the immigrants?  How did Irvine become such a lumbering drunk and why does he stay with the cattle barons even though he disagrees with their course of action?  As Souter comments, a few simple reminiscences would have helped; a voiceover would have worked wonders.

Particularly galling are the presence of some truly brilliant moments that suggest somewhere in this bloated dirge of film, there was a great film struggling to get out: an immigrant woman pulls a cart along a rocky road with the corpse of her husband on top; Walken explains to Hubbert that wallpapering his log cabin with newspaper “civilises the wilderness”; the bitterly ironic ending in the full version where Averill’s life finishes (quite literally) where it started.  The film also benefits greatly from David Mansfield’s wonderful score (surely the least deserving of the film’s Golden Raspberry nominations).

I agree with the opinions of many of cast and producers expressed in the Final Cut documentary that the disastrous critical response on first release was less a true reflection of the film’s artistic merits and entertainment value, but more an extreme and gratuitous reaction to the film’s torrid production history and “payback” to Cimino following the unprecedented success of The Deer Hunter.

If Heaven’s Gate is among the worst films ever made, then it probably the best bad film of all time.

Resurrection

Having refused to give interviews about Heaven’s Gate since its final box office death in 1981 (with the exception of a few brief comments in 1990 while promoting Desperate Hours when he admirably took a JFK-on-The-Bay-of-Pigs-line and accepted full responsibility for what happened), Cimino was finally tempted to “go back to Golgotha” and re-cut and restore the film for a 2012 cinema and Blu Ray release.

The response was the diametrical opposite of its initial release in 1980: the film received a prolonged standing ovation at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, Empire awarded it the full five stars for its UK cinema release and The New York Times, while not exactly recanting the opinion of its original critic, Vincent Canby, still gave the film positive press.

Although it took much, much longer than many other films that failed critically and commercially on their initial release before taking their rightful place in cinematic history, such as Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner, perhaps time has healed the wounds of Heaven’s Gate and it has finally joined the elite of lost classics.

I have not yet seen the re-cut version of Heaven’s Gate; however, I will acquire a Blu Ray copy as soon as it is released in the UK and watch it with great interest and an open mind.

If my opinion of the film alters substantially, you will read it here first.